The wonders of home composting

Composting is the best way to get rid of your garden and kitchen waste. Not only is it environmentally friendly, it also provides you with a nutrient rich compost to use on your garden. As May 6th-12th 2018 is International Compost Awareness Week (ICAW), it’s the perfect time to look into starting a compost heap.

We’ve always had a compost heap. Having to trot down to the bottom of our long, thin garden with bowls of vegetable peelings as our parents prepared dinner was a regular occurrence of childhood. Our dad has always been a keen gardener, so any waste produced in the kitchen or the garden, along with any shredded newspapers or receipts, went onto the heap. Every once in a while one of the sides would be removed and we’d all watch in fascination as what had previously been potato peelings, cut grass, and plant trimmings, was shovelled out onto the flower beds and vegetable patches as a dark, rich compost.

I always liked to search for all the different minibeasts to be found around the heap, my first camera clicking away to record my findings. This was before the days of digital cameras. I filled far too many films with blurry pictures of insects, and the birds that came down to eat them. My brothers would dig through the heap in search of worms to take fishing at the local pond. Now we’re all in houses of our own, a compost heap is still seen as an essential garden element.

A month a go, my sister and I moved into a new house. Our new garden is simply a grassed square with no plants or flowerbeds. And no compost heap. Needless to say, it was one of the first things we added.

Why should I compost?

There are several benefits to composting. Without spending any money beyond your initial compost container, you can produce a rich compost for use on your garden. You soon come to find that plants in a composted bed grow far better than those with only top soil, as the compost contains all of the nutrients they need to flourish. In addition, all of the waste that will be going onto the compost heap had previously been making its way into your general bin. It is said that around 40% of the average dustbin contents is suitable for home composting, so, not only are you saving money on bin bags, you’re also cutting down on the amount of rubbish going into landfill, which also helps out the environment. Some councils in the UK offer a free green waste collection service, and if you have no space for a compost heap in your garden, this a is a viable alternative. These collections, however, do require the use of heavy trucks, which have their own associated environmental costs.

It arrived as a pile of wooden slats. We then had to turn it into a compost heap.

How do I compost?

There are actually a number of different ways to compost. The first of these is in a compost heap. The size of your heap will depend on the size of  your garden. We have a relatively small garden, so we’ve purchased a 2ftx2ft wooden container that sits nicely in the corner It arrived as a bundle of slats that had to be slotted together before it could be put to use. Containers such as this come in various shapes and sizes–some with lids and others open, some with solid walls and others slatted, some with one compartment others with two. A larger container with solid walls and a lid will make better compost, as the conditions within are more suitable for the microbes that cause decomposition, but all create usable compost.

Alternatively, we could have chosen a plastic bin. These are a popular choice for many gardeners, especially those with small gardens, but we prefer to use natural materials rather than man-made wherever possible. It’s also possible to buy a tumbler bin that makes turning the contents easier.

If we were only composting kitchen waste, small amounts of plant trimmings, and the odd scrap of paper, then a wormery would have been a more economical use of our limited space. We may consider having one of these in addition to our compost heap in the future, as a wormery produces not only a nutrient-rich compost, but also a concentrated liquid fertiliser that can be added to your watering can at a ratio of 1 part fertiliser to 10 parts water.

Another method of composting is by burying kitchen waste in a hole in the garden. This is called trench composting and is particularly useful for a vegetable garden. It is harder to do in the spring and summer months, when beds are full of growing things, which means that it is often used alongside a traditional compost heap. But in autumn, when the beds lie empty after harvest, it’s the perfect time to dig a trench to be filled with vegetable peelings. Once the first trench is filled, it can then be covered with soil and a parallel one dug. This can continue until the whole area has been used. By the time the vegetable patch is dug over for replanting in the spring, the waste will have rotted down into compost ready to feed the new year’s crops.

Where should I put my compost heap?

It’s best to situate your heap as far away from the house or any outdoor seating areas as you can place it. Compost heaps have a tendency to attract flies, wasps and numerous other minibeasts that like to feast on the decomposing materials. They can also be quite smelly as the waste rots down.

Preferably, the heap should be in a sunny or semi-shaded position, as the hotter the heap is, the faster it decomposes. It should also be placed on bare earth to allow for drainage of any liquid back into the ground. If you do need to place it on a hard surface, then add a few shovels of compost to the base of the container to stop it from turning into a soggy mess.

Make sure that your chosen space is easily accessible. You don’t want to be tripping over plant pots or getting tangled up in brambles every time you take your vegetable peelings out to it. This is especially true if you use a wheel barrow in your garden–you’ll need to have a clear access route so you can wheel it close. You’ll also want to leave a space next to your heap where you can work. Sometimes you might need to sort through your waste before adding it to your compost heap, or chop it into smaller pieces so it more easily decomposes, and you don’t want to be overly cramped while doing so.

What can I compost?

The main rule to remember when adding waste to your compost heap is that, if it came from a plant, it can be composted. Any meat, bones or dairy need to go in the general waste (or on to a bird table) as these may contain harmful bacteria and are likely to attract pests to your heap. If it contains plastic or metal it needs to go into your recycling bin. The waste that you can add is divided into greens and browns. Green waste tends to contain more moisture, be carbon-rich, and break down quickly. It includes grass clippings, annual weeds, vegetable peelings, teabags, coffee grounds, and manure. Browns waste, on the other hand, tend to contain less moisture, be nitrogen-rich, and break down slowly. It includes garden prunings, shredded paper, wood chippings, cardboard, straw, and dead leaves. All of these can be added to your compost heap.

What do I do next?

Once a week you need to turn your compost heap in order to aerate the contents. This is because the microbes that cause the decomposition require oxygen in order to live. As the contents of the heap compact, the amount of oxygen present decreases and the bacteria die, slowing the decomposition process. Turn your heap by inserting a fork or spade and moving the contents around–tossing it as you might a salad. If you have a double heap, with two compartments, you can turn it by transferring the contents from one side into the other. If you have a tumbler bin, simply set it tumbling.

How can I improve my composting?

Sometimes you might find that your compost is rather too soggy. This is most likely because the balance of green to brown waste is off. In order for the bacteria and micro-organisms that produce the compost to function at their best, try to ensure that 25-50% of your heap is green waste, and the rest brown. If the compost is too wet, then add more browns to your mix. It is also best not to allow a single material to dominate. Grass clippings can be a particular problem. If these overwhelm your heap they turn the compost into a slimy, smelly mess. If you find your compost is too dry, then try adding a few more greens, or simply turning the hosepipe onto it for a quick rehydrate.

There are also certain plants that you can grow that are good for on a compost heap, improving the quality of the compost being produced. Comfrey is a particular favourite for many gardeners. Their deep roots suck up many nutrients whilst they’re growing, including phosphorous, zinc and potassium. These are rapidly released into the compost during decomposition. Borage is another good composting herb, releasing phosphorous and zinc, whilst yarrow helps with the decomposition process. Perennial legumes, such as alfalfa and red clover, are also good composting plants as they fix nitrogen, drawing it from the air and storing it in nodules on their roots. This nitrogen is then released into the compost when the plant decomposes.

How can I use my compost?

The decomposition process of the waste in your heap can take from a few months, up to a year, but once it has finished you’ll be left with a dark, rich, sweet smelling humus that can be used all around the garden. You can add it to your flower beds or vegetable patches, or you could fill pots for patio plants. Your plants will thank you. They’ll use the nutrients from the compost to grow faster, bigger, and much more luscious than they ever did on plain topsoil.