Backyard Composting

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Makenzie Read
Waste and Resources Manager
[email protected]

Compost Main Page


Backyard composting is a great way to recycle your yard waste and food waste into a useful, nutrient rich, fertilizer for your garden. Compost also attracts beneficial organisms to the soil and reduces the need for pesticides and fertilizers. It reduces the potential for soil erosion and improves structure. Compost also saves money and space by diverting easily degradable food scraps and materials from the landfill.

Click on & view the PDF above or continue reading below for an all-inclusive guide to starting one in your own backyard. 


Nitrogen/Green Material: 
Fruit and vegetable scraps
Coffee grounds
Loose leaf tea
Grass clippings

Carbon/Brown Material:
Yard waste (dead leaves, twigs, etc.)
Wood chips
Uncoated paper products (ripped up)
Crushed eggshells
Uncoated cardboard (ripped up)
Nut shells

Should feel like a moist, wrung out sponge. Any more or less and the composting process will be slowed down.

Ratio & Temperature:
The ratio of the pile should be one part green to three parts brown. Internal temperature should range from 90-140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Do Not Compost:
Animal bones & meat
Citrus peels & onions (too acidic)
Shiny or glossy paper
Diseased plants
Anything oily or fatty
Treated wood or large branches


1. Pick a location for your pile (minimum of 3'x3'x3') Sunlight in the morning and shade at night is ideal. You can use pallets, chicken wire, or other containers. Using a commercially available compost bin, like those given out at our backyard compost workshops, can help easily manage materials, moisture, and temperature. 
Sunny spot = More water
Shady spot = More time to break down
Inconvenient spot = Less use

2. Start your pile with a layer of brown material. Next, add green material along with a small scoop of some existing compost or soil from your yard to get things started. The microorganisms from the added soil will begin the process of breaking your scraps down.

3. Spray with water after every few layers to ensure the pile is uniformly moist. To know if your pile has the right amount of moisture, squeeze some of the material in your hand and it should yield a few drops of water.

4. Occasionally turn your compost mixture to provide aeration and speed up the composting process. A good average is 2x per week. Adding a bit of soil to each layer is also helpful, but not required!

5. Once your pile is full, stop adding material and wait for 1 to 6 months to allow the material to break down. Remember that materials, heat, and moisture all affect the speed of your pile.

6. Is there a cool, dark earthy smell to the pile? If so, you are done! Use it now or store for future use. Only add a maximum of 2 inches in depth to your garden, flower pots, etc.


For a faster breakdown of materials, chop or rip up all large pieces of material before adding to the pile.

Make sure your food scraps are fully covered by your brown material to prevent unwanted visits from critters.

If not immediately dumping scraps in the compost, store food scraps in the freezer or a sealed 5 gallon bucket to prevent any odors or bugs.

Remove finished compost from the tumblers distributed at our backyard composting workshops by placing a container underneath, opening the finished side upside down, and letting gravity do the rest.

Unpleasant odor Not enough air Turn the pile daily until the odor is gone
Center of pile is dry Not enough water Moisten materials while turning the pile
Compost is damp and warm Pile is too small Collect more material and mix the pile in the middle (but nowhere else)
Pile will not heat up Lack of nitrogen Mix in green material
Animals (including rodents and insects in pile) Too much wet material or
Exposed food scraps
Add dry, brown material & mix
Bury all food scraps, double check for unsuitable food scraps
Pile is hot to the touch Needs time to finish Leave alone and revisit after a minimum of a few weeks

Would you rather us compost your food scraps instead? Visit our compost homepage and find the drop-off location closest to you! You'll be providing material for use in various Knoxville community gardens.

If you have any further questions about backyard composting, you may call the compost hotline at 865-215-3554 or 865-215-2340.