Composting At Home
What I love about making compost at home is that it is both a positive contribution to our community, by helping reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, and also that it is genuinely useful – if not vital – to the health of plants growing at home.
Making compost is really easy to do and only requires a limited investment in equipment. Many local authorities in the UK run schemes that subsidise or cover the complete cost of sourcing the required compost making tools – simply search online to see what schemes are running in your area.
Home made compost will be rich in nutrients and help improve your soil. An average household will generate all the ingredients required to make an excellent compost from normal living including:
- Food peelings
- Egg shells and egg boxes
- Grass cuttings
- Fallen leaves etc.
These simply need to be mixed together in a compost bin placed in the right spot in the garden, and with luck (and ideally an occassional turn of the mixture) you should have perfect compost ready 6-12 months later.
Using the wrong ingredients can attract rats and vermin, lead to bad odours, or indeed recycle diseases over the garden when you apply the compost.
Do NOT use the following:
- Never put in the faeces of any animal that eats meat – eg cats, dogs, foxes etc., and that includes human nappies
- Exclude any weeds with tap roots (eg dandelions) that may not break down in the process, or diseased plants as there is a risk the disease will remain alive in the compost that will eventually be spread around your garden
- Avoid putting seeds in your compost (as they may survive the process) and this includes potato peelings that can germinate from their skin.
- Avoid cooked vegetables as this may lead to your compost rotting – giving off bad odour and attracting animals.
- No dairy products (cheese, milk, yoghurt)
The perfect compost is crumbly – something that can be achieved by balancing ‘wet’ organic material with ‘dry’. The more types of ingredients you use the more nutritious your compost will be.
Wet Organic Material
- Vegetable peelings (not potato)
- Salad leftovers
- Old fruit
- Tea bags
- Coffee (used grounds)
- Grass cuttings (go easy to avoid sludge!)
- Egg shells
- Leaves of weeds (not roots / tap roots)
- Stinging nettles (not roots)
- Old flowers / bedding plants
- Rhubarb leaves
Dry Organic Material
- Egg boxes (torn up)
- Cardboard (torn up / shredded)
- Leaves (go easy as they decompose very slowly)
- Twigs / branches (shredded)
My personal experience is that I do not aim for a perfect outcome but simply compost what I have – when I have it. My compost may look less pretty than shop bought compost when it comes out of the bin, but it very quickly looks like normal soil after application, and my plants seem to love it just the same.
The basic equipment needed is as follows:
- A food caddy
To keep in the kitchen to make it convenient to collect food scraps before taking to your compost bin
- Compost bins
At least two: one for ‘filling’, a second left for ‘maturing’ or storing ready for use
- A stick
Left near your compost bins for scraping out the bits of food that can stuck in your food caddy when you come to empty it
You may want to consider more sophisticated (and expensive) compost bins that rotate to avoid the need to turn compost by hand, and wormeries that speed up the compost making process and create liquid feed.
The compost caddy shown in the picture above makes collecting food scraps easy. It does get dirty (and smelly) so will require regular emptying and cleaning.
The compost bin shown above is the basic option. It has a lid that is easy to remove to fill the bin, and a door at the bottom to allow you to shovel out the compost when it is ready.
Leaving aside aesthetic considerations of placing the bins out of sight, the location of compost bins will affect how quickly they make compost.
The decomposition process requires heat. For this reason some people recommend putting compost bins in partial sun. My preference is to put compost bins in a sheltered and shady part of the garden, to prevent the sun and wind drying out the contents of the compost, and to help preserve heat in them through autumn and into winter.
A list of things to consider when placing compost bins is as follows:
- Compost bins are unlikely to be the prettiest things in your garden, but they can be easily screened by bushes, trees and wooden trellis.
- You will walk to them frequently throughout the year. Consider pathways and any damage that may occur to your lawns.
- Always place them on open soil and not on hard surfaces. You will need worms to enter the bin, otherwise your organic material will rot and become smelly.
- Choose a warm, sheltered spot in your garden that is not exposed to drying wind.
The above picture is the underside of the lid from one of my compost bins that I was currently filling with food scraps. Worms are a composters friend (and a treat for birds when you spread your compost).
I find that worms magically appear in my compost bins after a month or two of adding material, so I have never needed to add worms or other compost accelerators.
Compost is ready to use six to nine months after preparation. This process can be speeded up through regular turning, and is even faster if you are using a wormery.
Having made the investment of money, time and energy to make compost, the remaining question is how and when to use it? If you want to apply it as a soil refresher or feed, the ideal time to add this to your beds is late winter or early spring.
When using your compost it is recommended to mix it with soil 1:1 to prevent it burning leaves or roots of tender plants.
Possible uses of your home made compost are as follows:
- Around the root balls of new plants at planting time
- When digging over beds to help improve soil texture
- As a mulch over flower beds, as a feed, and to suppress weed growth
- Around trunks of fruit trees and bushes in the spring
- As a lawn fertiliser mixed 1:1 with sand and ranked thinly over the grass
I prefer not to use my home made compost for germinating seedlings, as there is a risk that the compost will burn the young plants, and my home made compost is unlikely to be totally free of weed seeds.
Composting is straightforward but there are always unexpected problems that come up along the way. The following is a collection of common mistakes that are made, and things that I have learned along the way.
- Putting you compost bin on a hard surface. This will not enable worms to enter your compost bin, making it likely that you compost heap will rot (with a smell) rather than decompose.
- If nothing happens. It could be that your compost heap is too dry or too cold. The best compost bins keep the heat and moisture inside the bin (ie sealed). If your compost is too dry, try adding some water to kick-start the process.
- Adding cat / dog / fox faeces. Not all animal faeces is the same – or healthy – any faeces from animals that eat meat should be completely avoided.
- Compost takes time to make – the longer you wait the better your compost will be. If you fill up your compost bin by the end of summer the whole compost bin may not be ready to use until the summer the following year (although you can take compost out from the bottom of the bin). The best time of applying compost is in the spring, therefore the compost may not actually be used until March / April of the year after (18 months later!). That is why some people purchase rotary composters or wormeries to speed the process up.
- Two compost bins are better than one, as you can leave one bin to mature whilst filling the other one up. Three bins are better than two, as the third bin can be used to store your fully matured compost until you are ready to use it.
- Keeping a stick near your compost bins is helpful to take out bits stuck at the bottom of your compost caddy.
- Bagging up leaves from deciduous trees (and shredding them) can provide a stock of dry material to add to your compost. Leaves, in general, are not rich in nutrients, but they can help to balance compost if you have a big lawn that produces lots of grass trimmings.
- Remember to add eggshells and egg boxes to your compost heap. Egg shells are full of calcium, and the boxes add dryness to your compost.
- Investigate whether your coffee shop will give you their spent coffee grounds for free. Coffee grounds are full of nitrogen and break down easily.
- Do not worry about ugly looking compost. It will soon look like normal soil and should be at least as good, if not better, than shop bought compost.
- Remember to mix home made compost with ordinary soil to prevent damaging sensitive roots and stems.
- Remember that early spring is the best time to add compost to your beds if you intend to use it as a mulch.
- Food caddies in kitchens can become home to fruit flies. These are harmless but annoying. Remember to keep the lid on the caddy, empty it regularly, and wash it thoroughly after each emptying. You could try putting a plastic bag inside the caddy, and closing the bag with a clothes peg.
- Never put cooked vegetables, meat, or diary products in your compost heap as these can attract pets. If you have done this, the best solution is emptying your compost heap and starting again.
- Too higher quantity of grass cuttings in your compost can turn it to sludge. Try to add more types of ingredients to your compost bin, and remember to turn your compost to mix ingredients and add air.