How to Make Your Own Compost Quickly and EasilyColin Campbell-Preston
Follow our easy step-by-step guide and start making your own compost fertiliser from organic matter. We’ll cover why you’d want to make your own compost, what materials should be included (and what to avoid) and how to tend to the process to ensure the best results.
Why make compost?
Adding compost to the ground restores depleted soil, helps retain moisture and fuels the growth of your plants. It’s also a great way to recycle both kitchen and garden waste – potentially putting up to a third of materials to good use that would otherwise find their way into the rubbish bin.
You can make your own nutrient-rich compost without the need to buy or use chemical fertilisers, benefiting the environment – and you’ll get healthier, happier plants in the process. Compost improves the soil structure, aerating the soil and helping to ward off plant disease. Making your own is free, easy and fun – so give it a go and take pride in producing your own fabulous natural organic fertiliser.
The compost ‘bin’
You have various options for your compost ‘bin’. The simplest way is to buy a cheap moulded plastic bin designed especially for composting, which will be easy to use and require little maintenance. You can also buy ready-made wooden compost bins which cost a bit more but look nicer. Another option is to build your own – there are loads of easy DIY designs on YouTube, depending on what materials you have. Palettes and wire are both popular ways of creating a DIY bin. The ideal size is about 1 cubic metre, as a larger bin will be more difficult to maintain – but you can build several bins in a row, if you have the space.
Types of composting
There are two types of composting: hot and cold.
Cold composting is really easy – it’s basically a matter of piling up any compostable waste, and allowing it time to decompose naturally. However, because of the ad-hoc way you add materials, it takes more time for them to break down.
Hot composting is slightly trickier. It requires the right materials layered in the right proportions –which speeds up the composting process, meaning that you get more compost, more often.
The type of materials you can add to your compost bin depends on whether you’re hot or cold composting.
For cold composting, you can use organic materials such as grass clippings, leaves and soil. Take care not to include weeds – the cold compost pile won’t reach high temperatures so weed seeds will either start growing in your compost heap or end up in your flower beds down the line!
If you have food scraps such as vegetable peelings, you can include these but you should bury them in the centre of the pile – otherwise, they will attract insects and animals.
You can compost used ground coffee and loose tea or compostable tea bags. The majority of tea bags are not compostable, so you’ll need to tear them open before adding the tea to the compost heap.
Dried food, such as flour, spices, dried pasta or crackers, is fine too. Eggshells, nutshells, cooked pasta, seaweed, shredded paper or newspaper and even hair can also go on the pile.
Don’t add meat, dairy products or fat. You can add some animal manure – horse manure for example – but don’t add cat, dog or human faeces.
Although cold composting involves simply throwing whatever you have onto the pile as you go, it does speed things up if you can alternate the compost in layers – interlacing dry and woody materials with moister greens such as veg scraps. Make sure you’ve always got some brown material on standby to cover your food scraps, or you’ll quickly attract insects, rodents and pests to the pile.
Your compost will be ready in about 8 months to a year. If this seems like a long time, you could set up several compost bins to use in rotation. Turning the pile to help the air get to it from time to time will also help speed up the process.
Hot composting is all about layering your materials in the right quantities. You need to layer two parts ‘high carbon’ materials, with one part ‘high nitrogen’ material.
High carbon materials are typically ‘dry’ – these include leaves, twigs, woody stems, shredded paper (but not glossy magazine paper), cardboard, straw and pine needles. Don’t use material from pruning – this would need to be shredded first before it could be composted. Sawdust is very high in carbon – a little too high, in fact. If you have some to dispose of, use it very sparingly and mix it well with other materials.
High nitrogen materials are usually ‘moist’ – these include vegetable scraps, grass clippings, soft hedge clippings, weeds (which are fine to use for hot composting), ground coffee and tea, and green plants – but as with cold composting, you should avoid meat, dairy and fat. You can use animal manure (such as horse manure) but don’t put cat, dog or human faeces in.
Start your pile with a layer of high carbon – adding plenty of twigs and stems here to get the air circulating into the pile. Cover this layer with soil. Then, add your high nitrogen materials, followed by another layer of soil. Keep going until you have about 2 to 3 feet of material.
Give your pile a good soak with water and do this regularly going forward. The aim is to get the pile damp, like a sponge, rather than soaking wet. For this reason, you’ll need to keep the pile covered so that it is not exposed to the weather.
Air is essential to the process of hot composting – and you can help things along by pushing lengths of hollow pipe into your pile, or punching holes in the sides. It also helps to have a compost thermometer or an old kitchen thermometer to hand, in order to check the temperature of your pile towards the middle. A good temperature would be between 55 and 65 degrees Celsius. If your pile isn’t generating heat, add more high nitrogen ingredients.
If your pile starts to smell, flip it to introduce more air and double-check you haven’t accidentally introduced any meat or dairy. If it smells unpleasant and it’s very warm, then it may have too much nitrogen – introduce some high carbon materials to restore the correct balance.
You’ll need to turn the pile once a week, or when the pile starts to cool down. The aim is to move the materials from the centre to the outside. If you turn the pile more often, your compost will be ready sooner.
With hot composting, your compost will be ready to use in about three months – or less if you’ve been helping it get plenty of air. The finished compost should be brown, sweet smelling and crumbly – ready to dig into the garden.
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