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Composting and composting systems – Part 3: Jumpstart your compost system

Composition of good quality compost.

By decomposing proper food and plant waste, we not only reduce the amount of waste in the landfill, but also create a usable product.

One of the most common questions when starting your compost system is “what can, or can’t I put in my composting system?” Key materials for composting are nitrogen-rich greens and carbon-rich ‘browns,’ water, and air.

Items to compost:

Grass/lawn clippings

It is preferred to leave grass clippings out in the sun to dry first before using them in compost because they form a mat that does not aerate. If green grass clippings are used, it should be in limited quantities and it should be mixed with some brown material first.


Hay is an excellent material to use in composting. The greener the hay, the richer it is in nitrogen. Hay should be well moistened before adding it to the compost heap.


Leaves are one of the best and compostable materials to use. Leaves will lose over 75% of their volume when composted, so what seems like a big heap, in the beginning, will be much less in the end. Care must be taken because leaves may cause matting down. To prevent matting, leaves can be shredded with a lawnmower before putting them into the heap.

Kitchen wastes

Some kitchen wastes such as fruit and vegetable peels, tea bags, coffee grounds and eggshells are incredibly good composting materials. Avoid composting meat scraps and milk products as they attract pests that may cause problems down the line. As kitchen waste contains enough moisture, it is recommended that you mix it with dryer materials such as sawdust and hay.


If composted, horse, cattle, sheep, and poultry manure can be particularly useful to the crops or garden. It is not advisable to apply fresh manure to crops or gardens, as it can burn the plants. Manure will accelerate composting because it heats up the compost heap.


Straw is a good aerator of a compost heap and helps “greens” to decompose quickly. Straw that has been used as bedding material in stables breaks down even faster, because of its combined structure with manure.

Wood chips and sawdust

Wood chips must be as small as possible, otherwise it may take too long to decompose. Be careful with chemically comtreated wood, because it could be adding toxic substances such as arsenic to the compost heap.

Composting is a natural process that can increase the quality and quantity of your soil. Photo:

Items to avoid in your compost system:

While there are items that are beneficial for composting, there are also items that should be avoided for your compost system.

Chemically treated wooden products

Sawdust can be a very harmful composting material if it is produced from chemically treated wood. Toxic elements such as arsenic, chromium and copper are to be found in treated woods and will leak into the compost treated soil. Care must be taken when sawdust is used, and you should know the history of the materials used before considering it for the compost heap.

Diseased plants

Insect-infected or diseased plants may cause a problem if they are not fully composted. The disease can be transmitted to the crops.

Human wastes

It requires extremely high temperatures in the compost heap to kill pathogens and diseases in human faeces. These diseases can be carried over through compost with very harmful effects. It is better to avoid using human faeces in the compost heap as it is only a simple system.

Meat, bones, and fatty food wastes

The decomposition of these materials takes a considerable amount of time and are therefore not advisable to use in a compost heap. These materials also attract pests like rats, especially in urban areas. This could be harmful to the crops and a pest in the household. Another problem is the odour given off by these materials.

Pernicious weeds

Some plants like ivy, morning glory and some kinds of grasses can react in the compost heap. When chopped, new growth occurs. Some of these weeds also have seeds and if not killed by the heat in the compost heap, they will germinate in the soil of the compost.

Pet wastes

Dog and cat faeces may contain diseases harmful to humans and should not even be considered for a compost heap.

In next month’s issue we shall look at building compost heaps and the important factors to take into consideration. Stay tuned for more, happy composting!

We thank the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) of South Africa for the material they provided for the readers of ProAgri BNZ. For more information visit their website

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