Compost is one of the most important elements of gardening, a special ingredient that can completely change your gardening landscape. With some special attention, and proper application of compost, your garden can thrive, your plants will grow tall and vibrant, and your fruit and veg yields will increase!
Not only is compost easy to get started with, it’s also a free commodity with numerous benefits. You might be wondering just how to start composting at home, and why you should in the first place? Read along to find out more about composting!
The Benefits of Compost
- Compost is a fantastic alternative to chemical plant feed, some of which can have long term detrimental effects on your soil, and the environment.
- Compost contains all kinds of materials, one of which are microorganisms. These microorganisms are great at breaking down organic matter within soil, and thus help to feed plants. In addition to supplying plants with nutrients, these microorganisms also help to ward off diseases which can damage your plants.
- Compost can help balance the PH level of your soil, aiding plant growth.
- Compost can be produced using kitchen and garden waste, meaning that you can start making your own compost at home. Not only is this a great cost-free way of improving your garden, but it also ensures that less waste goes to landfill.
Now that you know why compost is beneficial, you might be wondering how to get started? The first thing to know is exactly what materials you can or can’t use for composting. Various composters will be able to break down different materials, so it’s important to know what type of composter you have.
One of the key ingredients to whether a compost bin will succeed, or fail, is the ratio of green and brown materials. Green materials are defined as materials which contain large quantities of nitrogen, including grass clippings, weeds, and kitchen scraps. Brown materials are defined as materials which are low in nitrogen and high in carbon, such as leaves, wood, and paper.
Where you place your composter depends entirely on your garden/home setup, generally it’s better to have your composter located on bare soil/ground, this will allow organisms such as insects and microbes easier access (which will help accelerate compost production). However, if you do place your composter on decking or concrete it will still function correctly. One of the great things about composting is that you can do it all year round, so there’s no better time to start than now!
Generally, you want your compost pile to have more brown materials than green, therefore autumn and winter can be very productive for composting, as there is an abundance of fallen leaves. A good rule to apply is that there should be two thirds of brown material, and one third of green material. Too much green material is normally accompanied by an unpleasant smell, so this is one way to know if you have the right balance of materials.
- Meat, bones, fish, and dairy products are difficult to break down, so for most composters it’s not recommended to add them. Hot composters are much more capable of breaking this sort of food down, due to their aerobic decomposition process.
- Adding too many acidic foods to your composter can also cause complications, especially if you are using a worm composter or ‘wormery’.
- Pet poo is another material that shouldn’t ordinarily be added to composters, however you can use bokashi bran to break down animal waste, if you’re using a pet poo wormery.
- Any time you add garden waste to your composter, there is the potential that seeds can start to germinate inside the composter. This isn’t usually a problem, as it is easy enough to identify and remove the shoots of any plants that start to grow.
Now, to actually start your compost, the process is fairly similar whether you have a compost container/bin or if you are starting to compost with an open top composter.
- Start by placing a layer of brown material at the bottom of your container.
- Alternate between brown and green layers.
- If your compost gets too dry you can always add water to it, similarly if your compost gets too wet you can add some more brown materials to absorb moisture. You want to aim for a moist but not wet compost.
- If your composter doesn’t have a lid, you’re going to want to cover it with something to protect it from the elements, and to keep the warm air in, such as a compost duvet.
- Most composters will require turning every couple of weeks, this will help the materials to degrade, and introduce air to the pile. Aeration and heat are key to breaking down materials quickly. If you’re using a hot composter or compost tumbler, this step is taken care of for you.
- Depending on your type of composter, your compost will take between 12 weeks to a whole year to be usable.
- You will know that your compost is ready for use by the feel and smell of it. It should be crumbly in the hand and have a rich earthy smell. If in doubt leave for a few more weeks before using.
Once your compost is ready you can either mix it in with your soil, or you can sprinkle it on top of the soil this can improve insulation during winter and help to maintain moisture. Mixing it in with soil is an effective way to make sure that plants get the nutrients they need, either way the compost will likely end up being mixed to some degree due to worms. Raised beds are an easy way to keep your ratio of compost and soil balanced, and your plants organised.
You can also use your compost for potted plants, simply mix it in with your potting soil. The use of compost with fruit and vegetables will greatly increase the yield of your plants, but if you are using pet poo compost it is best not to use this as you could contaminate your food.
Trees can also benefit from the use of compost, by adding compost to the roots of your trees you can ensure they grow faster and taller and will be more protected against disease. You can also add compost to your lawn to give it an extra boost, you’ll want to separate some of the larger pieces of compost from the mix first. This can be an effective way to boost your soil when mixed with traditional lawn care products.
While the process for composting is relatively similar no matter how you decide to do it, there are different types of composter available which require some slight differences in the way you approach them. Here are just a few of the different types of composters, this is by no means an extensive list, but there should be enough info here for you to make an informed decision as to which one is right for you.
Hot composters are unique in the fact that very few of them require turning of the pile, instead hot composters rely primarily on aerobic decomposition, that is when organic material is exposed to oxygen.
Different hot composters employ this technique in a multitude of different ways, varying between manufacturers. One such hot composter is the Aerobin, which relies on a patented central aeration lung, this allows oxygen to become present throughout the composter, rather than at the top, or edges. Hot composters are much more efficient at breaking down certain types of organic waste than other composters, for example the Aerobin can break down meat and dairy.
Compost production in a hot composter can be as quick as 12 weeks, so if you’re looking for a fast and efficient composting solution, you can’t go wrong with a hot compost bin.
Wormeries, or vermicomposters, are a different type of composting system which relies on the use of worms, specifically tiger worms (Eisenia fetida), to break down organic matter. Tiger worms, unlike earthworms, spend most of their life inhabiting topsoil, and don’t tend to burrow deep into the ground. This makes them ideal for composting in trays, as the shallow environment mimics the earth in which they dwell.
A wormery is normally organised via trays, with the bottom tray housing the worms and any organic matter added to it. The worms eat their way through the organic matter (preferring rotting matter over fresh!) and produce worm castings in the process (worm poo). These castings are known as vermicompost, one of the richest and most efficient types of compost available. Once the worms have finished in one tray, they will seek food in the tray above their current one, working their way through small holes in the bottom of the tray. This process ensures that the worms are always working in an upward direction, allowing you to harvest the rich vermicompost once they have left the bottom tray, this means that no worms are removed from the wormery in the process! There are also pet poo wormeries available, meaning you can turn your pets nasty brown mess into black gold.
One thing to keep in mind about wormeries is that they require more maintenance than a standard composter, without regular organic matter being added, the worms will look for food elsewhere and start to leave the wormery. As worms are living creatures, they also don’t tend to do too well in weather that is too cold or too wet, while this seems to be the climate of the UK, it is recommended that a Wormery is kept under cover during wet weather and insulated or kept inside during cold weather.
A bokashi composter is a great solution for homes with small or non-existent gardens. An easy, no-smell and less messy method of home composting, bokashi composting is a quick fermentation process, originating in Japan. Unlike most other forms of composting, you can add anything to your bokashi bin—including meat and dairy, and you won’t need to turn its contents.
Most bokashi composters are small enough to fit on your kitchen counter, or cupboard, meaning that you can make it part of your kitchen routine when clearing food waste. Simply add your food waste to the bokashi bin with a handful of bokashi bran (a substance filled with beneficial microorganisms) and push down the material. Over time the mix will ferment and start to grow white mould, this whole process is generally odourless, with a slightly sweet smell being a possibility.
In opposition to hot composting, bokashi composting relies on the absence of air to work, therefore it is essential to keep the lid tightly closed whenever it is not being used. The pushing down of material is another element in forcing out air from the mix. Another difference is that once fermented (which takes around 30 days), it is not recommended to be added straight to soil for planting, instead it is best to bury it under a layer of soil for two weeks for a further breakdown of the material, which can then be used for planting.
One way to prepare your bokashi compost for planting is to start a soil factory, a separate area or container where you mix your bokashi compost with soil, leave for a few weeks, and then add to your garden for planting once it’s done. Using a bokashi bin can be a worthwhile investment!
A compost tumbler is a barrel that can be rotated with a crank, or simply by rolling the barrel to aid the mixing up of your organic compostable materials. Using a tumbler for composting will lead to higher temperatures that encourage bacteria within the tumbler to break down your organic materials for compost which you can use within a few weeks.
Some composters come with multiple compartments so that you can store your ready to use compost, while still breaking down garden/food waste.
- If your compost starts to smell very unpleasant it may be that there are certain foods being added which aren’t breaking down, or that there isn’t the right ratio of green and brown material.
- Hedgehogs love to make their homes in compost piles, so be careful whenever you’re turning the compost. Encourage hedgehogs to nest elsewhere by utilising a hedgehog barn or house.
- Worms will inevitably find their way into your composter, no matter what kind you have (provided it’s outside). This is no cause for concern, in fact it’s the opposite, worms will help to break down organic material and create worm castings (worm poo!), this is known as vermicompost, the richest type!
- You can add accelerators to your compost to help speed up the decomposition process, some accelerators can also take the place of garden/kitchen waste in case you have a period where you have less of these.
- If you start to see flies being attracted to your compost, check to see if there is any food waste which is uncovered. Simply add some brown garden waste on top of the food, this should stop flies noticing your compost.
- Many composters will produce a substance known as leachate; this is a liquid which is essentially the runoff of moisture from the compost. Leachate can be used as a liquid fertiliser for your plants, but must be diluted first (a one to ten ratio with water is a good start, one part leachate, ten parts water).
- Compost can last indefinitely but will start to lose nutrients after around four to five months, so it’s best to make the most of it once it’s ready to be used. If you’ve produced more than you need, you can always give it away to friends or family if they have a garden too, always encourage as many people as you can to garden naturally!