leaves as browns for compost

The #1 Mistake That All Compost Beginners Make

When most people think about composting, they think about items like banana peels, coffee grounds, and and potato skins. Those are all great items to compost, but they are all considered “greens.” Greens are great for composting because they decompose quickly and release nitrogen.

However, if all you have in your compost bin are greens, it will not break down properly. This is why it’s important to add browns to your compost as well!

In this blog post, we will discuss where to find browns for compost, what happens if you don’t add them, and the proper ratio of browns to green. We will also provide a list of some common brown items that you can add to your compost pile!

shredded cardboard


There are two main categories of items that you can add to your compost pile: “greens” and “browns.” These terms have nothing to do with the color of the material, many “greens” are actually brown in color (think coffee grounds).

Greens are food scraps (as well as some other organic materials) that are high in nitrogen, which breaks down quickly. Greens also give off a lot of heat when they decompose. Browns, on the other hand, are dry items like leaves, branches and twigs that are high in carbon.

Browns help to balance out the nitrogen levels in your compost, and they also help to break down the material at a healthier pace than if you were to add greens alone. When you have a balanced amount of browns and greens in your compost pile, the material will break down evenly, and you’ll have fewer problems with your compost pile.


If you don’t add enough browns to your compost pile, the microbes responsible for breaking down the compost materials will go a bit nuts. They love feasting on nitrogen-containing greens, but it will quickly become too much and they’ll start to release ammonia, which creates a very unpleasant odor. Not to mention, your pile will also turn into a sticky, slimy mess, and you’ll never get the beautiful, finished humus that you’re hoping for.


So now that you know the importance of adding browns to your compost, where can you find them? Greens tend to be abundant: kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and spoiled pasta sauce are all usually pretty easy to find. Browns, on the other hand, can be a little harder to come by.

But there are many sources of carbons that you might have access to! The best place to start is by simply looking around your yard.

  • Leaves: One of the most common sources of carbons/browns for backyard composters is fall leaves. Each fall, you’ll want to collect and store as many leaves as possible for use throughout the rest of the year.
  • Dried garden plants: These can also be a great source of carbon for your compost. But be sure not to add weeds, as the seeds will survive the composting process and then happily sprout wherever your spread your finished compost.
  • Cardboard: finally, a sustainable use for the dozens of cardboard boxes that arrive on your doorstep every month! Make sure to shred them properly before composting – they’re not likely to decompose well if you throw whole boxes in at once.
  • Paper: Newspapers, junk mail, paper scraps – all of it can go in your compost bin. Tear it up into small pieces so that it decomposes more quickly and allows plenty of room for aeration. Also avoid adding any paper that is glossy or shiny, as this type of paper does not decompose well.
  • Sawdust: if you have access to it, sawdust from a local lumber yard can make an excellent addition to your compost. Just be sure that the wood is untreated, otherwise you’ll be adding harmful chemicals into your compost.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, just some ideas to get you started!

If you find that you simply can’t gather enough brown items from around your yard, you can always advertise to friends and family that you’re happy to take their cardboard boxes and shredded paper off their hands.

There’s also no shame in grabbing these types of items off the side of the road if you happen to drive by a neighbor’s home and they have a pile of leaves set out for the garbage truck!


Now that you know where to find browns for compost, it’s important to understand the proper ratio of browns to greens. A good rule of thumb is to have a three-to-one ratio of browns to greens. This means that if you add a gallon of kitchen scraps to your compost, you should also add three gallons of paper, sawdust, or some other type of brown.

This doesn’t have to be an exact science. There’s no need to break out any measuring devices! An approximation will work just fine, and you can adjust the ratio depending on what materials are available to you. Learn to recognize the signs of a compost pile that is too nitrogen-heavy (discussed above), and add more browns accordingly.


Browns are an important part of composting, and you won’t want to skip adding these carbon-containing materials to your compost pile. Having a healthy balance of greens and browns results in the best possible compost, and it will be worth the effort.


Balz, Michelle. Composting For A New Generation. Pages 30-32, 49. Quarto Publishing Group. 2018.

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