Composting Greens and Browns: Color Doesn’t Matter…

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If you’ve read many of my posts you’ll know that I have a penchant for composting just about anything I can get my hands on. If it holds still long enough, it’ll probably end up in my pile. While this makes my life pretty difficult when it’s time to sift and spread compost, it does give me lots of information about what is and isn’t good to go in my pile or tumbler!

Unfortunatley, I see a ton of misinformation on the internet about “browns vs greens” and how to balanace the ratios in your compost. Everyone seems to be quoting the same generic unhelpful source which tell us (untruthfully) that “greens are plans and kitchen scraps and browns and woody things.”

You know that it’s way more complicated than that.

Luckily, just because it’s a bit more complex doesn’t mean we should ignore it. A simple understanding of the actual rules and what it takes to balance your pile will be helpful if you’re trying to make the best compost possible!

Browns and Greens: What does it really mean?

The first thing that you need to understand is that compost is produced by mircorganisms. The microorganisms that will be producing your compost need to have a balanced and nutritious diet. If the have the right diet you pile will heat up and they’ll be cranking out fine compost! So what do they want to eat?

Well, as it turns out, the carbon/nitrogen balance is only a half-truth. Here we go…

Browns, as most people say, are typically dry or dead plant material. Most people use straw, leaves, sawdust, cardboard, etc. Greens, on the other hand, supply protein. The reason that we typically say “nitrogen” is that nitrogen is one of the main building blocks of amino acids which, if you remember middle school biology, are the building blocks of proteins.

The best sources of protein for your pile are actually less used items such as manure, blood, sheep’s wool, and even milk. As you can see, these hardly fit into the greens/browns structure.

The Delicate Balance

There are several types of composting materials that are balanced and need very little help intervention when they go into your pile. Balanced materials are often items that include both carbon and nitrogen rich protein. As you can imagine, these are some of the easiest items to include in your piles as they can help fix your ratios with minimal effort.

Nothing is the exact right ratio but some examples of common “balanced” items include:

  • Manure with bedding (such as straw, wood shavings, or sawdust)
  • Fibrous vegetable peelings
  • Sod (you can leave some dirt in it…)
  • Vegetable pods (such as those from pees and beans)
  • Fruit cores with pits or seeds
  • Aged manure

Where people go wrong:

Adding browns to your pile is easy for most people who have a yard. Throw in leaves, pine needles, straw/hay, newspaper, cardboard, cornstalks, etc. People often shy away from great “greens” however that could greatly enrich their compost. If you don’t have enough greens, your pile will still break down. It will just be slow.

So if you want to speed things up, don’t be afraid to include (in moderation of course):

  • Kelp or seaweed
  • Eggshells (crush/powder them so they break down faster)
  • Human hair
  • Coffee grounds
  • Sour milk (also a great source of microorganisms)
  • Pomace
  • Seed/bean meal

Having a varied diet esnures that the microbiota of your pile will be diverse and plentiful!

However, just having carbon and nitrogen/protein isn’t enough. There are also ways that you can add specific nutrients to your compost that would be helpful to your soil.

While there are many good options out there, some good examples include wood ash (to boost the potassium and phosphorus content) and rock powder such as powdered granite which supplies potassium and a myriad of other nutrients)

Giving your compost a kickstart:

browns vs green compost kickstart

As I mentioned above, microorganisms are the absolute key to having great compost fast. Once you have them, you can grow them rapidly with compost tea or an activator but how do you get them in the first place?

Luckily, the types of microorganisms that we need are already present in the soil. If you have quality soil, you can simply add a shovel-full of dirt to your pile and you’ll be set. If you have terrible, rock-hard, crusty dirt like the kind that’s in my garden you’ll have to use something else to get your pile going. Some common starters include manure (either fresh or aged), fresh compost (from another pile or a friend, no the bagged stuff), and strips of sod (preferably from somewhere with soil better than yours).

Once your organisms are place, be sure they have a bunch of nitrogen rich protein so they can multiply. Give a pass to fertilizer (which has no protein) or store-bought compost activators. Instead, spread a cup or two of blood meal, manure, hoof/horn meal, or fresh grass clippings over top of your pile before turning it.


Before adding something to my pile, I always ask myself if there is something comparable that nature adds to its soil. Composting is simply expediting what the earth has been doing on its own for millions of years. So can I image manure, leaves, and fruit breaking down naturally in dirt? Of course! Sewage, diseased plants, plastic, and vegetable oil? Not so much.

So be smart, experiment, and make great compost!

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