All about Carbon and Nitrogen materials


OK. When it comes to getting started with composting, it can be a bit overwhelming if you read different gardening magazines, books or other sources about composting. It seems like every source has their tried and true “recipe” for creating the perfect compost.

Truth is, there is no perfect or exact recipe for creating rich, useful compost. There are some general guidelines you should try to stay within, though that will help keep the process running smoothly. It’s sort of like making a sandwich. Just as you could make a virtually unlimited number of different sandwiches that would all be edible, you can make compost in any number of ways and it will still turn out fine in the end.

By now, you probably have a general understanding of what compost is, but you may not know how to make it yet.

To get started here are a few tips on things to remember with composting:

  • Composting is mostly foolproof, because everything rots and breaks down over time. That means that if you stick with it and work within the general guidelines, you will probably always come out on top with usable compost.
  • To make compost the fastest, it will require at least some attention and maintenance. If you notice your pile is not breaking down at a regular pace or is generating a bad smell, just make a few changes and fix it. But hey, if you’re too busy, then just leave it alone and it will still break down eventually. It just might take a year or longer instead of a couple of months.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment. Because there are few hard and fast rules to composting, once you get the hang of it adding new, different materials may give you faster results.
  • Although there is no perfect recipe for creating compost, there is one rule of thumb that generally works the best. According to the EPA,

    “Ideally, your compost pile should have an equal amount of browns to greens and alternate layers of organic materials of different-size particles.” 


    It’s really that simple. By weight, your carbon and nitrogen materials should be about even. What’s that mean? Basically, for every pound of food scraps you put in your compost bin, you will want to put about a pound of leaves, newspaper or combination of other carbon rich materials in as well. Do you need to buy a scale? No. It’s a science of “guesstimation,” really.

    Compost is created by microorganisms that feed off of the materials in your compost bin or pile, breaking them down into finished compost. “Microorganism” is a big, ten-dollar word for bacteria, fungi and something called Actinomycetes. These microorganisms (which we also call “microbes” at random through this site) require four basic things to help them create the rich, organic compost we use in our gardens.

  • Carbon – Also known as the “browns” in your compost pile, carbon-rich materials are things like dead leaves, straw or newspaper. Having too much carbon materials will drastically slow down the process of the materials breaking down.
  • Nitrogen – These materials are known as the “greens” in your compost bin and include things like grass clippings, kitchen scraps and coffee grounds. Having too much nitrogen materials will make your compost bin or pile smell like ammonia, which smells gross.
  • Oxygen – The right amount of oxygen for microorganisms is crucial to creating compost in a reasonable amount of time. Microorganisms work in an aerobic way and need oxygen to keep producing.
  • Moisture – Sometimes the difference in creating compost in one month compared to four or five is the amount of moisture in the pile. Having too much water drowns and suffocate the microorganisms by forcing out all the oxygen supply, but having too little water slows the process down tremendously, leaving the pile dry and brittle instead of being a bit damp and rich.


  • Now that you know the basics of carbon and nitrogen needs for a successful compost pile, let’s talk about what that means exactly in regular human terms.

    We’ve compiled two charts of what you can and cannot compost and why. This should help you better understand the ins and outs of composting and help you have the best compost bin possible.

    Go to the chart and see which carbon rich materials and which nitrogen rich materials are available to you, start putting them together in a composter, and you’re off to the races!

    { 10 comments… read them below or add one }

    David February 20, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Hello, I just noticed something confusing in this article. Which sentence is correct?
    “for every pound of food scraps you put in your compost bin, you will want to put about a pound of leaves, newspaper or combination of other nitrogen rich materials in as well”
    But later, this sentence appears:
    “carbon-rich materials are things like dead leaves, straw or newspaper”

    I think the second sentence is correct, based on everything else in the site, but the first sentence was confusing to see. Shouldn’t it be “or combination of other carbon-rich materials as well” instead of “nitrogen rich”?


    lars March 11, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Good spot!

    Thanks for letting me know. I corrected it. Newspaper is carbon rich.


    Susan March 9, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    I’m still having trouble with this because I can’t even begin to guess how much dry leaves, paper, etc. weigh compared to food scraps, etc.
    Above, it says “Basically, for every pound of food scraps you put in your compost bin, you will want to put about a pound of leaves, newspaper or combination of other carbon rich materials in as well.”
    On another page it says “The ideal ratio approaches 25 parts browns to 1 part greens. Judge the amounts roughly equal by weight.”

    On another page, people have posted lots of questions about ants, flies, maggots and other “creatures.” Would love to get answers on those.



    lars March 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm


    Think about it this way. You know how a banana peel is kind of wet and heavy, but dry leaves are really lightweight? Think of how many leaves you would have to have to equal the weight of a banana peel. Basically, nitrogen rich materials are usually wetter and heavier. So you need a bigger mass of carbon rich materials to end up with a 50 / 50 ratio by weight.

    You don’t have to overthink it though.

    Just throw your stuff in there and see what happens. If it’s too dry, add water. If it’s too wet, add more dry leaves. Etc. Everything rots eventually! It’s just a matter of how fast or how slow.

    Bugs in the compost are normal, and help with the decomposition process. They are no big deal. If you have ants, it’s often because the compost is too dry and needs more nitrogen rich materials and/or water.


    Randall April 23, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    Would whole tea leaves be considered a brown or a green item? They look green but they are technically dead leaves so I’m not sure how to categorize them.



    lars May 1, 2011 at 7:58 pm


    If they are dried leaves, then they will be carbon rich, even though the color is still green.


    Sharon March 18, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    When using newspapers, can I use all of the pages, including the sheets with color ink, or just those pages with just black and white printing? I’ve also heard that I’m not supposed to use the slick ad sheets. And as regards to regular paper, what about all those free offers that come in the mail. Can I shred those up and use those or is there a concern about the chemical bleaches and color dyes that are in them? Thanks!


    Steve March 19, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    @Sharon, All of it will break down, both the color slick sheets and the plain color newspaper. If you are a purest then you will use none of it, even the black ink, however I would use all of it. I think the minimal amount of ink in the paper will not cause a problem. Also, make sure you shred it fairly well, and the slick color sheets will likely take longer to break down.


    David September 9, 2012 at 10:02 am

    I really like your article and would like to ask a question.
    I’m having alot of wasps hanging around my compost bin, i cant open it anymore without having about 4 wasps flying out and a few more hanging around….
    I don’t put to much sweet things in the compost bin so was wondering if you could help me figure this one out in stopping them taking over. I just kill the once i see, i know i should not kill them cause there living things and all that but i’m sick of them attacking me.


    Steve September 11, 2012 at 8:58 am

    @David, This is real simple, you have three choices, kill the wasps, keep the wasps and keep working your compost bin (risking being stung), or walk away and allow the wasps to take over.


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