26 Oct 2011

How to make your own compost

Posted by bcsands

Making your own compost is a great way to help the environment while helping your own garden!

What can I compost?

Almost any kind of rubbish that was once alive can be composted. This includes grass cuttings, leaves, fruit and vegetables and their peelings, tea bags, egg shells and coffee grounds. Don’t use dairy products, fats, meat, bones, cooked food, disposable nappies or cat litter – or anything that might attract flies or animals.

How do I get started on compost?

Composting doesn’t have to be a complicated process. The simplest way to start is simply to build up a compost heap in the bottom of your garden; however, you might find it more convenient to contain your compost in something. A rough bin made of wood or concrete blocks works well (don’t forget to leave plenty of gaps in the walls for air to circulate) or you can buy a purpose-designed composter. Ideally your pile should sit directly on the soil, so it will benefit from soil-based organisms, or you can mix a little soil in with your blend.

To keep neighbourly relationships sweet, keep your compost heap away from any communal fences – especially ones with windows or patios nearby!

There are two ways of composting: ‘hot composting’ and ‘cold composting’.

Cold composting
Cold composting is simple, but slow. Simply pile vegetable materials such as grass cuttings, fruit, vegetables, leaves etc. (but not weeds) on the ground or in a bin and leave it alone. It will gradually decompose over six months or a year. You can speed the process up by shredding the material and/or covering the pile with a layer of soil.

Hot composting

Hot composting is a more involved process, but a much faster one. With hot composting you need to think a bit more about what you are putting in to get the right mix of nitrogen, carbon, water and air – the four elements needed for successful hot composting.

Nitrogen comes from green matter like grass cuttings, and fruit and vegetable peelings. Dry, brown garden waste like twigs and dead leaves will give you your carbon, or you could add straw or sawdust. The pile should be moist, but not soggy and you will give your pile air by turning it regularly.

Start by collecting your green and brown materials. You need roughly the same amount of each and your final pile should be around 1m3 in quantity – in other words, about 1m deep and 1m across. As with cold compost, shredded materials will give you a faster result. Mix your materials well, adding a little soil, and a little water to keep the mixture moist, and then cover the pile to protect it from rain while you wait for it to heat up.

Your compost will heat up naturally, reaching a maximum internal temperature in approximately a week. If you want to be precise, you can use a compost thermometer to check. When it starts to cool a little, it’s time to turn it – in other words, give it a thorough mix with a garden fork. The temperature will build again and in a week or so it will be ready for another mix. Continue doing this for another two or three weeks and your compost should be ready.

Compost problems

If you notice any bad smells the pile may be too wet or need air – turning the pile should help, or removing food scraps. A smell of ammonia means the pile has too much nitrogen and you should add some more dry, brown materials (if you’ve run out of leaves you can use paper towels, napkins, newspaper or brown paper bags). If the pile is too hot, this is another indicator of too much nitrogen and you should add more brown materials.

The most common problem with compost is that nothing happens! This means that you may need to add more nitrogen, water or air. Check that the pile is moist, give it a good mix and add some more grass clippings and then wait, checking the temperature regularly.

How can I tell if my compost is ready?

Finished compost is rather like a rich soil, dark and crumbly with an earthy smell. Don’t worry if some materials have not finished composting – you can fish them out and put them back on the pile to continue breaking down while you use the compost that is ready.

Mix your lovely rich compost with your soil and you will have a wonderful growing medium for your plants. You can also use it as mulch around existing trees and shrubs.

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