If you read much about composting, you’ll soon come across the term carbon: nitrogen ratio (often shortened to C: N ratio).
Everything you put in your compost has a different C: N ratio.
Materials such as grass and manure, known as ‘greens’, have a higher level of nitrogen, and ‘brown’ materials, such as paper, have a higher level of carbon.
In this post we’re going to look at both why the ratio is important – AND why most gardeners shouldn’t get their calculator out every time they add a potato peeling to their compost!
Why is the C: N ratio important?
The microorganisms in a compost heap need four primary ingredients to get going.
The most important for a gardener are Carbon and Nitrogen. (The other two are Phosphorus and Potassium.)
Bacteria themselves consist of carbon and nitrogen, with a ratio of 8:1 (8 units of carbon to every 1 unit of nitrogen). To grow and multiply, they need carbon to maintain themselves and for energy, and nitrogen to grow proteins.
If the C: N ratio and other conditions are right, mesophilic microorganisms, which thrive in moderate temperatures, start breaking down the organic material in the compost, producing heat in the process.
These microorganisms do best in temperatures of around 20 to 45 degrees celsius.
Mesophilic microorganisms are then replaced by thermophilic microorganisms, which thrive in high temperatures.
The heat kills pathogens and weed seeds, and the materials rapidly break down, speeding up this phase of the composting process.
(See Compost Science for a more in-depth explanation.)
Add too much carbon and the composting process will slow down.
If you have too much nitrogen, nitrogen will be lost in the form of ammonia (which will also lead to an unpleasant smell).
Carbon-rich materials can provide other functions for the compost heap.
Wood chips can help build structure, while other “browns” like paper and cardboard can help absorb excess liquid released from the breakdown process.
High carbon materials can also act as bulking agents, creating air pockets which help trap oxygen in the compost pile.
Getting a good carbon: nitrogen ratio is not just about efficient composting, it could also help the environment.
According to Practical Compost Engineering (Haug, 1993), when you have the right mixture, Ammonia released from high nitrogen sources can be captured for synthesis by microbes in nitrogen-poor material instead of being released into the atmosphere.
What is the best Carbon: Nitrogen ratio for composting?
One key experiment was done by McGaughey and Gotass in 1953. The researchers tested Carbon: Nitrogen ratios varying from 20:1 to 78:1.
They found that the optimum range for speed was between 30:1 to 35:1. Below this range excess nitrogen was lost, while above this range the composting speed slowed down.
However, even when a C: N ratio of 78:1 was used compost was still produced in 21 days.
Another study by Ogunwande found that a Carbon: Nitrogen ratio of 25:1 resulted in the minimum loss of nitrogen in the process. However, all ratios tested (from 20:1 to 30:1) resulted in compost maturing at 80 days.
Campus Extension suggests that you should get good results anywhere between 20:1 and 40:1, and sometimes as high as 50:1.
Meanwhile, The Practical Handbook of Compost Engineering argues that keeping a C: N ratio above 15:1 will help ensure nitrogen is not lost and ammonia is not released into the climate.
In short, research suggests that the ideal ratio is around 25:1 to 35:1, but you can produce successful compost with a wider range of carbon: nitrogen ratios.
Compost Material Breakdown Rates
The C: N ratio is not the only thing that affects the composting process. Another factor (although not the only one) is the speed at which high-carbon materials break down.
Woody materials contain a high concentration of lignin, a substance that breaks down more slowly. Fruit waste, which contains higher levels of cellulose, breaks down more quickly.
A compost heap with a predominantly wooden carbon source will eventually lose the ideal carbon: nitrogen ratio, slowing the process down and causing it to become smelly.
At the same time, woody materials can provide structure to the compost and help create air pockets to provide oxygen for the microbes. In an ideal world, it’s probably best to use a mixture of both woody and non-woody browns.
How much do you need to worry about it?
Personally, I think the average garden composter shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about the exact carbon-nitrogen ratio of their compost.
Unless you’re going to get a calculator and a weighing machine out every time you add material to your compost, you’re not going to get it perfect.
Every material has a different carbon: nitrogen ratio and even some of the academic sources disagree on exactly what those are.
Even if you can work out the exact carbon: nitrogen ratio, you still need to take into account the volume of material, how much air and moisture it contains, and the speed at which it breaks down.
(If you do want to calculate the amounts needed, Cornell University provides some handy spreadsheets to help.)
Perhaps that is why many experienced composters just don’t worry too much about the ratio.
For example, Charles Dowding of No Dig Gardening, who produces large amounts of compost for his market garden, aims for a roughly 50:50 mixture of greens and browns and gets excellent results.
Meanwhile, Red Gardens utilizes ‘No Rules’ composting. In a community composting project, participants were allowed to bring any compost material they wanted, as long as it had been recently alive.
A huge volume was generated, and the compost was turned regularly. But apart from separating out large portions of the brush until it had been rotted down, no thought was given to the Carbon: Nitrogen ratio.
The results? Great!
High Carbon and High Nitrogen Compost Materials: Examples
While I may be skeptical of the value for the amateur composter of trying to calculate exact C: N ratios, it’s handy to have a rough idea of C: N ratios.
For starters, while it is difficult for the average amateur gardener to get the C: N exactly right, you do need to get it roughly right.
What’s more, many problems can be solved by adding either high carbon or high nitrogen material.
For example, if compost is not warming up, adding high-nitrogen material can quickly get the heap or bin going. If a compost heap is starting to smell, add some high-carbon material.
The examples below give C: N ratios – note the variation is often due to differences in sources. You can see a larger number of examples given in Appendix A of the On-Farm Composting Book.
Greens and Browns: Examples with carbon: nitrogen ratios
Do note that the terms ‘Greens’ and ‘Browns’ can be rather confusing. The names refer to their nitrogen and carbon content, not to their color.
For example, manure is considered a ‘Green’, as it is high in nitrogen, even thought it is brown.
Here are some examples of greens and browns with their C: N ratios.
- Coffee Grounds: C: N 20:1
- Vegetable Waste: C: N 11:1 – 13:1
- Chicken Manure: C: N 13:1 – 10:1
- Cow Manure: C: N 11:1 – 30:1
- Horse Manure: C: N 22:1 – 50:1
- Sheep Manure: C: N 13:1 – 20:1
- Pig Manure: C: N 9:1 – 19:1
- Food Waste: C: N 14:1 – 16:1
- Grass clippings: C: N 9:1 -25:1
- Straw: C: N 48:1 -150:1
- Bark (hardwood): C: N 116:1 – 436:1
- Bark (softwood): C: N 131:1 -1,285:1
- Corrugated cardboard: C: N 563:1
- Sawdust: C: N 200:1 – 750:1
- Wood chips (hardwood): C: N 451-819
- Leaves: C: N 40:1 – 80:1
- Seaweed: C: N 5:1 – 27:1
Also see: Get to Know Your Organic Materials: C:N Ratio Tables for Effective Composting
In summary, having a rough idea of C: N ratios can help you to get your make better, faster compost. But it’s important not to worry about it too much.
After all, composting shouldn’t be made too difficult or complicated, or you’ll eventually get fed up and stop doing it.
At the end of the day, if you put a pile of recently dead material together, it will eventually rot down and turn into compost.
Research suggests that the ideal carbon: nitrogen ratio is around 25:1 to 35:1, but you can produce successful compost with a wider range of carbon: nitrogen ratios. Experts recommend keeping the ratio above 15:1 to ensure that nitrogen is not lost and ammonia is not released into the atmosphere. However, compost can still be produced even at ratios as high as 78:1.
If there is too much carbon in the compost, the decomposition process will slow down as microorganisms will struggle to break down the organic matter. The compost pile may become compact and dry, and the compost will not heat up as it should.
Yes. However, a good balance of carbon and nitrogen will mean more efficient and effective composting. An ideal ratio helps ensure that organic matter breaks down quickly and that the finished compost is rich in nutrients. However, as we saw in the article, experienced composters have found that they can produce high-quality compost using a wide range of carbon: nitrogen ratios and some have adopted a “no rules” approach to composting.
The infographic Greens v. Browns by CompostMagazine.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Based on a work at https://www.compostmagazine.com/compost-carbon-nitrogen-ratio/. If used please attribute to CompostMagazine.com. Fullsize image available upon request.
2 thoughts on “The Essential Role of the Carbon – Nitrogen Ratio in Composting”
I have looked a two larger types of combos for composting sugar cane skins and leaves and grapes skins and leaves.
both required that they be laid out in piles no more than 1.5 metes by about 3 meters on a hard surface. If there are concerns about contamination or burn from acid of the grape this should be done next to collection system and process. The goal was to compost in a warm area (northern California climates do no work as well as warmer summer climates). The process de composting involved aeration by turning the pile over with a tractor. if not then only the outer 30 cm was composted while the interior lacked oxygen. As mentioned in your article the bacteria needs food and oxygen. once they were done then the compost was spread. In the case of the sugar cane you can do this type of approach or the compost was put into the irrigation water and then the composting was done as a thin layer of about 12 cm and was absorbed by the ground. in any cases the composting process required water, aeration and yes the right of material.
Thanks for the information. How did it work out for you?