Composting is a great way to reduce food wastes and add nutrients to your garden; and best of all, it doesn't require expensive tools or a lot of work.

Composting is a great way to reduce food wastes and add nutrients to your garden; and best of all, it doesn’t require expensive tools or a lot of work.

“Compost is an ecosystem all its own,” said Berni Kurz, Washington County extension staff chair for the University of Arkansas says system Division of Agriculture. “Understanding the decomposition process and what does the work in each stage will help this ecosystem function at peak performance and produce a high-quality product.”

It takes many different organisms to turn fruit peels into something your garden plants will love. Bacteria, fungi, millipedes, sowbugs and worms, all play a role in making good compost.

So what makes good compost?

• Vegetable matter

• Oxygen

• Water

• Time

Any natural organic material can be composted. Examples are grass clippings, weeds, tree leaves, hedge clippings, straw, livestock manures and kitchen waste. Also, many manufactured organic materials that are not waxed or plastic-coated, such as newspapers, paper boxes, clothing scraps and wood shavings are compostable and may be used.

Don’t try to compost items such as scraps of meat or fats. These decompose anaerobically, leading to a stinky pile with slow composting. Those ingredients also attract flies, their maggots and animals to your pile.

So why not just add clippings to the soil directly?

For centuries gardeners have been turning yard and food wastes into a valuable soil amendment called compost.

“Given sufficient time and circumstances, any organic material will decompose, but adding the materials directly to the soil without first composting may cause problems,” Kurz said. “The decomposing materials can compete with living plants for available nutrients, mainly nitrogen.

“Plus, the composting plant materials may inadvertently bring insects, diseases and weeds into the very garden you want to help,” he said. “Those pests are destroyed by heat generated in a compost pile.”

Do I need a container for composting?

“Not necessarily,” Kurz said. “Compost can be made in piles, homemade bins or manufactured bins. The size of the bin or pile should be at least 1 cubic yard or 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet. A number of manufactured compost bins are available at hardware stores, garden suppliers and on the Internet.”

Building a pile is the simplest route (See:

Start with a flat top pile of material on the ground. Using an open-weave fence helps prevent the materials from being scattered by weather or animals and allows air and water to circulate.

Make a layer about 1 foot tall, then add about 3 inches of soil on top to provide the bacteria needed for compost.

“Water the pile often enough to keep all material damp but not soaking wet, so that the bacteria are encouraged to work,” he said. “Keep adding compostable material as it becomes available. Be sure to lay additional material against the fence rather than heaping up the middle to help keep water on the pile instead of running off.”

Don’t panic if the pile gets warm. That means the bacteria are working. If the pile stays cool, it may be too wet for the bacteria. Turn the materials with a pitch fork or add dry materials to help balance out the moisture.

“If composting is properly done during the fall and winter months, you will have a pile of valuable garden material to use by spring soil preparation time,” Kurz said.

The Washington County Master Gardeners make composting simple, in a unique music video:


For more information on composting, visit, or contact a county extension office.