3. Composting tips

Man compostingWhat is composting?

Composting is nature's way of recycling. Compost has four main ingredients:

  1. Browns
  2. Greens
  3. Air
  4. Water

Browns are dry, woody materials such as fallen leaves, hedge clippings, newspaper, and so on.

Greens are moist materials such as fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings, and fresh weeds.

Air and water are the other essential ingredients that the millions of tiny composting creatures need to break down your browns and greens into a crumbly soil-like material.

Remember: Composting turns what could have been rubbish into a useful product!

What can I compost?

You can compost anything that was once alive...

  • Lawn clippings
  • Shredded stalks and hedge clippings
  • Leaves
  • Cut flowers
  • Old plants
  • Vegetable and fruit scraps
  • Tea bags, leaves and coffee grounds
  • Crushed egg shells
  • Hay and straw
  • Paper bags and cardboard (sparingly)
  • Wood ash (sparingly)
  • Young weeds
  • Rhubarb leaves
  • Bark
  • Animal hair, fur and nails

But there are some things that are best left out of the bin...

  • Diseased plants
  • Anything sprayed with weed-killer
  • Plastics, glass and other non-organic household waste
  • Cooked food
  • Meat and fish products
  • Dairy products, oils or fats
  • Bones
  • Persistent weeds
  • Coloured glossy paper and books
  • Pet faeces
  • Dog or cat litter
  • Disposable nappies
  • Soot and coal ash
  • Wood
  • Clothes and textiles

Where should I put my composter?

Compost can be kept in an open pile in the garden, or you may find it preferable to construct your own container (see below). However, specialised bins help keep piles neat and out of reach of children and pets, as well as helping to retain heat and moisture which speed up the composting process. Garden Centres and DIY stores offer a range of products, and bargains can be found on the Internet.

Your compost bin should be placed in a sunny position if possible, on bare soil or grass, so that the worms and moisture can get in and out.  It should be easy to get into your bin so that you are able to mix your compost and get it out.

How do I start composting?

Collect your fruit and vegetable scraps in your kitchen bin and every couple of days empty it into your compost bin. Then just keep adding a mixture of greens and browns to your compost bin and it should start composting.

Composting takes very little effort, but:

  • You need a fifty-fifty balance of greens and browns as problems can occur when too much of one type of material is added.
  • The composting creatures find it easier to break down little bits, so try to break up any large bits of twig, or whole fruit and vegetables so that they can get to work straight away. You can also store your kitchen scraps in your freezer to speed up decomposition, as your materials break down at the cell level when frozen.
  • The composting creatures need water to survive, but not too much or they will drown. The ideal moisture level of your compost pile should be like that of a wrung out sponge. If it gets too dry, add more greens or sprinkle with water and if it gets too wet add more scrunched-up paper and give it a stir.
  • The creatures that compost our waste need oxygen just like us. During Spring and Summer, they are more active and need a steady supply. To keep them happy, give the compost a stir with a garden fork every couple of weeks to put air into the compost.
  • A bin should be between 3’ x 3’ x 3’ and 5’x 5’ x 5’.  A bin that is too small cannot retain enough heat. If the bin is too large, it won’t get enough air to the centre of the pile. It is also easier to manage two or three medium bins than one large one.

How do I know when my compost is ready to use?

Composting can take weeks or months and even up to a year depending on the materials you put in and how much air and moisture the compost receives. By turning the compost regularly to incorporate air you should make compost in 3-6 months. In winter it will take longer because cold weather slows the process down.

Finished compost is a dark brown, soil-like layer that you will find at the bottom of your compost bin. It might still contain some bits of materials that have not broken down such as twigs or eggshells, but these can be pulled out and added back to the bin. It may also look quite wet and not have a crumbly texture. If you want to dry it, spread it out in the sun for a few days after you have removed it from the bin.

Your compost bin has a small hatch at the bottom, which you can remove to get at the finished compost, but sometimes it is easier to lift the bin or tip it over to get at the compost and then put the non-decomposed material back into the bin.