Composting for Woodland Owners

DNR forester and landowner walking in landowner's woodlands

Mother Nature doesn’t use a container to compost.

You don’t need one, either.

While many folks use containers for composting, it’s not necessary. Containers make the process look a bit neater, and they can deter critters from digging in the compost materials. But if you don’t have those issues, find a space on your property where you can easily pile up yard debris. Then begin adding green and brown material in layers.
It really is that easy!

Why Compost?

Escaped yard debris burns remain the #1 cause of wildfires in Minnesota. Composting offers a safe, easy way to turn yard debris into a usable material that can improve your soil and reduce fertilizer and water use.

wheel barrow full of weeds and plant cuttings.

Composting Biology 101 for Large Piles

Greens: Green leaves, plant trimmings, and green grass clippings. These materials provide nitrogen and act as a source of protein for the microbes.

Browns: Wood chips, sawdust, twigs, brown grass, brown leaves, straw, shredded newspaper (recycle if not needed) are carbon sources that provide energy for the microbes.



  • When you use grass clippings, do so sparingly and be sure to mix them into your pile—not doing so can cause odors.
  • Food scraps—vegetables, fruits, coffee grounds, and tea bags—also provide nitrogen but may attract pests. If you decide to use food scraps, do so cautiously.



Step-by-Step Instructions


  1. Select a location: Pick a spot at least 2 feet from a structure, such as your house or a fence, and convenient to water. A sunny spot is not necessary, as the heat from the composting process comes from the decomposing materials, not the sun.
    1. Local laws may restrict where or what you can compost. Contact your city and/or county waste office for information.
  2. Build the pile: Begin by laying 4-to-6 inches of leaves, wood chips, and other carbons as the base of your pile. Then, add a 4-to-6 inch layer of greens.
    1. Do not put large branches into your compost pile. Instead, run branches through a chipper and add the chips to your pile.
    2. Carefully slash the brush pile with a chainsaw to reduce the pile's size and allow more material to be piled in one spot.
  3. Water as you go: Now and then, stop adding water to your layers. Ideally, your pile should be moist, like a wrung-out sponge.
    1. One method of checking moisture in your compost pile is the “squeeze test.” Grab a fist full of compost material and squeeze it into a ball. When you open your hand, the materials should hold the shape of a ball. If you squeeze the compost material and water drips out of your hand, the materials are too moist. If the ball does not hold its shape, the material is too dry.

compost of twigs and leavesHow long does it take?

The length of time it takes to make compost depends on how you manage your pile. Maintaining the proper moisture level and turning the pile now and then will produce compost more quickly. If you rely on rain with no turning, it will take longer and vary depending on whether it is a wet or dry year. Generally speaking, you will produce compost in six months to a year regardless of your management methods.

What to do with tree branches?

The best way to dispose of tree branches is to chip them and add the chips to your compost pile. If you do not have access to a wood chipper, here are some other ideas:

illustrations showing the different ways to compost. How to construct a habitat using the brush. Source: The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds by Stephen W. Kress

Build a wildlife habitat: Lightly stack larger branches on the ground, then add smaller branches on top. Position rocks around the perimeter. This will provide a home for red fox woodchucks, weasels, skunks, and chipmunks, as well as garter snakes, salamanders, and numerous bird species. Be sure to position the habitat at least 10 feet from your home so that it doesn’t present a fire hazard (woodpiles should be at least 30 feet from your house).

Shelter seedlings or saplings from deer: Build brush around seedlings or saplings, stacking the limbs loosely enough so that sunlight can still get through. Ideally, your shelter should be 15 feet wide by 4-to-6 feet tall. However, do not stack wood taller than the seedling.

Grow mushrooms: Many tree branches can be used to grow mushrooms, but hardwoods (especially maple, poplar, willow, birch, and beech) are best.  Avoid black locust, black walnut, and most evergreens.

County/City Yard Waste Disposal: Not interested in composting? Contact your county solid waste department to find out if they have a yard waste drop-off site or a compost site near you. These sites often will allow you to drop off your branches and other yard debris for free.

Please contact Tim Farnan or Kayla Walsh at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for questions regarding compost or the composting process.

Composting Information:

Composting in your backyard

Composting on a Large Scale

Composting Techniques for Anyone

Brush Pile Information:

Stop Burning Backyard Brush: Analysis

Brush Up Your Habitat

How to Create and Maintain Brush Piles

Create a Backyard Wildlife Habitat Brush Pile

How to Grow Specialty Mushrooms in Your Backyard