Brown Composting Materials: A Comprehensive Guide

  • By: Sam Richards
  • Date: June 12, 2023
  • Time to read: 9 min.

As my awareness of environmental impacts has grown, I’ve become increasingly invested in composting – a sustainable solution that transforms everyday waste into invaluable organic material for our gardens. This process doesn’t just drastically cut down on waste ending up in landfills; it also enhances soil nutrients, creating a more vibrant and productive garden.

A key component to successful composting is the inclusion of brown materials, which offer carbon and structure to the compost pile. Among these, leaves are considered the crème de la crème. They’re easy to find, particularly in autumn, and when shredded, they increase the surface area which can speed up the composting process.

But leaves aren’t the only brown materials that can be helpful in composting. Several household items like corrugated cardboard, shredded paper, non-glossy newsprint, and even soiled paper products can be repurposed into valuable compost.

I’ve found corrugated cardboard particularly useful, especially for worm composting, where it acts as a high-carbon food source that worms love. However, if a recycling program is available, it could be a more sustainable choice to recycle cardboard. Shredded paper also becomes ideal for composting when recycling centers cannot process it due to its small size. When it comes to newsprint, the non-glossy kind is preferable for composting, while glossy ones should be recycled.

For soiled paper products, items such as napkins, paper towels, and tissues can work brilliantly for composting, mainly as they can’t be recycled further. It’s essential to remember not to use paper products that have been exposed to cleaning chemicals.

In this article, we’ll delve further into the importance of brown materials for composting, the best materials to use, and how to prepare them for your compost pile. Let’s embark on this journey together towards a more sustainable lifestyle, turning waste into wealth for our gardens, and ultimately, our planet. Let’s get started.

The Key Role of Brown Materials in Successful Composting

Commonly referred to as ‘browns’ in composting terminology, these carbon-rich materials, like leaves, straw, cardboard, and paper, are paramount to successful composting. The carbon they offer not only fuels the microorganisms responsible for breaking down the compost but also aids in controlling the moisture levels and preventing unpleasant odors within the compost pile.

Structure and Oxygenation: Browns at Work

The structural benefit that brown materials provide to the compost pile is of significant importance. Their dry and bulky nature aids in the creation of air pockets within the compost, furnishing the much-needed oxygen for aerobic bacteria. This bacteria plays a key role in the composting process, and a well-structured compost pile with sufficient oxygenation will decompose more efficiently and quickly, expediting the compost production.

Humus Production: The Final Reward

The decomposition of brown materials culminates in the creation of humus – a dark, rich organic material that is the end goal of composting. Humus plays a pivotal role in improving soil structure, retaining moisture, and supplying essential nutrients to plants. Therefore, brown materials, through their contribution to humus production, play a critical role in crafting a nutrient-rich compost, promoting robust plant growth.

The Best Brown Materials For Compost At Home

While numerous materials fall under the brown compost category, some particularly shine for home composting due to their accessibility, decomposition rate, and nutrient content. Let’s delve into these:

Leaves and Autumn Fall

Fallen leaves are a treasure trove of composting material. Rich in carbon and trace minerals, they break down over several months, gradually releasing nutrients back into the compost.

Dried Leaves For Compost At Home

Collect fallen leaves during autumn, dry them out, and store them for year-round composting. While they can take a while to decompose, shredding them can speed up the process significantly.

Evergreen Leaves & Pine Needles

Evergreen leaves and pine needles are another excellent source of brown material. They decompose slower due to their waxy coating but add beneficial structure to the compost pile. Pine needles, however, can make the compost slightly acidic, so use them sparingly unless your plants require acidic soil.

Wood from Tree and Hedge Trimmings

Tree and hedge trimmings are beneficial for their carbon content and the structure they provide. Chop them into small pieces for faster decomposition. However, avoid using trimmings from diseased plants or those treated with chemicals.

Wood from Shavings and Chippings

Wood shavings and chippings are excellent brown materials for composting. They are rich in carbon, aiding the carbon to nitrogen balance. However, make sure that the wood was not chemically treated as this could harm your compost pile and the plants you eventually feed with it.

Wood Bark

Wood bark makes a great addition to compost. It decomposes slower than many other brown materials, adding a long-term source of nutrients. Also, its texture helps improve the structure of the compost, promoting aeration.


Bracken is a type of fern that is often considered invasive in many areas. If you have this in your garden, don’t let it go to waste. Bracken makes an excellent brown material, bringing diversity to the microbial life in your compost.

Cardboard, Paper & Newspaper

Cardboard, paper, and newspapers are often readily available in homes and make great additions to the compost pile. They are carbon-rich and help absorb excess moisture.

Cardboard Boxes For Home Compost Bins

Cardboard boxes can be shredded and added to your compost pile. They are excellent at creating air pockets, improving the compost’s overall structure. However, ensure that any tape or labels are removed as these are not compostable.

Shredded Newspaper and Printer Paper For Compost At Home

Newspaper and printer paper should be shredded before adding to the compost to aid decomposition. Avoid glossy papers and those printed with colored inks as these may contain heavy metals.

Pizza Boxes For Compost Browns

While pizza boxes are made of cardboard, they need to be handled slightly differently due to potential grease and food residues. Cut out any heavily soiled parts before composting the rest.

Toilet Paper and Paper Towel Rolls For Composting At Home

Toilet paper and paper towel rolls are frequently discarded items in most households. However, these can be repurposed into your compost bin. They are carbon-rich, absorb moisture effectively, and break down quite rapidly.

Paperboard Egg Cartons For Compost At Home

Paperboard egg cartons are another excellent source of brown material. They are already perforated, which aids in their decomposition. Simply tear them into smaller pieces before adding to your compost pile.

Hay and Straw

Hay and straw can be used in composting but they are different. Hay is cut grass and may contain seed heads, which could potentially introduce weeds into your compost. Straw, on the other hand, is the stalks of grain plants and is generally weed-free. Both are carbon-rich and add structure to the compost pile.

Cornstalks, Husks & Cobs

These parts of the corn plant are often discarded but they make great additions to a compost pile. They are carbon-rich, though they can take some time to decompose. Chopping them into smaller pieces can help speed up the process.

Dead Plants and Houseplants

Dead plants and houseplants are rich in carbon and can be composted. However, avoid composting diseased plants or those that have been treated with pesticides as these could harm your compost pile and the soil it enriches.


Wood ashes can be added to compost piles. They are alkaline and can help neutralize acidic compost piles. However, only use a small amount and avoid coal or charcoal ashes, which can be harmful.

Peanut Shells

Peanut shells are rich in carbon and can be composted. They decompose at a moderate rate and help add bulk to your compost pile.

MaterialBenefitsDecomposition Time
LeavesRich in carbon, perfect for balancing green materials4 to 6 months
StrawGreat for aeration and structure2 to 6 months
Wood ChipsExcellent carbon source, improves compost structure3 to 6 months
CardboardGood carbon source, worms love it3 to 4 months
PaperProvides carbon, absorbs excess moisture2 to 5 months
Pine NeedlesHigh in carbon, good for balancing nitrogen-rich materials3 to 6 months
CornstalksGood carbon source, improves compost structure1 to 2 months
Peanut ShellsExcellent source of carbon, helps improve soil texture2 to 3 months
BarkRich in carbon, great for aeration and structure3 to 4 months
NewspaperAbsorbs excess moisture, good carbon source6 weeks to 3 months
Ashes (wood, not coal)Adds minerals, increases pH value, best used in small amounts2 to 3 weeks
Paperboard Egg CartonsGood source of carbon, absorbs excess moisture, worms love it2 to 3 months
Toilet Paper RollsAdds carbon, good for aeration2 to 3 months

How to Prepare Brown Materials

Preparing your brown materials properly is key to their effective composting. Here’s how you can prep different types of materials:

  1. Leaves: Collect and store dry leaves in a bin. Shred them to speed up their decomposition.
  2. Tree Trimmings: Chop them into smaller pieces before adding to your compost.
  3. Cardboard, Paper, and Newspaper: Remove any plastic, staples, or tape. Shred them into smaller pieces to aid decomposition.
  4. Pizza Boxes: Cut out any heavily greasy sections before composting.
  5. Toilet Papnewer and Paper Towel Rolls: Tear them into smaller pieces before adding to your compost.
  6. Paperboard Egg Cartons: Tear them into small pieces to aid decomposition.
  7. Hay and Straw: If long, consider chopping or breaking them up a bit.
  8. Cornstalks, Husks, & Cobs: Chop them into smaller pieces to help them decompose more quickly.
  9. Dead Plants: Chop or shred them to accelerate decomposition.

Brown Compost Tips

Finally, let’s wrap up with some general tips for using brown compost materials:

  1. Maintain the Balance: Aim for a 30:1 ratio of brown (carbon) to green (nitrogen) materials. This balance is key to maintaining the right conditions for decomposition.
  2. Size Matters: The smaller the pieces, the faster they’ll decompose. Consider shredding or chopping your materials.
  3. Turn Your Pile: Turning your compost pile helps it decompose faster by introducing oxygen and promoting even decomposition.
  4. Moisture Control: Brown materials are great for absorbing excess moisture in your compost pile. If your pile is too wet, add more browns.
  5. Diversify: Different materials bring different nutrients. Using a variety of brown materials will result in a richer compost.
  6. Avoid Contaminants: Avoid using materials that have been treated with pesticides or other chemicals. They can harm the beneficial organisms in your compost pile and the plants you feed with it.
  7. Patience is Key: Remember, composting is a process—it takes time. The reward of nutrient-rich compost for your garden is worth the wait.

Conclusion: Harnessing the Power of Brown Compost Materials

In conclusion, brown compost materials play a pivotal role in the success of composting, offering a wide range of benefits that contribute to healthier plants, improved soil quality, and reduced waste. By understanding the significance of these materials and their importance in the composting process, you can unlock their true potential and maximize the benefits they bring to your garden.

The top three popular brown materials – leaves, straw, and wood chips – each offer unique advantages. Leaves, with their high carbon content, serve as an excellent source for balancing the nitrogen-rich green materials in your compost pile. Shredding the leaves enhances their decomposition rate, ensuring a well-balanced and productive composting process.

Straw, on the other hand, acts as a valuable ally in providing structure and aeration to the compost pile. Its fibrous nature creates air pockets that allow for the circulation of oxygen, facilitating the growth of beneficial microorganisms and promoting efficient decomposition. Additionally, straw helps maintain the ideal moisture level in the compost, preventing it from becoming too dry or overly saturated.

Wood chips, renowned for their long-lasting carbon content, contribute to the overall structure of the compost pile. They enhance moisture retention and aid in the gradual release of nutrients, providing a steady supply of carbon throughout the composting journey. The incorporation of wood chips ensures the production of stable humus, enriching the soil with essential nutrients for long-term plant health.

By harnessing the power of these brown compost materials, you can create nutrient-rich compost that nourishes your plants, improves soil fertility, and reduces the amount of organic waste destined for landfills. Embracing sustainable composting practices not only benefits your garden but also contributes to a healthier and more environmentally friendly ecosystem.

So, as you embark on your composting journey, remember to embrace the brown materials, strike the right balance in your compost pile, and witness the transformative impact on your plants and the overall vitality of your garden. Together, let’s nurture the earth and create a greener future through the power of composting. Happy composting!

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