Composting for Woodland Owners

DNR forester and landowner walking in landowner's woodlands

While many folks use containers for composting, it’s not necessary. Containers make the process look a bit neater and can deter critters from digging in the compost materials. But if you don’t have those issues, find a space on your property to pile up yard debris easily. Then begin adding green and brown material in layers. It 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 soil and reduce fertilizer and water use.
  • Keeping yard debris where it's generated slows the spread of invasive plants and animals.

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, and 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.
  • Monitor your compost pile and remove or treat any weeds that germinate.


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 unnecessary, as the composting process's heat comes from the decomposing materials, not the sun. Ideally, select a place that is already "disturbed" and does not have an intact layer of wildflowers and other ground covers.
    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 size of the pile and allow more material to be piled in one spot.
  3. Water as you go: Now and then, stop to add 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 material is too moist. The material is too dry if the ball does not hold its shape.

compost of twigs and leavesHow long does it take?

The time it takes to make compost depends on how you manage your pile. Maintaining the proper moisture level and turning the pile 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 a 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, chipmunks, garter snakes, salamanders, and numerous bird species. Be sure to position the habitat at least 10 feet from your home so it doesn't present a fire hazard (woodpiles should be at least 30 feet from your house).

Shelter seedlings or saplings from deer: Build a 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? Check the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Compost Facility Site Locator to find a yard waste drop-off site or a compost site near you. These sites will often allow you to drop off branches and other yard debris for free.

For questions regarding composting or the composting process, please contact Tim Farnan or Kayla Walsh at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Composting Information:

Composting on a Large Scale

Brush Pile Information:

Stop Burning Backyard Brush: Analysis

Create a Backyard Wildlife Habitat Brush Pile

How to Grow Specialty Mushrooms in Your Backyard

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