What is compost, and why is it a good thing?

Compost is plant matter broken down by the action of bacteria, fungi and minibeasts like worms and millipedes. Around 30% of the average household bin’s content is compostable waste. If this waste is properly composted it will break down into a crumbly, nutrient rich material which can be used on any garden. Compostable waste that ends up on landfill tends to rot, often without oxygen, and so produces methane (a potent greenhouse gas). It also means that 30% of our valuable landfill space could be put to better use.

Many local authorities provide collection facilities for food waste, and separation for garden waste at landfill sites which is then composted on a grand scale producing a commercial compost.

If you don’t have this facility – or, like me, you think that your compostable waste is too valuable to throw away, home composting is an easy alternative.

So what do you need to make compost?

Carbon – from woody plants, stems and corrugated cardboard
Nitrogen – from soft fleshy plants, grass cuttings, hair from your pets (or human hair from home hair cuts!), vegetable peelings and fruit cores.
Oxygen – compost needs stirring once a week to add air to the pile.
Water – to keep the bacteria functioning. Some creatures, such as millipedes, only thrive in moist environments so a compost heap needs to be damp but not waterlogged.

You can compost without any special equipment at all – that’s the classic compost ‘heap’. This will work fine but your compost heap will need turning regularly and covering to prevent rainwater washing the nutrients out and also to keep the heat generated by the microbes in.

If your compost is slimy and smelly it needs oxygen and carbon, and is probably too wet, so give it a stir with a garden fork and add some brown stuff like cardboard or shredded twigs.

If your compost is dry, and nothing seems to be happening, you need to add nitrogen and moisture. Usually, adding soft green material like grass cuttings will reset the balance. You can give the pile a very light watering as well – just make sure you don’t overdo it! And stir well…

Here at The Green House we compost all our food waste; tea bags, coffee grounds and orange peels all go in. We use a special hot composter  which will break down waste, cooked food and scraps from staff lunches that would not normally be safe for composting.  It all goes towards reducing the waste we send to landfill.

I  have two 300 litre bins at home – a little excessive perhaps, but I am a compost fanatic – and it enables me to keep one bin filled up while I use the compost from the other bin. I put virtually all the cardboard I receive as packaging in there, as it mixes really well with grass cuttings. Last year, with very little effort, I produced 300 litres of compost to plant my seedlings in – and all for free!

We would love to know about your composting tips and ideas, please add your comments below: