Backyard Composting


Composting Basics

Backyard composting requires four basic ingredients:

  1. Greens (Nitrogen) - This includes materials such as vegetable scraps, fruit scraps, and grass clippings.
  2. Browns (Carbon) - This includes materials such as dry leaves, twigs, or sawdust.
  3. Water 
  4. Oxygen  

Five Simple Steps to Start Backyard Composting

  1. Pick a Location - Place compost bin/pile in a convenient, partially sunny location with good drainage.  You also want to place your bin on bare soil so bacteria and worms have direct access to your compostable materials.
  2. Build or Purchase a Compost Bin - Compost bins can be purchased or built using wire, wood, wood pallets, or concrete blocks.
  3. Start your Compost - Start compost with a layer of coarse materials such as corn stalks to build air passages.   Add alternating layers of "brown" and "green" materials and mix them together (See "What to Compost").  The ideal ratio (Compost Recipe) for "brown" to "green" materials in a backyard bin is generally considered to be:   

    3 parts brown to 1 part green


      6 inches browns to 2 inches of greens

Disproportionate amounts of “green” can lead to strong odors, and too much “brown” will dry out  your pile and stop the composting process. If you don't have brown and green materials on hand at the same time, build your pile with browns, add water, and mix in the greens as they become available.  

4. Water - Add water as you build your compost if the materials are dry. Compost should be damp, not wet. It should feel like a wrung-out sponge. 

5. Oxygen - Mix or turn your compost. You can use a garden hoe or compost turning tool.  More frequent turning will shorten the composting time. 

Helpful Tips 

  1. Keep it small. Mowing, grinding, chopping, or shedding will shorten the compost time. 
  2. Always cover your newly added food scraps with brown materials or soil. This will help eliminate odors and control pests. 
  3. Line the bottom of your compost bin or pile with 1/4" hardware cloth to limit access to your compost from mice or rodents. 
  4. If your compost bin needs water, and the forecast calls for rain; remove the lid on your compost bin and let Mother Nature provide the water.

Examples of Backyard Compost Bins

Backyard Bin 1 (2)
Backyard Bin 2
backyard bin 3

Quick Compost Video Tutorial  

What to Compost

Greens (Nitrogen) Browns (Carbon)
Fruits/Vegetables Scraps Leaves (Dried)
Coffee Grounds Coffee Filters
Tea Grounds & Leaves Straw/Hay/Corn Stalks/Sawdust
Egg Shells Woody Chips & Twigs
Manure (Not Pet Waste) Shredded paper
Hair Pine Needles
Weeds (Without Seeds) Nut Shells
Grass Clippings (Fresh) Grass Clippings (Dried)
Garden Waste (Fresh) Garden Waste (Dried)

What NOT to Compost

* Meat/Bones                        * Bakery Products

* Cooking Oil                        *  Dairy Products 

* Pet Waste                           * Diseased/Infested Plants

* Treated Wood                     * Coated or Glossy Print Papers

Compost Problems, Possible Causes & Solutions

Composting can be quite easy, but having too much of a certain material or letting the compost get too wet or too dry can cause problems.  The following is a list of common composting problems, causes, and solutions:

Problems Possible Causes Solution
Damp and warm only in the middle  of the pile Pile could be too small, or cold weather might have slowed composting. If you are only composting in piles, your pile should be at least 3 feet high and 3 feet wide. Get more material and mix old ingredients into a new pile.
Pile smells rotten and/or attracts flies Too wet and/or non-compostables are present.  Turn, add dry-woody materials, cover pile from heavy rains and/or remove grease, etc. and turn.
Stinks like rancid butter, vinegar or rotten eggs. Not enough oxygen, or the pile is too wet, or compacted. Food wastes in open bin, holes larger than 1/4 inch or non-compostables present. Mix up the pile so that it gets some aeration and can breathe. Add course dry materials like straw, hay or leaves to soak up excess moisture. If smell is too bad, add dry materials on top and wait until it dries out a bit before you mix the pile.
Odor like ammonia Not enough carbon Add brown materials like leaves, straw, hay, shredded newspaper, etc.
Pile not composting Too dry and/or too much dry-woody material. Moisten till slightly damp and/or turn, add fresh green materials.
Attracts rodents, flies, or other animals. Inappropriate materials (like meat, oil, bones), or the food-like material is too close to the surface of the pile. Bury kitchen scraps near the center of the pile. Don’t add inappropriate materials to compost. Switch to a rodent-proof closed bin.
Fire ant problems Pile could be too dry, not hot enough, or has kitchen scraps too close to the surface. Make sure your pile has a good mix of materials to heat up, and keep it moist enough.

Backyard Composting Demonstration Sites & Classes

Orange County Solid Waste Management offers two outdoor composting demonstration sites where you can learn more about outdoor composting and observe in it "in action."  These sites are located at:

  • Chapel Hill Community Center (behind the rose garden) on South Estes Drive.
  • Orange County Solid Waste Management Administrative Office, 1207 Eubanks Road in Chapel Hill.


Orange County Solid Waste Management teaches public composting classes in the spring and fall. The classes teach the basics or indoor composting using worms, and outdoor composting using a variety of recipes and structures. 

For more information contact Orange County Solid Waste Management