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Composting 101: What is Green & Brown?

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When you look at composting articles or books they use the terms “green” and “brown” compost items.

What exacly do they mean?

The end result of compost is your garden’s gold-it is what feeds the soil life, the worms and microbes then do the actual work of turning your waste into dark, rich compost. We as humans, well actually all living beings need a well rounded diet with the proper nutrients to be healthy and flourish.  Just the same, to keep our soil life healthy they need a good mixture of green and brown ingredients.

What is “Brown”?

“Brown” ingredients are what we would consider to be woody materials; these are items that are high in carbon.   For the microbes in the soil to truly thrive they need carbon energy.  Without he carbon your greens will decompose too quickly and turn into a smelly (ammonia smell) and slimy pile.

Examples of some “Brown” items:

  • Hay
  • Paper-Shredded
  • Tea bags
  • Sawdust
  • Coffee filters
  • Pine needles
  • Corn Cobs
  • Cotton or wool fabric scraps
  • Dryer Lint
  • Grass clippings (dried)
  • Leaves (dead)
  • Peat Moss
  • Straw

What is “Green”?

“Green” ingredients are items high in nitrogen.  Nitrogen provides your microbes the protein they need to truly thrive.

Examples of “Green” items:

  • Coffee grounds
  • Fruit Scraps
  • Vegetable Scraps
  • Tea leaves
  • Egg shells
  • Flowers
  • Grass clippings (fresh)
  • Manure (high in nitrogen)
  • Seaweed

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How Much of Each is Best?

For the best results, it is a good rule of thumb to keep it at a 50:50 ratio.  Although you do not have to be exact, try to use equal amounts of “Browns” and “Greens”.  The easiest way to do this is to layer.  When you add a bowl full of kitchen scraps, add in a bowl full of your choice of “Brown” items as well.

If your pile isn’t moving along (doesn’t heat up), then you know you need to add more nitrogen rich “Greens”, but if your pile starts getting smelly like ammonia, you know you need more “Browns”.  Although a compost pile consisting of just “Brown” ingredients will eventually decay into compost, it will take much longer.

For the best results, your pile needs to be damp so add a little water and also needs oxygen, so turn your pile every few days.  Providing a good combination of both “green” and “brown” ingredients will in turn produce a very healthy environment for your soil live to thrive and provide you with rich earthy smelling, dark, nutrient rich compost to feed your garden.

Go here to read my other Composting 101 articles.

13 thoughts on “Composting 101: What is Green & Brown?

  1. I have been telling my husband that I want to start a compost. He is a chef so we always have lots of compost-worthy waste. I’m going to show this to him to continue my plea… 🙂

  2. Great tips for composting. When I lived in the desert, I had to add water to my compost pile every time I turned it. BUT…I got naturally occurring earthworms in about 6 or 8 weeks. YAY!

    1. Thanks Brittney! Composting is so easy, just a simple balance! I have three or four more articles to come about different topics and ways also.

  3. Thanks for this post! I have way too much green in my compost but it definitely helps to know there are more brown option than just dead leaves (which is mostly all I had been using for my brown). It is easy to adjust a compost pile with too much green?

  4. Never thought about dryer lint being a “brown” item. Now I can stop nagging my husband to empty the laundry room trash on trash nights. It can go into the compost whenever it’s full!

    1. Hi Eva, just start adding a little extra brown to your pile until you reach a proper balance. I many times end up with more green but it will balance out easily.

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