Tag Archives: compost

7 Easy Materials to Fill Your Compost

Most gardeners already know that compost is black gold in the garden, but it can be challenging to make as much as we may want to. It’s always surprising to see how much that pile of kitchen scraps shrinks as it breaks down! If you’d like to make more compost, there are a few materials you can gather to fill up your bins.

Compost Basics

If you’re new to composting, read this before digging into the list.

Ideally, compost piles are made of a mix of nitrogen-rich “green” and carbon-rich “brown” material, usually in a 1:1 ratio. This mix allows the pile to decompose correctly, which can be achieved by layering or stirring in the material with a garden fork or shovel. 

A quick tip is to add more green materials if your pile is too dry and not breaking down and add more brown materials if your pile is too wet, slimy, and smelly.

In the list, I’ve labeled items as “green” and “brown” in parentheses. 

Learn more about the basics of composting in our guide, Black Gold: Making Compost.

Black Gold: Making Compost

Grass Clippings (green)

Fresh grass clippings are often one of the most accessible “green” materials to collect in mass for your compost pile. If you have areas that you keep mowed, getting a bagger for your mower can be a great way to fill up a compost bin quickly. If you have raised or permanent beds, mowing the paths is excellent for this.

If you don’t mow, check with neighbors, especially in suburban areas. Many people send grass clippings to the landfill. See if you can put them to good use instead. As with leaves, you want to check whether your neighbors use herbicides or pesticides before adding the clippings to your compost or garden.

Seaweed (green)

For our friends near the coast, seaweed is an incredible compost amendment.

Make sure you check local regulations about gathering seaweed. Always harvest responsibly and sustainably. Remember that many organisms call seaweed in the tidal zone home, and species like birds and insects use beach-cast seaweed.

Read more about How to Harvest Seaweed Sustainably with Modern Farmer.

Learn to make Seaweed Fertilizer with Milkwood Permaculture.

Cardboard and Paper (brown)

Especially after the holidays, our homes can fill with cardboard and paper. Some of this material can be used to top up the compost bin! Avoid adding glossy or highly colored paper, and remove any packing tape.

It’s best to opt for brown paper and cardboard, as some companies have switched to packing. To encourage it to break down, rip it into smaller pieces with your hands, water it well, and put a layer of green material over it if available.

Old Woodchips (brown)

Fresh woodchips aren’t ideal as they take too long to break down and can tie up nitrogen in the process. We like to use woodchips as mulch, but if you can collect a bunch or have a local tree company dump a lot on your property, you can leave them to break down in their own pile for a year or two. Once they’ve started to break down, they make an excellent addition to the compost pile.

Four square compost bins with leavesFallen Leaves (brown)

Fall and sometimes through the winter are great times to build up your compost pile with old leaves. In rural areas, you may have to rake and collect your own, but in more suburban places, you may find folks happy to pass on bagged leaves they’ve removed from their yards. When getting leaves from others, politely checking if they use herbicides or pesticides on their property is always a good idea.

It’s always a good idea to leave a few leaves around as they provide habitat for overwintering beneficial insects and add nutrients back to the trees and plants they’re around.

Sawdust (brown)

If you cut piles of firewood or untreated lumber in the same spot, you may have a great source for your compost bin! While woodchips should be set aside for a bit, finer sawdust will break down faster and can be mixed into a pile with nitrogen-rich materials. 

Also, check with local sawmills or lumber yards. Just ensure that you and your sources do not include sawdust from pressure-treated, painted, or stained material.

Manure (green)

If you own chickens, goats, horses or other livestock adding their manure to your compost pile can be an easy way to add tons of nitrogen rich material. You can also check with local farms and horse stables.

Unfortunately, the rise of herbicides and pesticides, even in hay fields, has made using manure much more complicated than it used to be. Unless you know for certain any hay you’ve bought is uncontaminated, even your own animal manure could be harmful.

One easy way to check the manure is to try a simple bioassay test. Plant four to ten seedlings in small pots. For half of the pots, mix a bit of the manure in with your potting soil and grow the other half in plain potting soil or your usual mix. Watch for signs of herbicides in your seedlings, such as twisted, misshapen stems and curling, discolored leaves.

Learn more about Bioassay tests and Herbicide Residues in Manure, Compost, or Hay from The University of Florida.

Bonus Question

Can I compost clothing?

In an ideal world, we could compost most of our clothing at the end of its lifespan. You would think you could compost clothing made from natural materials like silk, linen, cotton, and wool. Unfortunately, the reality is far from that. 

Many items made from cotton or other natural fabrics have been treated with chemical dyes or solutions that make them stain or wrinkle-resistant. They may have also been stitched with polyester thread.

Some organic products are the exception, but you should check how they were manufactured. Homespun and handmade products may be composted. Just know that they may take a while to break down.


An endless supply of compost is a gardener’s dream. While we may never get there, these seven materials can help you quickly build up a larger compost pile, ensuring you have plenty of material for next season.

6 Ways to Improve Soil Fertility

As grocery, fertilizer, and other prices continue to rise, many backyard gardeners are digging deep to grow their own food. Whether you’ve been gardening for 20 years or planted your first plot this spring, maintaining or building healthy, fertile soil is probably a top concern. If you’re on a budget, purchasing fertilizer or other organic garden amendments can be a strain or even out of reach entirely. Thankfully, there are a few affordable or even free ways to improve soil fertility. 

Start composting. 

In a previous post, I referred to compost as black gold, and I wholeheartedly believe that good finished compost is one of the best garden amendments you can have. It adds fertility, improves soil structure, encourages beneficial fungi and bacteria, and more. Composting also helps keep unnecessary items out of landfills. 

Here are a few of the items you can compost and keep out of a landfill:

  • Vegetable Scraps
  • Stale or Moldy Bread, Crackers, Chips, etc.
  • Egg Shells
  • Grass Clippings
  • Coffee Grounds
  • Tea and Tea Bags
  • Leaves

If you want to learn more about composting from what bin or system to use, maintaining your compost, and what to put in it, visit our post, Black Gold: Making Compost.

Water with compost, comfrey, grass-clipping, or manure tea.

If your plants need a fast-acting boost, watering with a bit of one of these DIY liquid fertilizers may do the trick. It may sound a little gross and can be a bit smelly, but it’s easy to do and worth it!

All you need is compost, comfrey leaves, grass clippings, or manure, a five-gallon bucket or another similar container, water, and some material for filtering like an old pillowcase or cheesecloth. 

Get the details from our post, DIY Compost Tea.

Bag and use your grass clippings.

While I’m all for going no-mow whenever you can and using alternatives like wildflower plantings in place of lawns, I do understand that mowing some areas is nice or even necessary. Whether you’re mowing around your garden to keep the grass from creeping in, a play area for your kids, or just around your home, you can put those grass clippings to good use!

A mower with a bagger will allow you to collect and use grass clipping as mulch or ingredients in compost or liquid fertilizer. However, you may not want to bag your clippings all the time. Just like grass clipping add fertility to your garden, they help keep your yard fertile and grass looking nice as well.Cover Crops to Improve Soil Fertility

Grow cover crops. 

Cover crops aren’t a quick fix, nor are they free, but I think their benefits still outweigh their negatives. Cover crops add fertility and organic matter to the soil, help keep down weeds, provide habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects, and prevent erosion. They’re also more affordable than buying fertilizer over the long term. 

Different cover crop species come with different benefits, and you may want to do a bit of research before selecting one. 

Some cover crops like buckwheat are “winter-kill,” meaning they die back with frost. Some no-till gardeners use these as mulch for the following spring. Just rake the dead plant material back to seed or transplant your crops.

Clover and other cover crops in the legume family are nitrogen-fixers meaning that they take nitrogen from the air and add it to the soil as they grow. You can read more about how nitrogen fixation works in our post, What’s a Nitrogen Fixer?

If you have a hardpan or compacted soil, you may want to look into cover crops like Deep-Till radishes. These and other large rooted, tough cover crops will help break up compacted soil and hardpan, aerate the soil, add organic matter and allow water to soak in faster.

Here are a few great cover crop options:

While many cover crops are planted in a rotation, leaving beds free of crops for a year or in seasons when beds are not in use, there is another great option, especially for no-till gardeners. You can grow a crop like white clover in the paths between permanent beds. White clover will tolerate being walked on and mowed, providing a great path and source of mulch.

Look for people getting rid of “mulch hay” or straw.

Sometimes, you can find old or “mulch” hay or straw listed for cheap or free on sites like Facebook Marketplace. Often, these are bails that have gotten wet, moldy, or are just no longer fit for animal feed or bedding, but they’re perfect for the garden! 

Use old hay or straw to create lasagna gardens, mulch around plants, add to your compost, or create hugelkultur mounds.

Talk to the farmer you’re purchasing or getting the hay from and make sure it’s not from a field that has been treated with herbicides. Some folks also don’t like using hay because it contains weed seeds. Straw is the stalks from a wheat harvest and is generally free of seeds.Woodchips for Soil Fertility

Search for free wood chips.

Wood chips are another great source of organic matter and work well as a mulch, helping keep the soil cool and moist and blocking weeds. They’re slower to break down than other mulches like grass clippings, hay, or straw but will eventually turn into good quality soil. They’re also an excellent habitat for beneficial insects.

It’s often easy to find free wood chips in the summer when power companies are cutting trees and limbs away from power lines. Contact your local company or stop and ask workers you see. Sometimes, they may even be willing to dump a whole truckload at your home for free if they’re working nearby. Occasionally, local garden or hardware stores will source wood chips from electric companies, and you can go and fill coats or a truck for cheap or free. 

Avoid using the dyed black or red wood chips that come in bags from hardware or big box stores. These aren’t organic and are generally much more expensive.

Improving your garden starts with the soil. Using these methods and amendments, you can add fertility to your soil on any budget. They’re great for your garden, good for the environment, and generally pretty simple. How do you add fertility to your organic garden?

Using Manure in the Garden

It’s now believed that farmers have been using manure to fertilize their crops for at least 8000 years! Spreading manure on fields and gardens to increase soil fertility has long been common, especially when most folks were keeping livestock. Today, it can be more tricky. So whether you’ve got your own backyard farm or not, here are a few things you should know about using manure in the garden. 


  • It’s full of nutrients! Manure is an excellent source of primary plant nutrients nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. It also includes secondary nutrients; calcium, magnesium, and sulfur that may not be found in commercial garden fertilizers.
  • Manure adds organic matter and improves soil structure. This allows optimum root growth and increases the soil’s ability to hold moisture.
  • You can often find manure for free or use your own from your own livestock.


  • Fresh manure can contain bacteria that can contaminate crops and make you sick.
  • It often contains weed seeds.
  • It may contain pesticides, herbicides, or other chemicals.
  • Fresh manure contains high levels of nitrogen, ammonia, and salts which can burn crops. 

Sourcing Good Manure

If you own livestock, using their manure is the best choice. To fertilize your garden, you can use chicken, goat, cow, horse, rabbit, and other livestock manure. Avoid cat and dog waste as their feces can contain toxins and heavy metals that will remain in your garden. 

If you don’t own animals, it may be possible to source manure from a local farm. However, you may want to ask some questions. Herbicides can stay in manure and ruin your garden, so it’s essential to ask if the animals were allowed to graze where an herbicide was sprayed. 

It’s also worth noting that not all animal manures are the same. Manure from herbivores like horses and cows has a lower nitrogen to carbon ratio than omnivore manure like that from pigs and chickens. Therefore herbivore manure won’t burn your crops even if it’s fresh. You should also note that horses don’t digest seeds, so horse manure will have more weed seeds in it. 

Composting Manure

Some of the “cons” of manure are easily taken care of by composting it. Composting your manure will kill any bacteria and allow it to mellow, so it’s not high in nitrogen, ammonia, or salts and won’t burn your crops. A good, hot compost pile can also render weed seed inviable. 

To compost manure, you’ll want to follow the same techniques we discussed in Black Gold: Making Compost. Mix your nitrogen-rich manure with good sources of carbon such as old leaves, straw, or shredded paper; alternate layers as you build your pile. Keep the pile moist and turn it over every few weeks to encourage aerobic decomposition. It’s ready when it looks like black, crumbly soil and is no longer hot or smelly. 

You can apply composted manure to the garden the same way you use your regular compost. Spread a few inches on a bed before planting, add it to homemade potting mixes, or side-dress crops. 

Aging Manure

Your other option is to age manure rather than compost it. It’s exactly like what it sounds. You pile it and leave it. This process can take longer than composting, particularly if you’re starting with manure that’s high in nitrogen, like pig manure. 

Applying Fresh Manure

If you want to apply fresh manure, you need to select “cool” manure like horse, cow, or rabbit manure. Other manures, including goat, poultry, and pig, may burn your crops. Goat and sheep manure may be okay if it’s mixed in with carbon-rich bedding like straw or hay.

One of the safest ways to use fresh manure is to follow the USDA National Organic Program Guidelines. They state that if the crop may come into contact with the soil, whether it’s touching them directly like with beets or splashing on them like with Swiss chard or cucumbers, it must be applied 120 prior to harvest. If the crop won’t be in contact with the soil like corn or dry beans, the manure must be applied 90 days prior to harvest. 

It’s a long time! This timeframe keeps crops safe from bacterial contamination such as E. coli and Salmonella. However, many home gardens don’t feel the need to follow such stringent guidelines. Just make sure you wash your veggies well if there’s a chance they’ve come into contact with the manure, especially if you don’t know where the manure came from.

Can You Use “Humanure?”

Using composted human waste to fertilize crops used to be common throughout much of the world. Composting human waste can reduce pollution and water consumption. Setting up a composting toilet is also much easier and cost-effective than installing a septic system and is a popular choice for off-grid and tiny homes. 

So is it safe? Yes, when done correctly. There are a number of fairly basic considerations to composting human waste. For example, you want to ensure your compost bins aren’t on wet ground or somewhere they could contaminate ground or surface water. You should also compost your waste for a year before use, and you should use it around fruit trees, berry bushes, and ornamental plants where it won’t get on food crops. Modern Farmer has a more detailed piece on humanure you can find here.