What To Compost From Your Garden

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Deciding what to put in your compost pile depends on what you have in your garden. Some things are good to compost, other are not.

My sister’s grandkids love collecting pine cones around a stand of pine trees in her backyard. After they gathered several buckets full earlier this summer, they wondered what to do with them. Her seven-year-old grandson had the perfect answer: Start a compost pile!

My sister isn’t sure where her grandson learned about composting, but agreed it was a great idea. They thought about building a compost bin, but to save time, they purchased a wire compost bin. Within a few minutes, they had it set up and ready to go.

Composting, especially in the fall, is a great way to turn all those fading flowers and fallen leaves — and yes, pine cones — into dark, rich compost to add back to your garden soil, enriching it with nutrients and improving its structure.

Things From Your Garden to Compost

Many things from your garden or yard can be added to a compost pile, material generally categorized as “green” or “brown.” Compost works best with a mixture of both.

Green material to compost

Green material includes:

  • Grass clippings: Great to add in the fall, when there is more brown material for composting.
  • Rotting vegetables or fruit from the garden: If your cucumber hid until it was too big and yellow to eat, toss it on the compost pile. If you have raccoons or other small wild animals sniffing around, hide rotting fruits and vegetables by burying them in the compost pile.
  • Weeds: If the weeds you pulled lack mature seeds or aren’t the type that will readily root from a stem, you can compost them.
  • Faded annual flowers: Add them to the pile when they stop blooming.

Brown material to compost

Brown material, mainly dried-up plants, is especially abundant in the fall. Brown material that can be composted includes:

  • Fallen leaves: They’ll decompose faster if you shred them before adding them to the compost pile. A mulching mower with a bag attachment takes care of this in one step.
  • Dried up flower stems: Once perennial flowers are finished for the season, many dry up. You can leave these standing until spring or cut them back in the fall. Either way, add them to the compost pile.
  • Small branches and twigs: As with leaves, these will decompose faster if cut into smaller pieces. If you own a chipper-shredder, chip these into pieces before composting. Otherwise, use sharp pruners to cut them into smaller pieces.
  • Vegetable garden plants: Once beans and corn have dried up, add them to the compost pile. Cut up corn stalks so they will decompose faster.

Things From Your Garden You Shouldn’t Compost

While we’d like to think anything growing in our gardens can be composted, some things are best left out.

  • Any plant showing signs of disease. To avoid contaminating your compost or passing on disease to healthy plants, don’t compost diseased plants.
  • Any plant with insect pests. Many dried plants will harbor overwintering insects, which is generally a good thing. But if your plant is riddled with “bad” bugs, don’t compost it.
  • Weeds with mature seeds or those that easily root. If your compost doesn’t get hot enough to kill off weed seeds, they’ll sprout in the compost.
  • Walnut tree leaves and twigs. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these may contain a chemical substance harmful to other plants.
  • Anything treated with chemical pesticides. These chemicals may not break down, so the EPA also recommends keeping them out of your compost.
  • Palm fronds, because they don’t break down easily.
  • Plastic plant labels and similar debris.

Check your local ordinances to determine the best way to get rid of anything you shouldn’t compost.

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Carol J. Michel
Carol J. Michel is an award-winning author of several books including five gardening humor books and one children's book. As the holder of degrees from Purdue University in both horticulture and computer technology, she spent over three decades making a living in healthcare IT while making a life in her garden. She started writing about gardening on her blog called May Dreams Gardens which lead to numerous magazine articles, her books, and a podcast called The Gardenangelists. She was recently named a GardenComm Fellow by Garden Communicators International.