How to Compost – Easy Steps to Success

, written by gb flag

Good garden compost ready for spreading onto vegetable beds.

Most things die down at the end of the growing season, but one that definitely gets bigger is the compost heap. What with spent crops from the veg plot and waste generated from preserving the harvest, there’s plenty to add to it.

Which is when the anxiety starts. As a member of my local composting group (something at which my friends have finally stopped rolling their eyes!) I give out advice to the compost-challenged. An awful lot of people find composting difficult – not surprising, given that some instructions sound like a cake recipe. But, unlike a cake, a poorly performing compost heap can always be rescued.

Composting Mistakes

Let’s admit it: no one gets it right all the time. I opened a bin recently to find a busy ant colony (watering dispersed it – ants move in when the heap is too dry). A friend’s heap smelt of ammonia – he’d known that he was adding too much fruit waste but had done it anyway (that sounds familiar!). It was easily sorted by mixing in drier stuff to break up the wet, compacted material (which rots, rather than composts, and produces that pungent stench).

Be patient

Before you think your heap’s not working, it’s worth remembering that composting isn’t fast. Made at the end of the growing season and left to its own devices, a heap is likely to produce usable compost, at least in part, in time for next summer. But it could take longer, depending on how fine a compost you want, what’s in the heap, even the weather. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Honest, usable compost in over a year is not a failure. Not if you like to take things easy.

Basic Composting Needs

However, for those of us who fidget (OK, that’s me), compost is achievable in a much shorter time. You need to keep an eye on a heap’s basic needs: warmth, moisture, air, carbon and nitrogen. And you’ll need to turn the heap. If you’ve got a bad back, this probably isn’t for you.

Recycled pallet composter
Compost bin made from recycled pallets

So, warmth. Ensure that your heap or bin measures at least 3’ x 3’ x 3’ (1m³), preferably more. Those dinky little bins shaped like beehives? Ignore them. A bigger volume of material gives the bacteria more to work on, so it heats up more easily and stays hot longer. And moisture is easy too. Your bin’s contents should be as wet as a squeezed-out sponge. Water if necessary and protect from the rain to prevent excess sogginess. As far as air is concerned, you can tell from the "leave it" method above, enough will penetrate to create compost. But nothing speeds up a heap like turning its contents, introducing oxygen back into the centre, firing up the bacteria. With these three elements looked after, your heap should be breaking down all that nitrogen and carbon as fast as its bacteria can say "aerobic respiration".

Composting Ingredients

The carbon and nitrogen demands cause the most worry. Best described as "browns" and "greens", carbonaceous (brown) material is dry, dead matter, such as old stalks, egg boxes, twigs, sawdust; nitrogenous (green) material is sappy and damp, such as grass cuttings, vegetable peelings, rotting fruit. Mixing these in approximately equal amounts is easiest, though up to a ratio of 1:2 is usually OK.

Woody prunings for shredding
Woody prunings need to be shredded or chopped up before adding to compost

Whatever you add, make sure that it’s well chopped up. Chunky material like broccoli stalks should be crushed (now’s the time to indulge in some good hammer-thumping therapy) or well chopped with a spade. This opens up the insides, allowing bacteria to get to work faster. Mature prunings are best put through a shredder, though cutting them up small with secateurs is better than nothing. You want small pieces that mix together easily, so the browns and greens are well distributed and not all in one lump.

What Not to Add to Compost Heaps

In theory, a heap like this heats up sufficiently (to 140°F for several days) to kill off weed seeds and plant pathogens. But really, I wouldn’t risk it. You just can’t guarantee that every part of your heap gets hot enough for long enough, even with several turnings. So, diseased and invasive plants are best burnt or thrown out. Brassicas with club root, onions with white rot, mildewed leaves – all out. Blighted tomatoes are contentious – now an airborne fungus, blight is, some argue, fine to put in the heap. But again, I wouldn’t risk it. Composting perennial nasties like bindweed, mare’s tail and ground elder just isn’t worth the danger of spreading them round the garden.

Otherwise, it’s up to you what you’ll tolerate. Every year, tomato seedlings spring up like weeds in my beds, but it doesn’t bother me. Some I let grow; others feed the compost bin. If you don’t want self-sown plants, ensure that seed heads are removed before you add plants to your heap.

Happy composting!

Helen Gazeley is a UK garden expert who writes for Kitchen Garden Magazine and her own blog Weeding the Web

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Comments

 
"Pick a sunny, convenient to the garden area. Start with 7(or8 if you dont want a common center wall) wooden pallets.Lay the first one on the ground as a base platform. Doing this allows air to get beneath the pile. Screw on the other 3 sides. Repeat the process right beside this one.Start with a layer of carbon material(browns). I like to start with fluffed straw OR shredded leaves.( every year save as many giant trash bags full of shredded leaves as you can afford to store, this is like GOLD to the succesful home gardner.Next, add a layer of Nitrogen(greens), both layers about 6" thick, give or take, not critical. Next, a layer of either finished compost(preferred) or fairly good top or garden soil. This step introduces the proper bacteria. You can also use any number of "compost starter" products that are on the market.Next, wet this down with your garden hose. Continue this process " LASAGNA STYLE" until the bin is full. This may happen all at once or it may take weeks.Keep the pile covered with your choice of tarp material to keep in the heat and the rain out from washing away the nutrients.Every two weeks , give or take, use a good quality pitch fork and toss the pile into the adjacent bin, fluff tossing it in the air as best as you can, to introduce the catylist "OXYGEN". This is great physical cardio exercise which is how you should think of this chore. Your body will thank you for this calorie burning pleasure!You will have finished compost in 6 to 8 weeks, and a lot of it! TIP: If you need more greens, go to your local supermarket and negotiate with the produce manager for you to provide a barrel and haul away for "FREE" (their benefit)produce waste.(they, along with restaurants, accumulate enormous amounts of waste that they must pay to have it disposed of)Do NOT use grass clippings unless you are sure that they are chemical free in terms of lawn treatment. Although unnessasary, you can use a long stem thermometer to gage when to turn the pile by monitoring the heat.140 is ultimate but 100 to 120 is normal."
Tom on Sunday 14 August 2011
"Hi do tea bags go in the heap and if so can you put in to many [heavy tea drinkers]"
TONY WOODS on Monday 15 August 2011
"Yes and no"
TJ on Monday 15 August 2011
"Hi, Tony. I'd sort of agree with TJ on the teabags, but it does depend on the teabags as there's been a bit of a to-do (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jul/02/teabags-biodegradeable) recently about the fact that most teabags, certainly in the UK, contain a small amount of polypropylene which doesn't decompose. Personally, I don't want to add this to the soil, as the plastic will gradually build up, albeit in small amounts. You could sieve the compost, and if your compost has had lots of teabags added, you'll probably find a lot of fluffy net on the sieve's mesh. Advice is to tear open the teabags (tedious) or use loose leaf tea (those mugs with an inbuilt diffuser are great). Thanks, Tom, for the lasagne-style method. It's certainly possible to make compost fast with some hard work, but it takes dedication and fitness! I've never had much success with layering. Grass clippings tend to be a big part of people's bins and very easily clump into a matted blanket that doesn't compost well. To avoid this, whenever I add anything to the heap, I make sure I mix it well into the top few inches of what's already in there. "
Helen Gazeley on Tuesday 16 August 2011
"THANKS for the thing about the polypropylene [glad you can spell it], in tea bags I thought they had not decomosed enought ,as of the lasagne we have been told we are having a delivery of fresh manure sunday morning[bang goes the lie in] would this be goog for layering instead of cheese even thou it's fresh."
TONY WOODS on Wednesday 17 August 2011
"Manure is a great additional layer, just make sure it COMPLETELY composts"
TJ on Wednesday 17 August 2011
"If you use organic tea bags they completely decompose"
Sue Paskins on Sunday 21 August 2011
"There's another way to compost if you're lazy like me, but it also has the advantage of keeping rodents and other animals away. This way was recommended to me by Pat Welsh who wrote the (huge) book on gardening in Southern CA. Her daughter researched it thoroughly. It's a great drum composter by Joraform that is insulated. comes in 2 sizes. We got the big one since we have a garden!(http://www.whitelotusliving.com/jora-composter-jk125-p143.html) "
Jan on Wednesday 24 August 2011
"I must tell you that I bought a BIG one. All you were supposed to do was put your greens, browns and proper moisture and relax.Every so often you just give it a couple of rotating spins when adding new material and in no time it produces beautiful compost.Bunk! I find it very unable to reach temps very quickly if at all. And the end result doesn't compare to bin posting quality.Mine sits unused right next to my bins. If anybody is interested in buying it, make an offer to include shipping or if your in Western Pa., stop by and pick it up."
T.J. on Wednesday 24 August 2011
"WE ARE VIRGINS TO COMPOSTING, AND WE WOULD LIKE TO THANK YOU FOR THIS BLOG AND ITS GIVEN US SOME GOOD STARTING POINTS, WE WOULD LIKE TO KNOW IF THE WEATHER HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE PRODUCTIVITY OF THE COMPOSTER, EG; COLD WEATHER OR WARM, AS WE LIVE IN NOTTINGHAM ENGLAND, AND WE HAVE HAD A MIXTURE OF WEATHERS NOT ENOUGH SUN, DOES THIS MATTER.ALSO CAN YOU PUT EGG SHELLS INTO A COMPOSTER"
WENDY WILSON on Friday 2 September 2011
"Crushed egg shells are great, keep the pile covered, bigger is better."
tj on Friday 2 September 2011
"Hi, Wendy Cold weather can affect the rate of composting, but it doesn't prevent it from happening. Composting slows down in winter, and if possible it's a good idea to position your heap or bin where the sun reaches it, so it can take advantage of the extra warmth. This isn't imperative, though. Egg shells are one of those ingredients that some people are happy with and some aren't. If you do add them, then you should crush them beforehand, as they don't break down easily and you'll probably still find the bits when you turn out the bin. I stopped adding them because I found they attracted rats and would find the shells dragged out from the heap by the little darlings. "
Helen Gazeley on Monday 5 September 2011
"To IDEALY utilize eggshells, place them in your blender with water and LIQUIFY them. Also, add shrimp and lobster shells( see your local restaurant or supermarket )Then, pour this creamy liquid into dry spaghum pete moss ( or dry finished compost ) and blend it together. You can utilize this product in many ways.Add it to your main compost bin or directly to your garden. You can also use a dehumidifer to remove the moisture for longer term storage without spoilage. Your calcium loving plants along with other plants will L O V E you for this concoction.With my compliments!"
TJ on Monday 5 September 2011
"Gardening really starts in the soil. Thinking about what goes on a microscopic, bacterial level is something most of us rarely think about, but proves time and time again to really affect the quality and abundance that our garden yields. Investing in soil inoculants means investing in the health and fertility of your soil for years to come. I think more people should be aware and this site, http://www.biositechnology.com/, is a great resource to get all garden enthusiasts on a path toward a better and healthier harvest!"
intie on Wednesday 7 September 2011
"Use Composting bin to compost food and garden waste and save the environment. Composting bin effortlessly reduces and recycles home, food and garden waste into great compost. For more detailed information visit http://www.hotbincomposting.com"
HotBin Composting on Thursday 12 January 2012
"I'm planning construction of a new composter. The space is approx. 6 ft by 3 ft so two bins, or one big one. My question is this: While the concept of laying a pallet flat on the bottom of the bin for aeration makes sense to me, doesn't that bottom pallet eventually "fill up" after a while with compost? Sorry if that is a silly question. Thank you."
Megan O'Shaughnessy on Thursday 4 July 2013
"I'd put two bins into the space, Megan. I wouldn't bother with a pallet on the bottom. It's not necessary, especially if you have two bins and turn one into the other. "
Helen on Thursday 4 July 2013
"Megan,the pallets are free. DO NOT skip the bottom pallet.Make sure to build the sides so that it can be freely removed. Two things though : make sure the slats (boards) are running from front to back.Also,start the pile with at least 12" of fluffed up straw. The straw will delay the filling of the spaces and when you turn the pile, try to not totally dig into it. Eventually, the bottom pallet will Sift finished compost in between the openings. You then simply lift the pallet a wallah; shovel ready black gold already sifted. The reason the boards are from front to back is that as the compost gets really finished or when you empty the bin into the next, you will need a flat head shovel which will glide smoothly on the boards as opposed to snagging on them if they were left to right.Sounds like I've done this for decades huh? "
TJ on Thursday 4 July 2013
"I just noticed your comment about Jora, T.J., albeit from ages ago, but in case you still check back once in awhile, if you still have your Jora composter I would be glad to speak with you to help pinpoint where your problem is. My Jora heats up just fine and it even steams when I open it. I've sold some to friends in our town and they swear by them, too. The manufacturer is also great with advice on how to solve problems. You can reach me via my website www.whitelotusliving.com. Just go to the Contact us section. Take care!"
Jan on Thursday 10 July 2014
"I have 9 pallet composters all in theshade. I don't layer like most suggest, I just add things to the pile adhocly, leaves, food (no meat), garden waste, dirt from old pots, etc. I rotate/turn the bins once a year. All breaks down into a brown dirt which I reuse in my garden and planters. Is this compost valuable doing it this way or am I wasting my time?"
Cindi on Thursday 10 March 2016
"Hi Cindi. It sounds like you are doing just fine. While layering might be better, adding things bit by bit should create a good mix - and your turning the compost will definitely help to speed things up."
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 16 March 2016

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