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The A to Z of Composting

Composting is defined as the method of mixing vegetable and other organic waste together and allowing them to decompose. Our A – Z is designed to provide you with useful and interesting information when it comes to composting in your garden.

Almost half of food waste in our rubbish bins could have been put into a compost bin. In 2007 over 6,700,000 tonnes of waste was generated by domestic households. Things that we throw away the most are potatoes, bread slices, apples and salads. All of these could have been added into a compost bin.  

Browns when it comes to composting at home include the following:
  • ashes from wood, paper and lumpwood charcoal
  • bedding from vegetarian pets
  • corn cobs and stalks
  • corrugated cardboard, paper (scrunched up) and shredded newspaper
  • cotton threads and string (made from natural fibre)
  • crushed egg shells
  • dry leaves
  • egg and cereal boxes
  • feathers
  • garden prunings 
  • old natural fibre clothes (cut into small pieces)
  • twigs and hedge clippings
  • sawdust and wood chippings 
  • shredded documents
  • straw and hay
  • tissues, paper towels and napkins
  • toilet and kitchen roll tubes
  • vacuum bag contents
  • wool
  • woody clippings
These ‘brown’ materials are a source of carbon and provide energy for the microbes in your compost bin. The bulkiness of many of these brown materials also makes it easier for oxygen to penetrate and nourish the organisms within the compost pile. 

Certain things should never be added to your compost bin / compost heap. These are:

  • baby’s nappies
  • cat litter
  • cooked vegetables
  • diseased plants
  • dog poo
  • meat and dairy products

Putting any of these items into your compost might encourage unwanted pests and also create unpleasant odour. Other items which shouldn’t be added include:
  • glass
  • metals
  • perennial weeds (dandelions, thistles etc)as they can spread when you use the compost
  • weeds with seed heads
  • plastics

Different materials will decompose at different rates. If you want to speed up the composting process, cut larger materials into smaller pieces. 

Essential for composting to take place are moisture and heat. If you’re compost bin comes with a lid this will help to keep heat in. If it doesn’t – and many don’t – then cover the top of the bin with wood, plastic sheeting, carpet scraps, tarpaulin etc anything which will keep the heat in but can be lifted off when you need to add more materials. A lid or cover will also prevent the material from being over-watered by rain – you just need to make sure that the material within the compost bin remains moist so you might need to water it occasionally if it isn’t getting sufficient rain.  

From refuse to riches is the mantra of all gardeners who have a compost heap or bin. The aim is always to produce ‘black gold’ from what otherwise would have been simply garden and kitchen waste filling up the landfill sites. Perfect for the thrifty gardeners, organic gardeners and eco friendly gardeners you will in fact be getting something for nothing, a thing all gardeners like to achieve. 

Greens when it comes to composting at home include the following:
  • coffee grinds and filter paper
  • grass cuttings
  • green leaves
  • old flowers and nettles
  • rhubarb leaves
  • spent bedding plants
  • tea bags
  • vegetable peelings, salad leaves, fruit scraps
  • young annual weeds (e.g. chickweed)
These ‘green’ materials provide nitrogen and act as a source of protein for the microbes that are hard at work in your compost bin.
Remember – every time you add green material add some brown material as well to keep a good moisture balance and create air pockets. The rule of thumb is to have a ratio of one thirds green materials to two thirds brown materials.

Heat is needed to make composting succeed. As the microorganisms within your compost pile work they generate heat. The hotter your compost pile, the faster you’ll get compost ready to use. Your compost heap can reach as high as 160*F – the ideal composting temperature is between 110-140*F.  

Influencing factors when selecting the best compost bin for you should include:
  • the amount of material you will have to add to the compost bin
  • the size of your garden
  • how quickly you want to have compost ready to use.

Jump starting the composting process in your compost bin is easy and doesn’t need to cost you any money. Simply follow one of these few simple suggestions to ensure your composting gets off to a good start:
  • Add In Animal Manure – animal manure is nitrogen rich and nitrogen is a protein for the microorganisms living in your compost pile. Ideally add the manure so that it is spread evenly throughout the compost pile – so minimizing the chance of hot spots within the pile.
  • Add In Garden Soil – garden soil contains thousands of bacteria –bacteria which you want to start chomping through all the materials in your compost bin. Just 2-3 spades full of garden soil added to a 3ft x 3ft x 3ft compost pile is the perfect amount – anymore and it can weigh the compost pile down leading to water-logged compost. 
  • Add In Some Finished Compost – compost ready to use on your garden will be full of microorganisms, so adding a 2” think layer on top of your compost pile will jumpstart waste decomposition.
Key to getting good compost is getting the mix right. You need to keep your green and brown materials (explained elsewhere on the list) properly balanced. If your compost is too wet or gives off an odour, adding more brown materials should solve the problem. Whereas, if your compost is dry and not rotting down they the best plan is to add more green materials into the mix. When mixing in more waste materials you’ll also be getting more air into the pile – air is vital to keep your compost healthy. 

Leaves, especially if you have a large garden, can be available in too large a volume to all be added into a standard compost bin (you’d be tampering with the brown/green material mix). So you can compost leaves on their own – using a compost bin or making a pile of leaves in a shaded area of your garden. To do this effectively the pile of leaves should be at least 4ft in diameter and 3ft in height. Between each ft in height add a layer of dirt. Then keep a check of the moisture level – there should be sufficient moisture such that removing a handful from the centre of the pile and squeezing will make a few drops of moisture appear. A pile of this type should take between 4-6 months to turn into rich, dark, crumbly leaf compost ready to dig into your soil. 

Microorganisms are what are responsible for turning your mix of waste materials into nutrient rich compost. Microorganisms don’t actually create nutrients themselves – rather, as they work they break down ‘complex’ materials into simple ones that your plants can use. There are basically two types of microorganism which you’d find in your compost pile – ‘aerobic’ which require air to work and ‘anaerobic’ which don’t need air to work. To ensure air is available to the aerobic microorganisms simple turn the compost pile regularly – about once every fortnight.     

Nutrient rich, when your compost is ready to use it will not only be rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, it will also help to improve soil structure, maintain moisture levels and keep your soil’s pH balance in check.

Odours should be minimal if you’ve got the correct mix of materials in your compost bin. However, if you start to get an unpleasant odour you need to see if something is going wrong. Here are the first things to check to get rid of any unpleasant odour:
  • Make sure the compost pile is properly aerated – a healthy compost pile needs to have plenty of oxygen mixed in, so regularly turning the material within your compost bin will add oxygen. When there is insufficient oxygen aerobic bacteria will not function and decomposition will be done by anaerobic bacteria which, as a side effect of working produce foul smelling odours. 
  • Check that the balance of brown and green materials which make up your compost pile are correctly balanced. Green materials are nitrogen rich whilst brown materials are a good source of carbon. If your compost pile starts to give off a smell similar to ammonia there balance of green materials is too high and you need to add in more brown materials to correct the balance. 
  • Make sure the wrong materials have not been added into the compost bin by mistake. Remember that your compost pile should remain free of meats and dairy products as these will go rancid and emit foul odours. If these have been added into the compost pile then the only way to get rid of the odour is to remove them – if they have been in a long time this might mean burying the whole compost pile and starting afresh. 

Pick the perfect spot for your compost bin or pile. If your compost bin is open at the base then you want to situate it on a level, well drained spot in the garden. Ideally the bin should be in a spot which will get a reasonable amount of sun - if your compost bin is in the shade all day, decomposition will still happen, but it will be much slower, especially during colder months. The open base of the compost bin also lets worms get in and out of the compost heap with ease, helping to break down the content.

Quick composting can be achieved by ensuring you carry out the following activities:
  • Size matters – when it comes to quick composting size matters. The best size for a traditional compost pile is 3ft square and 3ft high. This size enables heat to build up within the pile – heat indicates that microorganisms are working quickly – the quicker they work the faster waste material is converted into compost. Smaller or larger compost piles have been found not to heat up as quickly as a 3ft pile – less heat means slower composting.
  • Aerate the compost pile – although aerating your compost pile is not a necessity, it will help to speed up the decomposition process. Research has found that by ‘turning’ the compost pile every 3-5 days should result in compost ready to use after approximately 6 months.  
  • Shred it – the smaller the materials you add to you compost heap the faster they will break down. So, ideally shred or chop up the materials you are adding into your compost bin. Research has shown that if you use a blender to cut up your kitchen scraps this will make composting even quicker!
  • Moisture Matters – the ideal moisture level is described as ‘a well-wrung sponge’. If your compost pile is to dry or is soggy or waterlogged the composting time will slow down drastically.
  • Get the recipe right – your compost pile should have a mix of 2/3rds green material to 1/3 brown material. If this mix is maintained the composting process should take place at the correct rate. 

Regularly add material into your compost bin as this gives the bacteria some fresh food to consume. You should never be short of things to add – research has shown that up to 30% of household waste could be put into a compost bin rather than the rubbish bin!

Spring is the ideal time to start composting as you’ll have lots of weeds and vegetable matter to add and with temperatures starting to increase what you add into your compost bin will break down more easily. However, you can start using a compost bin at any time of year – for example in the autumn you would have lots of materials to add as you tidy your garden, this material would decompose through the autumn / winter months just at a slower rate than during the spring/summer.

Turning the contents of your compost bin helps to provide oxygen and mixes up the decaying materials making composting more effective and efficient. You can turn the pile with a pitchfork or compost aerator specially designed for the purpose. You should turn the contents every week or two and after turning check the moisture level – the compost should be moist, too little moisture will slow down the decomposition process, too much moisture and you’ll end up with a slimy mess. 

Unusual things that you can add to your compost bin include:
  • cooked grains
  • cork
  • dry pet food
  • hair
  • liquids from tinned fruit or vegetables
  • masking tape
  • old beer or wine
  • old herbs and spices which have lost their smell 
  • old rawhide dog chews
  • pet fur
  • pure cellophane bags
  • shrimp shells 
  • stale bread
  • wheat bran
Vermicomposting is the practice of using worms to turn your waste into nutrient rich compost. Using worms ensures faster composting – they can eat up to half their own body weight in food every day. What you end up with at the end of the process is vermicompost, a nutrient rich organic fertiliser and soil conditioner. 

Wait a while – be patient when making compost. With a traditional compost bin it can take between 9-12 months for your compost to be ready to use. When it’s ready to use the compost should be dark brown and smell nice and earthy. It should also be slightly moist and have a crumbly texture. It may still contain some larger bits which haven broken down far enough – simply sift these out and throw back into the compost bin. 

Xylophgous insects (wood eating insects such as termites) have an insatiable appetite for all things wood. Together with other physical decomposers (ants, centipedes, earthworms etc) these insects break large pieces of organic matter in your compost pile into smaller pieces that the microorganisms can consume. The chances of you having xylophgous insects in your compost pile will depend on the amount of woody materials which you add as they will only appear when there are woody materials to be eaten. And you don’t need to worry if you do have termites in your compost pile – those that like compost piles are not the same type which eat dry, seasoned wood. 

Yeast is a type of fungi and can be used as an activator when composting.  Adding brewers yeast to your compost pile will speed up decomposition and increase heat. For gardeners practicing vermiculture or raise worms in the compost pile for their castings, the addition of yeast increases the growth of worms and hence the quality and quantity of the worm castings produced. 

Zoo manure compost, zoo poo or exotic manure are the terms used to describe a compost made from manure from herbivore animals in zoos – camels, elephants, giraffes, ostrich, wildcat, zebra etc – mixed in with hay, straw or wood shavings and can be used as a nutrient rich soil improver, helping soil to retain water and nutrients whilst also improving the soil texture. Although many of us will not have access to zoo poo, animal waste from chickens, cows, horses, pigs, rabbits etc can be used in the same manner.

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