Northeast Wisconsin
  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • May 2014
Written by  Jennifer Semrau

Home composting

Now that the weather is finally warming up, many are out in the yard cleaning debris, pruning and raking. What should you do with all of that organic material? Compost it! Composting is easy, and this article will provide the tools to get you started.

What is compost?

Compost is a soil-like material which results from the breakdown of organic materials. Compost is considered a soil amendment or a soil conditioner, not a fertilizer, as it doesn’t usually contain high levels of macro-nutrients. Compost improves the water holding capacity of soil and allows for greater root penetration. Finished compost is a rich, dark color and does not have an offensive odor.

How do I start?

First, you will need to determine where to locate your compost pile on your property. The area should be convenient (consider how far you are willing to walk to place material in the pile), yet there are a few guidelines to consider. The compost pile should be at least 3 feet away from your home or other buildings. Ideally, it will be within reach of a garden hose, in an area with good drainage and protected from direct winds. Of course, be considerate of your neighbors while choosing a spot for your compost pile.

Second, you should determine what type of compost structure to use. Many local counties sell compost bins. These black bins include a removable, lockable lid, doors at the bottom to remove the finished product and are made of recycled materials. Some local hardware stores also sell compost bins. An alternative to a commercial compost bin is to build your own. Doing so allows you to determine the size of your compost pile and bin construction material. Most do-it-yourself compost methods simply enclose the pile from three or more sides. Wire fencing, snow fencing or wooden pallets can all be used to build an enclosure for your compost pile. Often commercial compost bins are used in more urban environments, while compost piles are prevalent in rural areas.

‘Cooking’ your compost

Composting is considered nature’s recycling. It is a natural process that will occur in the right environment without any human involvement. Leaving grass clippings to decompose or leaves to rot on the lawn are examples of composting. But there are ways you can speed up the composting process and adding the right mix of ingredients will help compost “cook” faster.

The recipe for successful composting is to have a mix of browns and greens in your compost pile. Browns are dry materials such as dried leaves and woody scraps (wood chips, wood shavings, small twigs, sawdust, etc.). Greens are fresh, moist materials such as grass clippings and fruit and vegetable trimmings. A mix of half browns and half greens is preferable for compost generation. The compost should also be kept moist (like a wrung-out sponge), but not wet.

How long will it take?

The speed of your finished compost is partially determined by the effort placed in maintaining your compost pile. In a “hot” compost pile, microbes in the yard waste multiply and rapidly break down organic material, literally generating heat. A hot pile requires active maintenance by the home owner and needs to be of sufficient size to generate heat. Hot composting requires periodic turning to mix materials and allow oxygen to circulate. Maintaining the proper moisture level is also necessary in a hot pile as the material will become inactive if too dry, but overly wet materials will not allow air circulation. Hot piles can generate compost in as little as two to four months.

“Cool” composting is a more laid back way to recycle organic materials. Composting is natural decomposition, so it will happen eventually. Cool composting is low maintenance, typically with infrequent turning and little attention paid to moisture. Cool piles produce compost in six to 12 months or more.

Finished compost will look like dark, crumbly soil. Use it in potting mixes for indoor and outdoor plants; spread it around flowers, shrubs and trees; or incorporate it into your garden soil. For more information on home composting, visit

Jennifer Semrau is the recycling specialist for Winnebago County Solid Waste in Oshkosh, overseeing the county’s recycling, hazardous material, container rental and sales/marketing programs. She is also the former president of the Associated Recyclers of Wisconsin and recipient of the 2013 Christy Dixon Recycler of the Year Award. For more information, visit or call 920-232-1850.

References: “Home Composting: the Complete Composter.” Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 2005.

“Backyard Composting.” John W. Roulac. Harmonious Technologies. 1997.

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