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A guide to garden compost

03 April 2021

How do you make the best compost? Recycle your kitchen scraps and garden waste into a soil conditioner that’s environmentally friendly, full of nutrients and best of all – free.

If you do it right, compost is very easy to make, doesn’t smell and is the ideal way to improve the quality and fertility of the soil in your garden. Here’s our quick guide to making excellent compost at home.

Getting started

You can screen your compost area with willow hurdles or fence panels
Image source: Shutterstock

If you’re lucky enough to have a large garden, you can build your own compost bin from bricks or wood, but for most of us, dalek-style plastic composting bins are your best bet. Readily available from most good garden centres, two bins are better than one – that way, you can continue to add material to the second container while the compost in the first matures.

Position your bin in a corner of the garden where the light is relatively even through the day. If possible, it’s best to avoid strong direct sunlight which can make the bin overheat. A partially shaded area with good drainage works best.

Make sure there’s room around your bin(s) for the air to circulate. Most composters have built-in ventilation holes, but they don’t work if they’re choked by bushes or weeds. Plastic compost bins are usually open at the bottom to allow earthworms to get at the rotting material. To keep pests like rats from getting at your compost, place the base on a screen of chicken wire.

Filling your bin

layers of compost
Layering is an effective way to build up your compost bin
Image: StGrafix/Shutterstock

Your composting bin works most effectively when you fill it with alternating layers of different materials. This stops the bin from getting too wet or too dry, either of which slows the speed at which bacteria and fungi consume the waste material. Here’s what to put in your bin:

Green matter

Fruit and vegetables, peelings, tea bags, annual weeds, grass clippings and soft green plants.

Brown matter

Shredded newspaper and cardboard, prunings and trimmings (preferably chipped), wood chips, plant stems, straw.

Water

Spray open compost heaps with water if they get too dry. If you use a plastic bin in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions, it’s unlikely you’ll need to add water.

Accelerator

This is a nitrogen-rich product which feeds the bugs to speed up the rotting process. It’s not necessary to add an accelerator to your mix, but it’s worth considering if there’s a shortage of green material or an overabundance of brown.

Avoid bad smells

compost in compost bin
Compost a variety of materials to avoid bad smells
Image: Meg Wallace Photography/Shutterstock

Compost that’s too wet gets pretty smelly. The same applies if you don’t turn your heap regularly – aim for about three times during the summer when waste-eating organisms are at their most active.

Adding too much green material also creates unpleasant smells. Supplement grass clippings, which are abundant during the spring and summer months, with plenty of dry material. If there’s nothing in the garden to add, shred some old newspapers or cardboard to keep the balance right.

Composting no-nos

dandelion heads
Compost dandelion heads, and the seeds will thrive when spread.
Image: Shutterstock

Some things don’t belong in a compost heap, and with good reason. You don’t want to end up with a product that’s contaminated by chemicals, or which contains dangerous pathogens. These things should never be added to your compost:

  • Meat trimmings (raw or cooked)
  • Dairy products
  • Diseased plants
  • Perennial weeds like dandelions – or weeds with seed heads
  • Faeces – definitely no cat or dog mess, nappies, or human waste (although human and pet hair is fine)
  • Glass, plastics and metals

Work it

Keep turning your compost until it stops generating heat and everything has broken down
Image source: Shutterstock

Make sure you’ve got plenty of bacterial action going on by taking the temperature of your heap. Plunge a garden fork or spade into the rotting vegetation. If it’s warm to the touch when you withdraw it, you can be assured that there are plenty of organisms hard at work digesting the waste.

Once that action slows, add air by giving the heap or the contents of the compost bin a good stir. Eventually, turning the heap won’t generate any more heat. That’s when you know it’s done. Leave or cover for two or three months to be sure composting is completely finished, then it’s ready to add to your garden.

What are your best composting tips? If so, we’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch via our Facebook page.

Lead image: Shutterstock

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