Updated: Mar 22, 2021
I became passionate about producing my own compost, in the early years of my gardening life. I hadn’t even begun thinking about composting when I won a fantastic competition run by Wiggly Wigglers, and landed myself a 200 litre capacity beehive composter. First of all, I was ecstatic because I’d never won a competition before and secondly it was exactly what my garden needed and it set me off on an exciting journey of discovery.
To begin with I went headlong into composting everything! With no knowledge of what I was doing or what conditions the process required in order for it to be a success. My composter became very full, very quickly. I closed the lid and decided to just forget about it. And so it was many many months later, during the Autumn that I just happened to be passing by the composter and I thought I’d just take a look inside and I was shocked to see that it was full of black dirt. I initially thought someone had added compost to it but when I started to dig down further I realised it was full of this gorgeous rich dark compost! I could not have been happier and to get such a fantastic result with no knowledge or effort on my part, was astonishing. I vowed to research this incredible process. The transformation of garden debris and food scraps into this useable growing medium blew my mind. I was instantly hooked and read everything I could find on composting. I realised slowly all the mistakes I had made and why it had taken so long for the debris to decompose in my composter.
I’d like to share some of my thoughts on home composting and some of the processes I’ve learnt. First of all if you have the space for a composter, then go for it. Compost is an incredibly valuable resource to your garden and it dramatically reduces the waste you are sending off to landfill or worse incinerator. If you don’t have the space, can I make another little suggestion…try a wormery. You can buy some fantastic worm composters at Wiggly Wigglers which you can easily fit into the smallest of spaces and they are gorgeous enough to be on your patio, giving your pretty planters a run for their money! (they are on my Christmas wish list, I’m a huge fan!) There really is no reason why everybody can’t be producing their own home made compost and with a wormery you get the added bonus of worm tea, a fantastic fertiliser for your garden plants. Even if you live in a flat, like I used to, don’t let the lack of outdoor space prevent you from making your own compost. Bokashi Composters are great way to reduce your kitchen waste and create rich compost in a clean and smell free process.
I could wax lyrical all day long about home composting but for purpose of this blog I’m going to stick to the basic information of Why, What, & How.
One of the very best things you can do for your soil, plants and entire garden is to make good garden compost with as much material from your own soil as possible. One incredible gardener used the analogy that composting was a bit like baking bread, you need to ‘begin with a starter dough and this comes from the existing material from your garden soil, it helps to top up the existing fungal and bacterial levels in your garden.’ When growing new plants for your garden, it’s a good idea to mix in your own home made compost, so that they become accustomed and connected to the existing fungi and living micro-organisms in your soil before being planted out into your boarders. All plants need three vital things to survive, water, air and nutrients...compost provides all three.
Not only is composting good for your garden but it keeps so much waste going to landfill. If everyone created their own compost, there would be less need to buy plastic bags of compost each Autumn to mulch your boarders. Home composting means less waste to landfill (or worse to an incinerator), less plastic production, reduced carbon footprint and it eliminates the need to destroy natural habitats by excavating peat. It also saves you money, why buy it when you can make it for free and help the planet out a little at the same time.
What is compost?
Compost is the decomposing of organic material into a complex substance called humus. However, as detailed in our book recommendation, Compost by Ken Thompson, ‘only a small fraction of the organic material is eventually turned into humus. Most disappears, returning back to the carbon dioxide, water and minerals it once was.’ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this book, I know what you are thinking, how interesting can a book about dirt be? But I assure you it’s fascinating and well worth a read.
Compost is not created by rotting organic material, in fact it is the organic material being broken down by the process of digestion by bacteria, fungi, earthworms, many insects, invertebrates, nematodes and even slugs and snails help out (albeit probably not consuming the organic material you want them too). Good home made compost is precious and you can never have enough of it in your garden.
How do I compost?
First you decide the scale on which you are able to compost, if you only have the space for a wormery then that’s a great start and I will be doing a more in depth blog about worm composting in the future. However, if you are fortunate to have space for a composter and there are many to choose from (detailed below), then these are the key things you need to know;
Firstly you can begin composting at any time of year.
Location is important and any worthwhile composter should have direct contact with the earth. This will encourage the micro-organisms already existing in your soil to contribute to the composting process, it also allows any liquid from the process to drain into the soil rather than leaving a smelly puddle.
Ingredients for a good home made compost are made up of two elements, Carbon and Nitrogen. Carbon generally is considered brown waste, which is woody or dead material, shredded paper, used tissues, egg boxes and cardboard. Nitrogen consists of, grass cuttings, soft prunings, vegetable waste, tea bags (plastic free of course) cotton, coffee grounds, floor sweepings, vacuum dust, hair and nail clippings. Like all good things in nature the compost heap requires balance and the quantity’s of each ingredient are very important. There are various recommendations you can follow which go into a lot of detail about ratio’s but to begin with the simple ratio to remember is to add twice as much carbon as nitrogen to your heap. Should your compost become too wet or smelly then the likelihood is that it is too nitrogen rich and more carbon needs to be added. Shredded paper is the key and will pretty much save any composting errors. If you want to learn more about the ratios and other elements to consider such as calcium and alkalinity then I would encourage you to research because it’s a fascinating world and worth getting to know.
The composting process requires three things, air flow, moisture and heat.
Air flow - most composters are designed with slats or air holes of some degree, this is because composting is an aerobic process, if the compost heap runs out of air it becomes anaerobic, the decomposition slows down and smelly odours are produced - turning the compost increases air flow
Moisture - all the micro-organisms and other life forms contributing to your compost heap need moisture and therefore so does your compost, moisture is produced as some green waste decomposes but additional moisture can be added, either by rain (leaving your lid open) or adding water from your water butt
Heat - the heat is produced by the composting process, however if the temperature starts to drop turning the heap can help activate it again
After about 6-8 months (depending on all the above elements) you should have a usable rich dark compost to use in your garden or start mixing up your own batches of potting mix, adding either vermiculite, grit or leaf mould. If you intend on using your compost for potting mixtures, it’s always good practise to sieve your compost first (a process I thoroughly enjoy). This can be hard going but there are some fantastic tools out there to assist in this area, such as a Clarke Rotary Soil Compost Sieve (another one from my Christmas wish list!) or if you have the muscles for it a hand held garden sieve will do the trick. It is possible, if you are just using it for mulching boarders to add it directly. The good news about composting, is that even if you don’t do anything, if you forget to turn it or you add the wrong ratios, you will in approximately 12 months have produced perfectly good compost, even without all the science.
Just a few key things to note. First is whether or not to compost weeds, this is a big debate. I do compost mine but only after they have completely dried out, in the vain hope that I will be able to generate enough heat in my composter to kill off the weed seeds. However it is unlikely that a home composter will be able to generate enough heat to eliminate diseases or pathogens so I try not to compost anything I feel may cause more problems later down the line. But the general rule of thumb is... “if in doubt, leave it out”. My one big recommendation when it comes to composting, whether it is large composters, worm composters or leaf mould, is…chop, chop, chop. If you add large bits of debris it takes much longer to break down and therefore takes up more surface area space for longer. If you chop everything down into smaller pieces not only does this speed up the decomposition process it also allows you to add more and doesn’t take up as much surface area. It kind of gives you a head start! If you have a shredder (I wish I still had mine!) then this is great for the woody material but a lawn mower works well too or simply taking a pair of shears to it works well too.
Leaf mould, which I haven’t really discussed in much detail, is invaluable to any potting shed and just like compost, I encourage everyone to make it. It may even be a little easier to start with than composting. And now is certainly the time of year to start thinking about (I will be writing a blog about leaf mould over the coming weeks).
Finally, my thoughts on the types of composters you could use in your garden based on my own personal experience. Please note that none of these suggestions or the above recommendations are paid sponsors (although I wish they were!), they are purely my own personal views.
Types of Composters
Plastic - whilst we practise plastic free gardening, plastic compost bins are very reliable, cheap and last for many many years. There are many schemes available across the country where you can purchase them at a discounted price from your local authority or waste recycling centre. However, I would also check Freecycle and other websites such as Gumtree to see if you can rescue an unwanted one.
Wooden - you can of course go down the wooden route, the beautiful Rowlinson Beehive composters are very attractive and work very well. They are more expensive than the plastic option but well worth it in my opinion. My first composter was a beehive and my current one is too. I thoroughly enjoy working with them and find them very productive. Equally you can make your own out of old pallet wood (add picture of our bins) which we did this year, a second bin allows us to turn the compost from one bin to another allowing increased air flow.
Wire - using chicken wire and stakes, these are easy to construct and are generally used to produce leaf mould but you can easily use them for larger compost by adding cardboard around the sides. I haven’t used this technique but if I had the room I would definitely give it a go, although it would need to be tucked away as it’s not quite so attractive as the Rowlinson Beehive option.
Old Tyres - I haven’t used this technique myself but it seems like an incredible way to keep old tyres out of landfill.
Tumbler Bins - I haven’t had any experience with these although I would like to try one. The process of turning seems to be all the more easier with a tumbler bin, with the bin being attached to a frame, which you operate with a turning handle. Genius! But as far as I can see, are only available in plastic, which I’m sure would be strong enough to outlast any gardener.
Hotbin - Now this is definitely one for my Christmas list! The Hotbin’s main selling point is that it retains its heat all year long and therefore able to produce compost in 30 - 90 days, which is super quick! The innovative design and insulating material keeps the Hotbin hot, its self contained (has a bottom), but boasts that the natural hot environment quickly digests the organic matter so that it doesn’t require turning or any added accelerators or activators. Sounds like heaven to me, the only downside is the cost but as I mentioned Christmas is just around the corner and who knows some of you lucky gardeners may get a delivery from the Hotbin elves!
Worm Composter - we have been very fortunate to have been donated a wormery recently which we are very excited about. We purchased our Starter Pack from Wiggly Wigglers and we are well on our way to producing compost and the glorious worm tea fertiliser. Urbalive worm composters are perfect if you don’t have a great deal of space or if you are looking for something a little more stylish yet functional. They come in four really gorgeous colours and are a great way to get you started on your composting adventure. You can get everything you need at Wiggly Wigglers to get you started and the kits come with instructions, so you don’t need to be worried if you’ve never done it before.
I hope that I have inspired you to try composting, whether it is on a large or small scale, a little goes a long way. If you have any questions or queries about composting please leave them in the comments section or email me and I will be more than happy to answer your queries.