Composting coarse materials

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

I've noticed some recurring questions here about how do deal with coarse materials like corn stalks, tomato vines, sunflower stems, twigs, pruned branches, cardboard, and such. It would probably be helpful to those of us who aren't "old pros" to learn how experienced composters handle the tough stuff.

Do you prefer to shred it? Leave it in a brushpile? Burn it? Bury it? Layer it in a bin with the rest of your raw materials? Toss it out? Weave it into rugs? Let's hear from ya!

Charlotte, NC(Zone 7b)

PuddlePirate - I put some in the compost heap because I think it helps keep the air in. Other coarse stuff goes onto the brush pile for the wildlife to enjoy.

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

I get annoyed by trying to turn compost when I have put stemmy, or stringy stuff in. may add a few branches as I build a pile, to pull out later, but most long pieces here get tossed in their own pile that does eventually rot. Oh,, I may burn some too. If I feel like cutting up the long stuff I do put it in compost, and corn cobs are OK by me, but yes I will be looking at them several times as they get tossed around for a year or two.
Canna stems and leaves are a challenge. Lots of good greenery but really fibrous! A machete would be the thing to use on them.


I have three parts of a long pile in my mind. The first part is ready to go next spring. The second part will be ready to go the spring of 2011 and the third part will be ready by the spring of 2012. All piles will have some finished material tossed at the first pile ready for next spring. When I finish using the good stuff...the #1 pile the #2 pile becomes my pile for the next spring and so on. I don't turn much. I just give the piles longer to rot down. In three years almost anything will rot down.

I do put roadkill and other dead animals into my piles by digging a hole at the edge of the #3 pile and cover with at least six-eight inches of soil. A mouse might go anywhere but a groundhog needs upwards to two years to decompose. I have never been aware of a dig out in all my years of composting. It may not be legal now but when I was 10 years old the farmers dug holes and burried any animal that died on their farms. This included all of the butchering waste. I will not hurt a thing if the hole is deep enough and ample time is given for decomposition. Anything that once lived will decompose.

Raleigh, NC

I"m taking notes, docgipe, as we have a new kitten and I can already tell she'll be bringing me "gifts". LOL

Thank you for this thread. I'm not very good at composting, just getting started, and I'm noting issues like these with lots of larger and more fibrous bits.

Portland, OR

I throw everything straight into my pile, including paper, junk mail and cardboard. I know many people turn their piles and I do not and have never turned my pile. Things will decompose and rot just fine. Now as I add materials, I do make an indentation in the pile and then cover it but that's about it. Pruned branches (not many though) are chipped and then added to my pile

Now we do get volunteer plants (usually tomatoes and cantalopes) growing whereever I put the compost but I can just transplant those to an area I prefer.

docgipe - that is quite a process that you have. I guess I don't understand why it takes so long to process each of your piles. Is it due to what is being added or ???

Just asking because I use my compost twice a year. It sits in a pile for about five or six months and it truly is ready. Of course the topmost layer of my pile is never ready because I am constantly adding to it but that is ok because when I wheelbarrel the compost to my raised beds that part will be placed on the bottom of the bed. Or I just move the top layer to the side and use everything but the top part.

Burying animals is fine (just my opinion though). We have never had to bury anything larger than a quail or fish so take my opinion with a grain of salt. :) We have BSF larvae in our pile and they make very short work of any animal. Like gone in a day or two. :)


I have a gardening son and family in Portland. You have the environment for fast rot down of your piles. High humidity supports both bacterial and fungi counts far higher than is common in the Northeast. Also I put all but the heaviest of my tree limb falls into my third pile along with some other slow rotting stuff like hosta leaves and pine needles. I do little turning because I just can't do that anymore. "Stuff" has to lay their and pretty much rot in its own speed. My physical condition limits hauling and moving manure although friends will bring and place a little occasionally. Finally my large garden has been put back into grass I can mow with little effort. I do not need so much compost now. All my flower beds are under two to four inches of permanent muclh. My only flowers are in the potted patio zone with the only open ground being one edge of the patio. I may use a wheelbarrow load of finished compost in my potting mix and a bit more on the open ground. The pix shows maybe 10% of my patio edge.

My son in Portland works an eight thousand square foot garden. His compost like yours always seems to be near finished or not far from finished. He works two piles each 4' X 4' X whatever height he can muster. I call it his escargo patch. I think he uses more "SLUGGO" than I use mulch. LOL

Thumbnail by docgipe
Raleigh, NC

I don't know much about composting, but one thing I have learned from volunteering at Plant Delights Nursery and from fetching composted manure from a horse farm: a high pile will smoke with heat no matter the weather. PDN's heap, with the help of backhoes, is well over 10 feet tall, possibly over 15 feet tall. The horse farm's pile is the size of a small hillock, well over 15 feet. But I haven't figured out yet how they got it that high, as all they have is a teeny little baby bobcat, the kind not much larger than the cab. They can barely lift the composted manure high enough to put it in my small pickup!

whatever's at the base is usable FAST, within the year. The horse farm doesn't turn theirs. I think PDN may use the backhoe to move theirs about, as I get the impression the pile moves around a bit, and I've seen lots and lots of tree trimmings in it un-shredded. I've seen large limbs and sections of small tree trunks in there! Once, after a hurricane, I think I saw tree stumps in there.

Like I mentioned, both piles possitively smolder no matter how cold it gets. I've seen them spraying water on the PDN pile in hot weather.


Composting 101 goes like this in most books since about 1940. The ideal pile has three sides with one side open or that can be opened to work. The most used size is four by four by four feet. The brown to green ratio will be aproximately 10/1. The quality is determined by the diversity of materials in the pile and a temperature that exceeds one hundred and fifteen degrees for three or more days. The best blend of materials includes raw manure, some native soil and no less than a dozen different plants making up the total. Trace minerals added are good but not absolutely needed.
The pile should be worked or tuned at least once a week to finish it in six to eight summer weeks and arrive at finished compost.

Now the beastly facts are that whatever pile is being evaluated by whomever the further one gets from the above compost piles content and size in the making the less value will be contained in the finished product. So many compounds are being called compost these days that it is indeed easy to not understand what compost really is. The very first Ency. of Organic Gardneing book, Rodale Press, about 1940 has this explained in great detail. They also extend ample coverage to other earlier methods of attempting to rot down piles of materials with and without manures....with and without reasonable pile content ballance and ratios.

Anything else by any other method is not bad. It simply just can not be real compost and consequently not as good. Most backyard gardeners can make the very best with a little effort.

Big Sandy, TX(Zone 8a)

If it is not real compost what is it?


It is something way short of the term composts original and total content with a measurable NPK content. Finished compost is largely living biology with no NPK. The biological content of finished compost goes to work on organic content of the soil and produces natural food needs for the plants. The next stage with a name is humus then humic acid which is finished by specialized bacteria maintained in a small zone around the roots. This food producing zone is seldom mentioned I suspect because a given writer does not even know the process and biological facts. This is best supported and carried out by finished compost being added to the organic soils of the world.

More can be learned by reading Dear Dirt Doctor written by a famous Texan whose name I have forgotten. He is published by the Texas University Press and available in paperback for less than ten bucks from Amazon.Com. This person some thirty years ago or even longer had a daily garden talk show based in Texas, produced weekly garden articles for numerous newspapers. He was a biologist with the ablility to put accurate statements together that even I could understand.

Raleigh, NC

hmm, that would explain why the folks at PDN are very happy to have horses next door. Manure.


Do not understand "PDN".

Raleigh, NC

LOL - sorry, from my earlier post, "Plant Delights Nursery." I was volunteering there in 2008 in the test gardens.


Well then what they have is a process I have read about being in practice since the 18th. century. It is still in commercial use but the end result can not contain the variety of elements, bacteria and fungi, or total goodness presented from a pile with many mixed content plants. I suspect that each plant brings up slightly different trace minerals to add to the biological mix. I believe the total relationship of all parts working together would be the best possible way to seek the best any individual can do at any time or place. I have always tried to find a diversity of animal manure too although many think poop is poop. Well it may be but the diversity of what the various animals ate is part of the equasion. Therefore if there are trace minerals in the living plants one place could be slightly different than those same plants from another place. On this subject diversity is a key way to build the compost pile. In theory if not fact that compost would return something a little better than what was used out of the soil. If we think soil building first the finished compost thing seems easier to understand.

Colleyville, TX(Zone 8a)

You must be talking about our beloved Howard Garrett.
Thanks for addressing differences in humate and compost. I would imagine there is also a big difference in bagged compost depending on what is is made from. I never trust the compost from my pile to add directly to plant holes. I tend to use it as part of the lasagna layer.

Kirkland, WA(Zone 7b)

"I tend to use it as part of the lasagna layer."

I love sentences like this one! Especially when there are non-gardeners present. It presents a wonderful opportunity to explain a working process, and eliminating the supposed "mystery" of gardening.

I use what I have where I can as a top-dressing. I prefer to prepare planting holes in the fall, at which time I dump compost into & around the hole. It's ready to go in the Spring - makes for a less-frenzied time planting. We're always being chased indoors by the rain, so it's great to have time-saving processes and uses up the available compost.


Lasagna Layer are just two more fancy words for a permanent mulch. Adding layers of different mulch materials and just leaving them lay in place to act as a mulch and decompose in place. It is a nice almost no work permanent mulch. Someone has to gather the materials, place them between the plant rows and provide some weekly service to cut down or pull a few weeds that pop up through any mulch.

Thank you...........I was indeed speaking of the Texan Howard Garrett. I have read quite a few of his books. His Garrett Juice is worth anyone's time to make. While a bit of showman's ship is part of his business his basic truths are not like some other writers mixing up chemical cocktails for the garden. Nearly all of Howard's basics are solid good soil building and gardening practices. I think he is one of the best....period.

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

I'm bumping this back to the top of the page since composting season is upon us again.

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