Consider Composting

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

A few years ago I decided to begin composting, again. I had tried twice before in different places I had lived. Neither of those first two attempts were successful. There must be something to the saying: ‘Third time’s a charm,’ because I have fallen in love with composting.

Composting is the act of creating compost in your own backyard. Compost is decayed organic matter that once fully broken down makes an outstanding soil amendment for all kinds of plants, shrubs and trees.

Briggs compost
A three-bin unit is a more productive composting set-up and ideal for large amounts of yard and garden waste. This unit is at the Briggs Avenue Community Garden in Durham, which is on land owned by NC State and maintained with the help of Extension master gardeners. photo credit: Andrea Laine

Benefits of Composting
Compost improves the physical properties of the soil:  its color, texture, structure, depth, and water capacity. Compost also supplies the soil with essential nutrients, mainly nitrogen and carbon. Nitrogen supports foliage growth and green color; It easily leaches from soil so it is important to replenish it. Carbon improves soil aeration, and water drainage and retention.

Composting is easier than I imagined it would be and helpful in so many ways. It is an excellent way to recycle yard trimmings and natural kitchen scraps year round. I no longer feel guilty about fruits or vegetables going bad before I have a chance to eat them; What does not feed me will feed my compost pile and, ultimately, my garden.

Home-made compost saves money. With a little effort and consistent attention, the pile builds up and breaks down quickly. Thus, I almost always have compost when I want it. Each spring I treat perennials and shrubs by working a shovelful in to the top few inches of soil under the plant canopy.

Siting and Building a Compost Pile
There are two ways to start backyard composting. You can purchase a commercially-manufactured bin or build your own enclosure. I have tried both types and much prefer the DIY approach as it is easier to maintain, especially when it comes to balancing moisture and aeration levels which are important components to a productive pile. A 4×4 cubic-foot enclosure is ideal. The sides must not be solid so air can pass through and around the pile.

Choose the right site for your composting. The first time I tried composting I placed my pile at the rear of a long, narrow acre. Its distant location, behind a shrub border no less, turned out to be inconvenient and, therefore largely ignored. My current pile is just behind a detached garage, out of sight yet still easy to access.

my compost structure
I used four shipping pallets to build my compost bin. Three of the pallets are crudely fastened in two places, using a wood block and nails, to provide structure. The slatted sides provide aeration. The fourth side is purposely unattached so I can access the pile to aerate or shovel out ‘finished’ compost. Photo: A. Laine

It takes about three to six months to produce finished compost using the “hot pile” method. The “cold pile” method will take about a year or longer. The difference being the temperature and moisture of the pile. Compost is ready to use when it is dark brown, has a light and crumbly texture similar to potting soil, and has a pleasant, earthy scent.

compost thermometer
Pile temperatures must exceed 131°F to kill most pathogens harmful to humans and pets, and they must surpass 145°F to destroy most weed seeds. Any kind of thermometer will do for this purpose. Photo: A. Laine

Feeding a Compost Pile
Ideally, begin with a layer of twigs and small branches to provide some structure and ventilation at the bottom of the pile. On top of that, add a layer of dead leaves and then a handful of soil to initiate microorganisms.

Contributions to the compost pile are commonly characterized as “browns” and “greens.” Browns are sugar-rich carbon sources that provide energy to microorganisms. Greens are protein-rich nitrogen sources that provide moisture to microorganisms. Composting works because microorganisms in the pile (such as bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa and nematodes) feed on this brown and green matter, converting it to what we recognize as soil.

compost carbon
Decaying branches from the woodland floor are great ‘brown’ additions to the compost pile. Photo: A. Laine

Materials I often add to my compost pile include:  coffee grinds and tea bags, dryer lint and floor sweepings, fruit and vegetable peelings, stems from herbs, flower stalks and dead blossoms, egg shells, and twigs that litter the ground. Since Durham County has a very good curb recycling program, I route my newspapers, cardboard and other paper scraps to the recycling bin. The nitrogen content of paper is low and would slow the pile’s decomposition rate, so it is best not to compost paper. Avoid pine needles, too; their waxy coating resists decay. I err on the side of caution and do not add weeds to my compost.

ceramic pail
You can purchase a decorative ceramic pail like this one for about $25, or a plastic utility bucket with handle for $5. Whatever you choose, make sure it has a lid to contain odors, and commit to emptying it regularly. photo: A. Laine

Tips for Composting Success

  1. Piles three to five feet high stay hot best.
  2. Smaller pieces compost faster; Take the time to cut deposits into two-inch pieces.
  3. Turn the pile weekly to aerate it and hasten breakdown of material. If it is too difficult to turn, at least poke holes in it. I use a pitch fork, but there is such a tool as a composting fork that may be easier/better.
  4. Add a handful of soil every now and then to initiate microorganisms.
  5. Occasionally, I add water to the bucket of household waste before dumping it on the pile; approximately 40 to 60 percent moisture is needed in the pile. (Water in the bucket also helps to fully empty its contents.)
  6. Rinse eggshells and set them aside. Once fully dry, crush them to hasten their breakdown.
  7. Pour a layer of dead leaves or rotting twigs (‘browns’) over fresh vegetable trimmings (‘greens’) to dissuade critters from entering the pile.
  8. Strive for a ratio mix of 2:1 “brown” to “greens.”
  9. Animal manure may contain composting-resistant herbicides. See NC State Extension publication Herbicide Carryover in Hay, Manure, Compost & Grass Clippings: Caution to Hay Producers, Livestock Owners, Farmers & Home Gardeners if you add manure to your pile.

I love having a compost pile for its utility in providing nutritious soil for my garden and a place for the recycling of vegetable trimmings, egg shells, and other organic household waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill somewhere. I can, and do, compost year-round. During cold weather the pile is unlikely to get hot enough to break down new additions. No worries though; Being North Carolinians, we know that warm weather will soon return.

References and Resources
How to build a compost bin:

The do and don’ts of adding matter to a compost pile:

A list of Extension publications on home composting:

Soil and the carbon cycle:


Learn With Us, week of April 19

APRIL 21 – Getting Dirty with Durham County Master Gardeners Radio Show Kit Flynn has a namesake, but it comes with big responsiblities.  Listen as Dan Mason tells us a garden story about Kit’s Circus Wagon. Broadcasts Tuesdays at 2:00pm on WCOM 103.5  Can be heard live or replayed any time at


Small Fruits for the Home Garden – Durham Garden Forum
Tuesday, Apr 21, 2015 6:30pm – 8:00pm
Where: Sarah P. Duke Gardens, 420 Anderson Street, Durham
Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and grapes – what you need to know to grow your own. Presented by Gina Fernandez, professor, Department of Horticultural Science, NC State University.
$10.00 fee per class or annual membership fee.
Registration required. Contact:

APRIL 24– Getting Dirty with Durham County Master Gardeners Radio Show National Arbor Day is April 24, 2015.  The Durham County Master Gardeners have worked with several organizations to give away free tree seedlings to county residents.  Hundreds of individual trees representing about a dozen different varieties which thrive in our area have been made available to home owners.  Lise Jenkins caught up with volunteers working at one of the tree giveaway events and learned that everyone have a favorite tree. Broadcasts Tuesdays at 2:00pm on WCOM 103.5  Can be heard live or replayed any time at

Tomatoes & Okra
Saturday, Apr 25, 2015 10:00am – 11:00am
Where: Durham Garden Center, 4536 Hillsborough Road, Durham
Growing tomatoes and okra are Southern traditions. Come and learn how to grow these two staples of the Southern garden. This seminar will also include advice on how to modify Durham’s soil for success in the garden. Presenter: Charles Murphy, Durham County Extension Master Gardener volunteer.
contact: 919-384-7526 or
Sign up at the store, e-mail or by phone
Include the seminar title and full name(s) of persons attending

Backyard Composting – Extension Garden Seminars
Sunday, Apr 26, 2015 3:00pm – 4:00pm
Where: Durham County Public Library – South Regional Library, 4502 South Alston Avenue, Durham, NC
Presented by Rhonda Sherman, Extension Master Gardener volunteer and NCSU Extension Specialist. Discover the basics of successful composting and vermicomposting. Learn how to transform food scraps, leaves, and other organic materials into a nutrient-rich soil conditioner that will benefit your lawn and gardens.
Free/ Registration required.
Contact: Cathy Starkweather, 919-560-7410

Growing a backyard grocery for wildlife

by Nan Len

The cardinals who live in our backyard have brightened up many days this winter. In the summer, I am delighted to watch the hummingbirds buzz around our feeder and the bees methodically going from bloom to bloom. From spring to fall, four or five toads hang out on our driveway at night. I have watched a luna moth emerge out of its cocoon and I feel quite clever when I catch sight of a praying mantis. A couple of turtles, some snakes, and a fox have traversed our backyard.

I want more – more birds, more insects, more turtles, more toads and more mammals. This desire led me to read “Bringing nature home” by Douglas W. Tallamy (Timber Press, 2007)

Tallamy, a professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, brought up a point that I had never considered: insects are the main food for many species of wildlife. The best source of food for many insects is native plants. In order for me to sustain and expand the diversity of wildlife in my backyard, I need to start thinking like a neighborhood grocer.

There is something deceitful about my seemingly benign grocery analogy. It is a ruthless little neighborhood where I am stocking the shelves. Many of my customers are also the daily special.

By making sure I have food and shelter for bees, butterflies, crickets, grasshoppers, and spiders, I am providing a meal for small mammals, toads, and birds, which are themselves a meal for snakes, bigger birds and mammals. These food chains make up the food web.

Most of these distressing events may take place out of my sight, but I fail as a grocer if I neglect the food preferences of anyone in my neighborhood. A test of my success is how diverse my customers are.

When you buy your next plant, reconsider your choice if it is labeled “pest free”. If nothing wants to nibble on that plant, isn’t that like your grocery store manager replacing your favorite apple with plastic fruit? If most of your landscape is pest free, then you have a grocery of beautifully packaged, cellophane wrapped, processed stuff with few interesting customers stopping by.

The statistics on the loss of natural habitats are distressing. I cannot change the years of unintended consequences of humans being humans. But by planting native plants, I can do my part to build a resilient food web. I will get to see more of my wildlife neighbors and they will find a good meal. I’ll settle for that.

Learn With Us, week of Feb. 1, 2015

Tuesday, Feb. 3 Getting Dirty with Durham County Master Gardeners Radio Show  – Broadcasts Tuesdays at 2:00pm on WCOM 103.5  Can be heard live or replayed any time at
Understanding Soils – Complete Extension Gardener Series
Tuesday, Feb 3, 2015 6:00pm – 8:00pm
Where:Durham County Cooperative Extension, 721 Foster Street, Durham, NC
Good healthy soil provides a foundation for growing healthy plants. Learn more about soils and amendments to help you create the environment you need to grow plants well.
Free/ Registration required.
contact: Pana Jones – 919-560-0525
At Sarah P. Duke Gardens:

Thursday, Feb. 5 from 11 am – noon
Walk on the Wild Side
Stefan Bloodworth, curator, or Annabel Renwick, horticulturist, Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, Duke Gardens
Explore wild North Carolina in these seasonal walks through the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants on the first Thursday of every month.
Thursdays, Feb. 5, 11 am-noon

Location: meet at the Blomquist Garden entrance
Participant limit: 15
Fee per date: $7; Gardens members $5
Pre-registration required. Parking fees apply.
Call 919-668-1707 to register


Saturday, Feb. 7, select from two sessions
Mushroom Logs
Andy Currin, avid vegetable gardener and Duke University campus horticulturist

Enjoy fresh shitake mushrooms grown in your own garden! Each participant will be supplied with a 12” section of log, pre-drilled and ready to “plant” with mushrooms. Andy will take you through the process of seeding the log, sealing it with wax, and then maintaining it for the six months it will take to grow your first crop of mushrooms. Each log should produce mushrooms for several years.

Section a: Saturday, Feb. 7, 10 am-noon
Section b: Saturday, Feb. 7, 1-3 pm
Participant limit: 15
Fee: $35; Gardens members $30
Registration required; please call 919-668-1707.


November Gardening Calendar

Gardening Calendar for the Triangle


Put the garden to bed for the winter. A fall cleanup will prevent many of next year’s insect and disease problems, and give you a head start on planting next spring! Pull out all annuals that have completed their life cycle, and cut back perennials. Remove debris from under plants and shrubs. If any disease was present, do not compost that debris. Till the vegetable garden to expose harmful insect larvae and disease organisms to cold and predators. Take soil samples — soil tests are free from April through November and the lab is not busy this time of year — and incorporate organic matter and lime if needed. You’ll be ready to plant next spring while your neighbors are waiting for the soil to dry out enough for tilling.


Agronomic Services – Soil Testing North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services

Submitting samples for soil testing prepared by the Durham County Master Gardener Volunteer Program

Understanding the soil test report prepared by the Durham County Master Gardener Volunteer Program

Durham’s soil prepared by the Durham County Master Gardener Volunteer Program

Amending clay soils prepared by the Durham County Master Gardener Volunteer Program

Lawn Care

Fertilize fescue lawns for winter. The November fertilization (near Thanksgiving) is the most important one of the year for cool-season grasses. The soil is still warm enough to permit the growth of strong roots that will enable the grass to withstand next summer’s baking heat. Use a slow-release fertilizer formulated for turf, and apply according to soil test results. If you haven’t limed in the past three years, you probably need to do that also. Submit a soil sample to find out how much lime to apply. Soil test materials are available at your Cooperative Extension Center (see information above).


Carolina lawns: a guide to maintaining quality turf in the landscape published by North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service

Lawn maintenance calendar: tall fescue published by North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service

Trees, shrubs & ornamentals

Fall is for planting! November through early February is an ideal time to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials. The cool weather permits establishment of a root system before next year’s hot weather. It is also an ideal time to move shrubs from one place to another.

Plant a tree! Successful tree-planting begins with a wide planting hole. Trees will have a large root span at maturity, so it’s better not to amend the soil in the planting area. Simply loosen the soil (by forking or tilling) in an area several times the diameter of the rootball, to relieve soil compaction. Spread the roots of the tree when planting. Mulch the area after planting, but keep mulch away from the trunk to discourage chewing rodents and rot. Staking may be necessary at first, but tie the tree loosely enough that it can move a little in the wind. Remove the ties after a few months.

Mulch shrubs, trees, perennials, and herbs after the first killing frost for winter protection. Apply a layer 2-3” deep. This is an excellent time to mulch, since most perennials are dormant and it’s easy to get a wheelbarrow into the garden.

Plant spring-flowering bulbs as the weather turns cold. For best landscape effect, plant groups of bulbs in between shrubs, or scatter bulbs in wooded areas; avoid planting bulbs in straight lines. When you dig your holds, incorporate a bulb fertilizer or one rounded tablespoon of 10-10-10 fertilizer per square foot, mixed into the soil at the bottom of the hold. Always plant quality bulbs. Larger bulbs produce larger flowers. Pansy plants set among the bulbs will produce a fine effect, and won’t harm the bulbs a bit.


Successful planting of trees and shrubs prepared by the Durham County Master Gardener Volunteer Program

Planting techniques for trees and shrubs by North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service

Hints for fall-planted spring and early summer flowering bulbs published by North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service

Landscape idea

Landscape with a plan. A well-thought-out landscape plan will produce a more “finished” effect than randomly-scattered plantings. Analyze your property and draw a simple map, noting which areas are sunny or shady, moist or dry. Think about where you need tall evergreens for screening, and where you need shorter plants to maintain a view.

Select plants that meet your requirements. Your Cooperative Extension Center can provide many publications describing plants that are well-adapted for Durham County’s challenging weather and soil. Extension Master Gardener volunteers and nursery professionals are also excellent resources. There are also many outstanding gardening books in the library and bookstores.

Allow space for plants to grow to their mature size. A common mistake is placing a large or fast-growing plant where there is not enough room for full height and spread. The error results in continuous pruning in an attempt to keep the plant within a size that nature never intended it to be. Builders and beginning landscapers often place shrubs too close together, because the plants look so small when they come from the nursery. Find out how large your plants can be expected to grow, and place them where they can fulfill their potential.


Growing annual and perennial flowers in Durham County prepared by the Durham County Master Gardener Volunteer Program

Residential landscaping published by North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service

Retyped with slight modifications and URL’s checked, September 2014 ~ N. Len