What Can You Compost?

bright colored compost
  • 1-100 hours
  • Beginner
  • 0-500

Rich moist compost is every garden’s favorite food, and if you’ve ever ordered a load for home delivery, you’ve found it comes at a premium price for that very reason. However, composting is easy and fun to DIY, and you might be surprised what you can throw into the pile.

The Composter

Don’t let the fact that you don’t have an expensive prefabbed composter derail your efforts. You can easily build your own composter from scrap lumber or metal. Even a loose pile will work so start small, but start!

The Right Combination

Composting is about combining natural ingredients that can decompose, turning into nutrient-rich dirt that can be used to refuel the next round of gardening goodness. That means what you put into the compost pile should be valuable as a component to your future plant food.

Put simply, you’ll need a balance of brown and green items. We’re not necessarily talking about color here, but rather the type of items. That means you’ll want some brown items like small twigs and green material such as grass clippings.

man doing yard work with grass trimmings on a tarp

Brown Materials

The most obvious brown material is bark and sticks. Just be sure to make them small so they break down faster. Turning them into chips or bark works best. You may not realize that paper is another valuable food for your compost. Think about items in your home that most closely resemble the tree they came from. Avoid bleached and chemically-treated materials but toss in toilet paper rolls, paper bags, paper plates that are not waxy, cardboard, newspaper, coffee filters, paper towels, popsicle sticks, toothpicks, pine cones, acorns, napkins and leaves.

Paper can also go into the compost bin, but avoid recycled paper, which should go out with your household recycling instead. Again, the closer to the original form the material is, the better it is for your garden.

Along the same lines as material that comes from trees, you can also include products made from other plants. Cotton is a good example, however only include organic cotton without dyes. Cotton balls, strips of sheets, and old shirts all make the cut. Similarly hemp, jute, and burlap can all be added to the pile.

Green Materials

Grass clippings offer essential nutrients to the mix, but make sure your layers are thin and consistent for the best compost recipe. You can also include hay and bedding from herbivore animals like guinea pigs, along with their waste. Do not include animal manure from dogs and cats. Be sure to recycle your garden plants back into the composter once the harvest is complete. Corn husks and stalks, tomato plants, herbs, flowers and other living plants are just a few examples.

One caveat here is to avoid putting diseased plants into the mix. Although the heat of the composting process eliminates many forms of bacteria and disease, it’s possible to transfer last year’s problem into next year’s crops.

Organic Material

Lastly, take advantage of your food waste. The compost pile loves egg shells, coffee grounds, fruit pits, veggie stalks, banana peels, onion skins, nut shells, grains, tea, and basically any non-animal, natural product.

organic materials in compost heap

Size Matters

The truth is that all natural materials will break down eventually, even if you don’t have the ideal location, proper amount of moisture, or precise combination of ingredients. However, your compost pile will perform better with attention to creating somewhat equal layers and cutting material into fairly consistent sizes. For example, an entire pumpkin will take longer to breakdown than one that is cut into a dozen pieces. The same is true for citrus, branches, etc.

A Few Surprises

There are some other household items you may not have considered suitable for the compost heap. Dryer lint is one example. You can also add fire ashes as long as the wood you burned was chemical free. In other words, avoid the ashes from garbage burns, but toss in those from the fireplace.

Loofahs and natural sponges are another little-known ingredient. Also, when you’re cleaning the house, feel free to dump the swept-up dirt, dust, and even pet hair into the pile. You can even put your full vacuum bag in, as long as the contents are mostly dust and dirt, rather than legos and Barbie shoes.