Suggestions for FAQs on composting and soil?

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

Do you folks think it would be worthwhile to put together a "Composting 101" FAQ and a "Soil Health 101" FAQ for this forum? If so, kindly suggest the questions & answers that you'd like to see if you were a beginner. If we get enough material together to satisfy y'all, I'll gladly type up & format each FAQ in a concise post that will hopefully be "sticky worthy."

5/11/09 Update: I'll keep a draft FAQ running at as we hash out details here.

This message was edited May 11, 2009 12:21 PM

Milton, MA(Zone 6a)

Certainly a huge list of all the stuff one can compost!

Mid-Cape, MA(Zone 7a)

Ways to keep critters out of one's pile (can you guess my most recent dilemma?)

Charlotte, NC(Zone 7b)

Here's some hints from Paul James the Gardener Guy:,,DIY_14370_2270566,00.html

Kalispell, MT(Zone 4b)

I lived here for several years and everyone wanted to know the use of coffee grounds, the mix of carbon (define types) and nitrogen (grass), how to easily layer the compost when collection is at different times (one bin with carbon and another one with the layered active mix of grass/plant material, the importance of moisture, how long it takes to get going, how to heat it up, when is it done, what is not good for the compost (nothing but meat and fats), what type of critters are in the compost and are they good or bad (ants, worms, centipedes, pill bugs, etc), why off ground composting (composters) is not as fast (too dry, no soil bacteria available, lack of access of bugs,etc), the advantage of maceration of plant material and how to do it with chipper shredders and lawn mowers, and last if not in a hurry just let nature do it's thing.

Kirkland, WA(Zone 7b)

Just a thought:
this may not work well online, but consideration might be given to pictures of compost in various stages. I've thought about the questions I've been peppered with over the years, and realized that some folks do best with visual aids.
Also - pics of existing soil (up close & personal), that same soil immediately after compost has been added, then at 6 months or so. Helps some see the end of the tunnel.
Most who venture into gardening eventually wrap their heads around the long-term aspects, and arrive at the understanding of why soil-building is vital to the health of plants & the sanity of the gardener.
Keeping things simple will lessen the frustration of too much information to digest.
An emphasis on flexibility (there is not ONE right way) as there are times when components may not be readily available.

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

The photograph idea is excellent! Before/during/after composting, clay soil, sandy soil, etc. I like it!

Milton, MA(Zone 6a)

Yeah, I do too!

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

Who's got some photographs to share?

Kirkland, WA(Zone 7b)

Looks like it's time to start. I think it would be great for many to do as it would facilitate
cataloging of the different soil types that are represented throughout the various regions.
If these could be shown & described it will most likely benefit many folks.

Kalispell, MT(Zone 4b)

I have one of clay before and I could take one of 4 years later in the same area. I even dug down and photoed the deep clay. I'll look today in a hole I need to dig. Problem is I lost my camera 2 wks ago. When I get a new on or wait I have a non-digital. I can have it loaded on CD at Wallymart.

Kirkland, WA(Zone 7b)

sounds good - I was so busy today that I never got back inside for the camera.
But I did get many things moved & a lot of lovely mulch down into the beds. I need more hours in my day. The thunderstorm interfered a bit, too. Back to work-work tomorrow...

Starkville, MS

I am a long time gardener----but have just realized that I have a couple of spots in my garden (actually in 2 areas) where the perennials rarely come back the next year. For a long time I thought it was just those particular plants-----but, now I realize that 90% of the plants put in these spots fail to return the next year. Does anyone have a suggestion? The university in my town tests soil-------but just for fertilizer needed. Plants that have failed to return are old stand-bys like pg hydrangeas and angel trumpets. I live in Zone 7b.

Thank you,

Kalispell, MT(Zone 4b)

Is it irrigated, is it too wet, have they burried concrete after building, is it clay or slab of rock underneath, what color were the Hydrangias when bloomed (too alkaline), did lightning strike there in the last 3 years, was it a landing site with aliens? Lots of questions. Get a PH meter and test it relative to the soil around in your garden. Dig at least 18" deep and look for rock or whatever, check you soaker hose pressure at the end of the line there. Just ideas.

Starkville, MS

Soferdig-----thanks for all your suggestion but I don't think any apply. It is in the center of a large garden and has grown things for years. I am suspicious of a fungus in the soil----and fear that it is spreading. I had one plant that died examined at the local university, and they said that it had a fungus-----so I fear that it is in the soil and not just in that plant. To drench the entire area is too overwhelming for me (77)-------so, I may just put annuals in these areas.

Thank you,

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

Here are some frequently asked questions that came to mind:

1) What materials can I compost?
2) What materials shouldn't I compost, and why?
3) How long does composting take, & how will I know that my compost is finished?
4) Should I compost with a pile, a bin, a tumbler, or some other method?
5) What's the ideal mix of raw materials, & how hard should I try to achieve it?
6) Isn't composting a smelly, messy, unsightly, & labor-intensive process?
7) How much compost do I need for my garden/beds/yard?
8) OK, I'm convinced. How should I start?

Suggested answers are welcome.

Arlington, TX

I have just started composting, got my bin 2 weeks ago! I live in the DFW area of TX...maybe a strange question, but is it possible that a venomous snake could hang out in the compost bin? We do have some snakes in the yard like the shy and elusive tx brown snakes which are super cool, but I actually have been feeling the need to be ready to bolt when I open the lid of the bin lately out of the fear of rats or potentially life threatening snakes. I did see a rattlesnake that had sadly been run over a few miles away recently...

Anyway, maybe snakes could be added to the above suggestion pertaining to possible compost critter invaders in the FAQ?

I am also curious to know about pine needles, weeds, and fungi. I have had WEIRD things like large alien mushrooms appear overnight after rain as well as white/see through/clear umbrella shaped fungi. Unlike the mushroomy things, the clear things go away after a few hours but return with the rain... Will this or the spores that could unknowingly get into the composted material be a problem?

I REALLY like the idea of a concise FAQ in one spot for folks like me who are new to composting and to DG, that would be totally amazing and extremely helpful. I have been reading for hours (LOL) and am far more confused than when I began!!!

Everyone here totally rocks, thanks!

Berkey, OH(Zone 6a)

I would add to your suggested questions, Puddle:

9. Now what do I do with the compost? For instance, do I put the compost on top of the mulch or under it? Do I have to dig it into the soil? Can I use unfinished compost? How?

Should be a good source of info for all.

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

Those are good questions too, Peg.

Update: I'll keep a draft FAQ running at as we hash out details here.

This message was edited May 11, 2009 12:22 PM

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

Any suggested answers? Bueller? Bueller?

Fredericksburg, VA(Zone 7a)

All the following responses are my own thoughts and ideas that I have formed through experience and research. I am not an expert, nor are my thoughts based on scientific testing or analysis. Generally I look at my garden/yard, and the area that looks healthier and green is generally the areas that I've added compost of some sort.

Q: Should I compost with a pile, a bin, a tumbler, or some other method?
My thoughts: You should compost using a method that fits your life style and requirements. There is no one best method. If you are limited on space perhaps you need a bin or tumbler. Perhaps worms (Vermicomposting) will work for you. Bokashi is another method, but I have not personally utilized this method. If you have lots of space in the yard and plenty of yard waste then a bin or pile may work for you. Our family has a worm composter in the house and a home made bin outside. Do what works for you.

Q: What's the ideal mix of raw materials, & how hard should I try to achieve it?
My thoughts: Second question first, you should not have to try hard to compost. Composting should be something that compliments your lifestyle naturally given the time and space you have to dedicate to it. If you eat out 7 days a week and have little scraps or you have no yard, then composting may not be best for you. If you have a large family and produce bag after bag of waste every day, then composting may be great for you.

Now back to the first question. The "right mix" depends on your type of composting. For vermicomposting you should be a little selective on what you feed your worms. I've never done Bokashi, so I have no idea. For hot/cold piles ideally you want a 50% green to 50% brown ratio in your mix. 60/40, 40/60, 52/48, who cares. just make sure it's a mix. There is no perfect mix. If you don't have a lot of leaves or browns, shredded cardboard and paper can be substituted. Now before people jump all over me about bad ink, chemicals, etc. you are probably right. Do not use glossy papers, pictures, etc. Most newspapers in the U.S. are now printed with soy inks and/or biodegradable inks. Use your own judgment and go for it. Check out these search results

Q: Isn't composting a smelly, messy, unsightly, & labor-intensive process?
My thoughts: It's not smelly unless you cause an anaerobic atmosphere. Anaerobic is an environment that lacks oxygen. The smell is what garbage smells like after being in a bag or some situation where oxygen cannot help the process. Vermicomposting or outdoor bin/pile composting should smell like earth/nature, but not putrid. If you've ever walked through a forest on a damp morning miles away from anything think of the dirt smell you get from the ground.

Q: How much compost do I need for my garden/beds/yard?
My thoughts: My research says you should add 1/2" or more compost to your garden/beds/yard each year.

Q: OK, I'm convinced. How should I start?
My thoughts: First you must make the commitment to do so. Being convinced is not always motivation on its own. You must take action. Make your own or purchase a bin that suites your lifestyle and requirements.

Q: How can I keep animals from getting into the compost?
My thoughts: Do not place meats or dairy in your compost. Use a closed bin with adequate ventilation/holes for air. Place a fence around your compost pile. Place a wire mesh under your compost pile if you have animals burrowing from beneath.

Q: How do I use the compost? For instance, do I put the compost on top of the mulch or under it? Do I have to dig it into the soil?
My thoughts: Finished compost can be used as a top mulch or soil additive. As an additive you should turn under a couple inches right in your bed/garden mixing with existing soil to improve its structure. If using it as a seed starter or seedling transplant mix I'd recommend sterilizing it before use. If you are using lasagna gardening or some other method, just mix it in like you would any other soil additive. Top dressing your yard is as easy as using a leaf rake and spreading 1/2" over the grass and allowing it to settle in.

Q: Can I use unfinished compost? How?
My thoughts: My answer to this depends on how unfinished the compost is. If you can still identify the apple or grapefruit you tossed in a while back, then no, you should not be tossing that compost out on your front lawn or garden. If you find strands of grass or the occasional leaf, then it is probably fine. Unfinished compost is better used as a mulch as it can finish decomposing in a flower bed or vegetable garden. If you can make or obtain a sifter then usually the particals you separate are good for use and anything left in the sifter can go back into the pile. Google for more information on sifters.

Q: Mushrooms are growing in my compost. Is that bad?
My thoughts: I guess it depends on the mushroom. Fungi love decomposing materials so that's where they grow. Most are harmless, just don't eat the mushrooms unless you are certain of the kind you have!

This message was edited May 14, 2009 7:06 PM

Mid-Cape, MA(Zone 7a)

Very helpful and informative answers, Qinx! You really covered things nicely.

A few additions: Regarding the Bokashi method of composting: see the article below, written by a Daves Garden author:

Regarding obtaining compostable materials, even if you do not generate them yourself:
You can collect used coffee grounds from Starbucks for free. You can also cadge your neighbors' yard waste (leaves, grass clippings.) Mine are happy to off-load theirs to me. You can collect vegetable & fruit "trimmings" from the produce-person at your local market. If your local restaurant offers "doggie bags," just take home what you don't eat at the meal and compost it!

It all takes a little effort, but that's where your commitment to composting comes into play!

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

Excellent information & reasoning! Can't wait to hear more from other experienced composters!

Kirkland, WA(Zone 7b)

Thank you Qinx!
My thoughts exactly - keep it simple, and always emphasize the need to use what you have available. For those who have LOTS of time on their hands, a more complex method or system is great. for those of us who have full time jobs, kids, property & other responsibilities to take care of, simplification is best. It all rots eventually...

I believe the whole point is to invest in the health of your available soil - be it acreage or several small containers. Presenting it as a somewhat flexible system will draw more folks in. Many are turned off by excessive rules as well as the "there's only one right way" dogma.
Composting is empowering as well as satisfying, and what I would want someone to experience.

Mid-Cape, MA(Zone 7a)

So true, Katye. Keep it simple. I find myself gleefully saying "everything rots" to friends and family, who look at me strangely.
Thanks for organizing us, Puddle.

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

My pleasure! I'm enjoying this whole process, and I'm learning stuff too.

I've added Qinx's contributions to the draft FAQ (

This message was edited May 16, 2009 12:50 AM

Fredericksburg, VA(Zone 7a)

Here is a link to a good page on Compost information.

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

Who else would like to add some questions? Fire away!

Big Sandy, TX(Zone 8a)

Quantity is far more important quality.

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

Who's got more questions that they'd like answered?

Vienna, VA(Zone 7a)

I've got some questions!! (I'm just getting started myself -- I have figured out the answers to some of the questions below, but I thought I'd contribute some of my "newbie" questions anyway....)

Does it matter how quickly you build a compost pile?

Should you layer or just toss everything in?

Where should you position your compost pile?

Does it have to be on a level surface?

Does a compost pile need some kind of drainage?

For the box-type versus tumbler debate -- are there any compost materials that do better in a tumbler versus a conventional box compost pile?

What effect does climate have on composting? Are there specific recommendations for specific zones?

How do I winterize my compost piles?

How long can I leave finished compost? What if I think my compost is done but I don't have a use for it -- can I store it? How should I store it?

Vienna, VA(Zone 7a)

And one more big question:

Why should I try to "manage" my compost pile as opposed to just throwing stuff onto it and leaving it alone?

I ask this one because I think it's an important concept for newbies to grasp. Please correct me if I am wrong, but the impression I am getting is that managing your compost pile -- that is, considering the ratios, balancing your greens and browns, turning and aerating it -- has two effects: speeding up the composting process, and alleviating smells. Right? People talk about "perfect compost" but really it seems to me like ALL compost piles will EVENTUALLY be perfect given enough time. The reasons why you manage your compost are to speed it up, and to some degree keep the chemical processes compatible with your living situation (e.g., smells).

This might seem elementary to most gardeners here but I suggest making it clear to newbies that "compost happens" ("everything rots") and all we do with our techniques is speed it up and keep it from being objectionable by our human standards. So the degree to which you have to manage your pile depends on WHEN you want your compost done and HOW you need your compost to develop.

Just my two cents. Now I'm going to go see if my tumbler has heated up yet....

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

Excellent! Who wants to take the first crack at answering one?

Mid-Cape, MA(Zone 7a)

How long can I leave finished compost? What if I think my compost is done but I don't have a use for it -- can I store it? How should I store it?

My experience is thus: I store mine covered in plastic bins until I need it--can be weeks or months. Open to the rain, the "goodies" in finished compost can leach out into the ground before you get them where you want them to go!

Kalispell, MT(Zone 4b)

Composting is simple. Pile it up on the ground and it will become compost in 4 weeks or 4 years. It all depends on C:N ratios and Oxygen. But I don't want to wait cause the pile gets excessive in size. 2 bin method: Bin 1 chipped up new carbon clippings from the garden, Layered with Milorganite or a small amount or grass kept moist. 2 to 1 volume (more if you have more grass) or (2 to .1 milorganite) volume ratio. Keep layering the seasonal chipped or shredded material until the season ends (say spring clean up) . By May the pile is big and cooking and I wait for it to heat up (outside). Then in June I flip it to bin #2 and this has allowed Oxygen to get to it again. It is aready black and looks good. Then I wait until September- October where it now is 1/3 the size it origionally was (cooked). Then I put it on the garden and watch the world become wet and cold waiting for spring and Boom my plants are strong and beautiful all summer. Then I start the fall clean up with Bin 1 followed by bin 2 in the spring. I actually store the remaining compost in Bin 3 all winter and use it on potted plants and house plants as tea. I live in a cold climate so winter is a compost rest time.

This message was edited Jul 16, 2009 11:05 PM

This message was edited Jul 16, 2009 11:15 PM

Thumbnail by Soferdig
Indialantic, FL

I have just started (about 6 weeks ago) composting, and I'm probably doing it wrong! I am using a kitchen-size trash can, lined with a black plastic bag. I live in coastal So. FL, and it is hot and humid here, plus it is the rainy season. I keep the iid on the trash can. I have lots of pine needles, which I put in the bin, plus some garden soil, plus coffee grounds and egg shells and veggie peelings, corn cobs, etc. I have a bad back and am old (70) so I can't move things around much. Some days I pour left-over coffee in the mix. Some days I just add a little water when I water my container garden. All the people in my neighborhood use garden services, and their machines take the grass
clippings and mulch them and nothing green is left behind, so there is no bagged grass to add.
Should I add some lime, and if so how much? My cats use pine nugget litter - should I add that? By
the time the litter gets changed, most of the nuggets have disintegrated into smelly sawdust like
material. The trash can is in the sun for most of the day, so I think it is heating up inside, but it does smell when I take the lid off. Should I be leaving the lid off for part of the day? All day? Any help you can make will be gratefully accepted!!!

Mid-Cape, MA(Zone 7a)

Hi Duchesse:
I'm going to let other, wiser folks answer your questions about composting "anaerobically" (without oxygen) and reducing the smell by using lime. I compost in plastic bins that are open on the bottom, and have air-holes on the sides and top.

Regarding composting used kitty-litter: here's what I found on the internet. The quote is taken from the source below.

"Cats can carry the disease toxoplasmosis and pass it on to us via oocysts (a dormant stage of the disease) in their feces. This disease can be fatal to infants and immune-system-deficient adults, and make the rest of us sick. Do not handle cat poop if you are pregnant, and don't let small children do it either. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling cat poop, no matter who you are.

That said, you can compost your catbox contents! Use a separate container from your other compost. It doesn't need to be fancy -- a small trash can with holes in the bottom and a tight lid will be fine. Just put the soiled litter in, and after all the poop has been in there anaerobically composting for over a year, spread it on your ornamental plants. Or you can bury fresh feces in a foot-deep hole, though not within 100 feet of a water source. Do not put fresh or composted cat poop in your vegetable garden. And if you have kids playing in your yard, I wouldn't do any of this."

Indialantic, FL

Thanks, Cape Cod Gardener! I used to spend 2 weeks in a converted 2 car garage in Truro, no hot water, propane gas stove, indoor toilet but no shower -- and loved it. Made beach plum cordial every year to take back to NJ, and also made BP jam and jelly if there were enough beach plums once the cordial was made (you can see what my priorities are!!) Will beach plums grow in FL?? Do you know of any way to get ripe ones shipped to FL? Loved the Portugese style fish we got in Wellfleet, and the lobster rolls and visiting the antique shops and playing bridge on the beach; my son loved the lighthouses, and for entertainment (we were poor!) we went to P-town in the evening and watched the people go by! Gave Chris a dollar to spend at the candy store -- good for at least an hour -- and shopped the Navy surplus store. Once caught a Coast Guard ship just in with a boat full of blue fish, which they were giving away so as not to compete with the regular fishermen, and they even filleted it for me! Heated water to bathe my son each night, but hubby and I took showers at the Nat'l Seashore facility! That was 40 years ago. . . ah, the good old days! And wonderful corn chowder at Friendlies! They don't have it at the Friendlies down here.

Will try burying the kitty litter. My cats are indoor cats, never go outside, does that make them less likely to carry toxoplasmosis? I spread some fresh kitty litter on some weeds once, and the weeds died, which was my goal - easier than digging them up. But I was afraid to do it again for fear of killing something that wasn't a weed. If I put it in a trash can, should I mix in regular soil every so often?

Also, what about seaweed? If I drag some home from the beach, should I wash it to remove salt?
Or can I just add it to the regular compost bin? Does it matter what kind of seaweed I get?

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

Anybody want to take another crack at this?

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