Easy guide to composting

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:

Geoff Geoff

4 Responses to “Easy guide to composting”

  1. Christy said...

    I have 7 compost bins!! Does that make me abit of a fanatic? I do keep chickens and rabbits though and that all goes into the compost bins.

    May 3rd, 2011 at 8:10 am | Reply

  2. Green Tips said...

    Good post.

    June 14th, 2011 at 10:54 am | Reply

  3. Christine Sandell said...

    How to avoid mice? In two locations I have tried composting I find it attracts mice! How can I prevent these horrible vermin and still compost? Are egg shells ok to add?

    August 9th, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Reply

    • Geoff Day said...

      Hi Christine,

      There are some very simple steps you can take to avoid rodents in your compost. You can’t always avoid them ‘passing through’, but you can stop them nesting!

      Firstly, avoid the following in your compost at all costs:
      • Any cooked food
      • Bread, biscuit, cakes, rice, pasta, etc.

      Secondly, the way compost is created can be your friend in this matter. Compost needs a certain amount of moisture to get going, and it’s possible that the mice have found a nice warm dry place to nest. So give the compost a stir with a big stick and water with either a hose or a watering can with a rose – don’t get it too wet, and spray rather than soak. Once your compost starts to get going, it’s inhospitable to mice. We have compost maturing bins in our woodland and, even with all the wildlife around, there is no evidence of any rodent activity at all. I also have two 320 litre compost bins at home that have never had a rodent problem using this method.

      Lastly, egg shells are fine in any compost pile. They tend not to break down completely, but mix really well and add to the nutrients. Again – mice don’t seem to be interested.

      Let me know how you get on,


      September 19th, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Reply

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