Beginner’s guide to compost

Filed in Blog by on February 2, 2010 29 Comments
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Compost up to 60% of your household waste!

Compost up to 60% of your household waste!

With recent snow on the ground, gardening is probably the last thing on your mind. However, many readers have asked for a beginners guide to composting, so here it is!

Composting at home is a great way to divert things from landfill such as fruit and vegetable peelings but it has many other benefits for the soil and the environment:

  • Compost improves the water-holding capacity of the soil which increases the availability of some nutrients to the plants.
  • The addition of compost to the soil improves resistance to pests and disease.
  • The activity of soil microbes is increased, so that the overall balance of nutrients, soils structure and pH is improved.
  • Compost encourages the slow release of its nutrients into the soil, ensuring long term benefits throughout the growing season.
  • Any trace minerals or elements that may still be present in the ‘waste’ products, go back to the land, thus maintaining the natural biocycle.

Successful compost needs the following 4 things:

  1. Organic waste made up of 50:50 green (wet) and brown (dry) ingredients by volume.
  2. A spadeful of Garden soil or good quality compost as a source of bacteria and fungi (microorganisms)
  3. Water – compost needs to be kept moist for the microorganisms to live
  4. Air – compost needs oxygen for the microorganisms to breathe

Green or wet ingredients include:

  • Fresh grass clippings
  • Fruit and vegetable peelings

Brown or dry ingredients include:

  • Shredded paper or cardboard – perfect for junk mail or shredded bank statements
  • Straw or hay

Other ingredients

It is estimated that up to 60% of the contents of the average household dustbin can be composted such as:

  • shredded cardboard egg boxes
  • the contents of your vacuum cleaner (providing you have natural floors and carpets)
  • Pet fur and human hair – when you clean your brushes or comb, add them to the heap!
  • coffee grounds and wrung out tea bags
  • soiled pet bedding from vegetarian animals such as hamsters, rabbits or guinea pigs
  • chicken poo
  • small twigs and hedge prunings
  • pond weed
  • the odd few nut shells
  • crushed egg shells
  • odd bits of textiles, such as threads from sewing projects (only if they are natural fibres)

How to compost – 6 steps

  1. Dedicate your space – one of the easiest and cheapest ways to make a compost bin is to tie together 4 wooden pallets in a square (ask on Freecycle for freebies), or simply find a space for a ‘heap’ in the garden.
  2. Combine the ingredients you have gathered – remember, aim for equal VOLUMES of green and brown ingredients.
  3. Water the ingredients if necessary. The compost should resemble a squeezed out sponge. If the compost becomes to dry, add water or fresh grass clippings; if it becomes too wet add straw or some other dry material.
  4. Mix the ingredients to ensure oxygen reaches the compost, and thus heat is produced to speed up the process. Turn the compost every couple of weeks or when you add fresh ingredients.
  5. Cover the ingredients with an old piece of carpet or thick plastic to seal in the heat.
  6. It is the same procedure every time you add new ingredients: add, water, mix, cover!

If the compost is started at the beginning of Spring, it should be ready by the end of the Summer. The compost is ready when the individual ingredients are no longer identifiable, the mix is dark brown with a soft, crumbly texture and it has a rich, sweet smell. You’ll usually take finished compost from the bottom of the heap while unfinished compost from the top can be used to start your next batch.

Resources

Want to know more?
How to tame slimy compost
Dealing with wasps in the compost
Dealing with fruit flies in the compost
Wiggly Wigglers – for everything compost related
The Compost Bin – tips from a master composter
Recycle Now’s compost site.

This is a very basic guide, if you run into difficulties or have any other questions please ask in the comments below. And if you have advice to share, share away!

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About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (29)

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  1. Sarah says:

    I have 2 plastic compost bins and they’re usually both mostly full, especially now we have the chickens! The biggest problem I have is that there are times during the year when I’m short of the wet portion as there is lots of chicken and guinea pig bedding that is mostly wood shavings and therefore classed as “dry” But those times coincide with horrid weather when I can’t get out in the garden so I just leave the lids off so the bins get rained on.

    I love the smell of fresh compost coming out of the bottom of the bins though and the difference it’s made to my sticky clay soil over the years is remarkable.

  2. Louisa says:

    What are the options for composting if you live in a flat? I have no garden, and my local authority (Exeter) doesn’t collect compostable waste. Even if I did install a wormery or green cone, what would I do with the output – throw it away?!

  3. Chris says:

    Am I a really bad person? I don’t want to compost. There, I’ve said it!
    We have a fairly small garden and the idea of turning a corner of it over to either a heap or a large green plastic bin fills me with horror. We already have three large wheelie bins to accomodate and Idon’t want to look at any more!
    Our local authority composts garden clippings for us and if I need any compost it can be bought from them. I comfort myself with the fact that we throw hardly any food away,the birds have first go at bread and biscuit crumbs and veg rots down in landfill quite well I’ve heard!

    Chris

  4. Corrine says:

    What about trench composting? This is something I’ve just heard of and am thinking of trying.

  5. Mrs Green says:

    @Sarah: Good to hear the compost has had a positive effect on your stick soil, Sarah. I feel like giving up with mine, but I should persevere.

    @Louisa: Hi Louisa, for indoor composting I would use both a bokashi and wormery. This combination will get rid of virtually all your kitchen waste – you can give the fermented bokashi to the worms to finish off. You only get a small amount of compost and liquid from the worms, so you would probably get just what you wanted for houseplants or indoor herbs or perhaps a couple of hanging baskets of tomatoes and a windowbox of salad leaves. Failing that, you’d probably have Freecyclers or LETS people or your local Transition Town members biting your hand off for a bottle of the liquid fertilisers the worms would give you ;)

    @Chris: Hi Chris, if you don’t want to compost, that’s fine! But some compost bins can look nice, like the wooden beehives: http://www.amazon.co.uk/brightgreenlive-250L-BH-beehive-composter/dp/B001R59H7Y It isn’t all about green plastic LOL!
    But if you’re happy with what you are doing and you can get rid of most of your stuff to the council and your feathered friends then why change things?

    @Corrine: Hi Corrine, trench composting is another good idea, particularly good for runner beans, peas, courgettes and pumpkins. You dig the stuff in during the autumn before the spring you want to plant. It works well for some people and there is no cost and less work involved ;) You just need to be aware that you can get animals digging it up in some areas.

  6. Sarah says:

    I think the key for me was defining smallish areas as veg beds and concentrating on the worst one and just piling as much home made compost as I can into it as often as possible. But it’s still taken years.

  7. Louisa says:

    @Mrs Green: Would they really? Even if they are all composting their own waste?
    (BTW I don’t have any window boxes – I’m on the third floor so attaching some kind of bracket to the window ledge would require scaffolding!)

  8. Angie says:

    Like the idea of trench composting and have been digging and burying since the autumn….Should I stop now or should I have stopped ages ago????

  9. Jane says:

    Is anyone community composting? I’d love to hear more about this.

  10. Nick Palmer says:

    @Chris:

    Chris – you say that “veg rots down in landfill quite well I’ve heard!” That’s partially true, but organic matter decomposing in a landfill emits methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. A few authorities capture some of the landfill gas from pre-existing dumps and use it for power but it is not an ideal solution – it’s far better not to put any new biodegradable materials in landfill at all.

    Nick Palmer

    Blogspot: “Sustainability and stuff according to Nick Palmer”

  11. Louisa says:

    @Mrs Green: interesting quote from the Wikipedia entry on bokashi composting: “Liquid, known as Bokashi Juice [1] is drained off as necessary. This liquid can be used as plant food, or can be poured down the drain. This may be a good practice for households with septic systems, as it is believed that this may help maintain a healthy septic environment within the holding tank. Bokashi juice is acidic, however, and if being used as a plant feed, it should be diluted at a rate of 1:100 parts water.”

  12. Mrs Green says:

    @Sarah: Yes, good idea. Our garden is large, so it all feels overwhelming :(

    @Louisa: Well friend’s experiences of having this worm liquid is that avid gardeners can’t get enough of it…it’s not the same as compost you see; the liquid is called ‘black gold’ by some people ;) And yes, it’s great for sceptic tanks and cleaning drains. A little self sufficiency see ;)

    @Angie: I would stop Angie, if you’re planning on planting that area this year!

    @Jane: Funnily enough, I met someone at Paul Connett’s talk last night who was involved in this. We ran a story on it last year: http://mzw.wpengine.com/2009/05/compost-awareness-week-community-composting/
    You could ask on Compost Woman’s site too http://compostbins.blogspot.com/

  13. Nick Palmer says:

    I don’t know how accurate this is, but, when I ran Friends of the Earth over here, one of our members actually tried to get a worm farm off the ground commercially (well before Wiggly Wigglers). He was planning on integrating it with his organic smallholding. Using worm compost fertiliser, he did grow the most spectacular tasting potatoes I have ever had – and I come from Jersey, home of the Jersey Royal potato, probably the best tasting potato around.

    He claimed that not only could the black gold worm liquid be used as a foliar feed spray (suitably filtered and diluted) but that it would act as an antifungal spray to prevent things like blight from getting hold of the crop. This was not because it killed fungal spores but rather that it covered the plant with a lot of “good” bacteria and fungus (like a Benecol yoghurt allegedly does to your stomach!) so leaving no space (habitat) left for any stray fungal spores to grow.

  14. Mrs Green says:

    @Nick Palmer: Brilliant Nick – thank you! I’m going to remember that if blight strikes! We have used horsetail with great success, which just about allows me to live in harmony with our worst ‘weed’! To my knowledge that acts more as an antifungal, but using a preventative measure really appeals to me. Let’s hope the worms get busy and produce lots of liquid for me!

  15. Diz says:

    Happy birthday to my compost bin. I started one last year with your encouragement. It must be working, as it seems always to be nearly full! I have yet to get anything out of the bottom of it, although I will try once I get back in the garden in the spring. I’ve just switched the geckos over to woodchip substrate, so that can go in too.

  16. Mrs Green says:

    @Diz: Yay! Happy compost Birthday, Diz. I remember when you first got it and all the teething problems you had. Sounds like things are working well, so I hope you have something lovely in there when you get around to digging it out!

  17. Louisa says:

    This link says that indoor composting is a bad idea!
    http://www.recyclenow.com/home_composting/get_advice/buy_a_bin_faqs/i_dont_have_a.html

    “I don’t have a garden or any outdoor space. Can I compost indoors?”

    “Unfortunately, it is difficult to compost if you are without an outdoor space. In theory, wormeries can be used inside as they should be odourless and hygienic. In practice it is not usually recommended. The worms could escape from the wormery and, in the summer months, can attract small fruit flies.”

  18. Mrs Green says:

    @Louisa: Hi Louisa, this battle about inks keeps going around in circles doesn’t it! We are planning to put our wormery outside in the summer, but I might keep it in to experiment with – then I can tell people for sure whether it works as an indoor composter or not! I can imagine fruit flies are the real issue – none have escaped yet :D

  19. Ben says:

    I’ve been meaning to get a compost bin since I moved in to this house last September, but first worry was the price. At least £20-30 minimum, then getting it delivered as I don’t have a car. Deliveries all too often take place when I’m out and the item is taken to some inaccessible depot. So, I’ve been putting it off. Then, today I had some good luck, I looked behind the shed and found a compost bin the previous people have left here. It’s not exactly pretty, I think it’s an old round plastic bin with the bottom cut out, but it will work fine. I’ve hidden it behind a few bushes and already filled it with some stuff to compost.

  20. Mrs Green says:

    @Ben: Hi Ben, that';s brilliant news – it doesn’t need to look good, it just needs to work. Good luck!

  21. Louisa says:

    I’ve recently moved to Skipton, North Yorks, where I now rent a house with some outside space. Not really a garden, but there are a couple of raised beds. However I don’t have a particularly big kitchen, so do I really need both a bokashi and a wormery? I have yet to find out whether the local authority (Craven DC) offers anything in the way of subsidised home composting equipment.

  22. Mrs Green says:

    @Louisa: Thanks for the link, poppy (I’m going to ‘Tiny’ it in a moment because it’s breaking the page LOL!)
    Louisa, I would suggest the wormery because the bokashi contents have to go into a compost heap to finish fermenting, whereas the wormery contents can be used straight away (be aware that ‘straight away’ is a few months down the line). Also, it depends how many food scraps you have – the bokashi can cope with more until the worms are mature and happy (several months in my experience). Also, the bokashi takes meat, dairy and fish. So it’s swings and roundabouts as to which system works for you.

  23. Jennifer Foulds says:

    My Dad refuses to put eggshells in our compost bin, he says it will smell to much because our compost bin is less than 10m from our back door.
    Do you reckon it will smell?

  24. Mrs Green says:

    @Jennifer Foulds: Hi Jennifer; thanks for your question. I’ve never had a problem with the compost smelling (unless I’ve put too many greens in there). Egg shells CAN be rinsed and dried before crushing if your Dad is really concerned :)

  25. Tracey says:

    I just put my eggshells straight in – no rinsing or anything – and we go through about 6 eggs a fortnight. I’m hoping to start getting more soon and they’ll all go in too!

    Our compost bin is right next to the back door and the only time it smelled was when I bought a load of cheap “use by = today” carrots with the plan of making them into soup and then found them almost 2 weeks later still in the bag I’d brought them home in! (Something must have distracted me so I hadn’t put them away properly!) – they were stinky and slimey, but I just popped some shredded paper on top and less than 48 hours later, the bin was fine again. :)

  26. Poppy says:

    I agree with Mrs G and Tracey. No probs with our bins and they are about 8 steps away from back door.

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