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Some Tips on Making Compost

Using your own compost is the best way towards making a beautiful organic garden

Why not recycle your organic kitchen and garden waste by making compost and then using this to feed your plants or use as a mulch? First you'll need some sort of compost bin/container.
Your choice of composter is very much determined by how much space you've got for your compost bin or how big you want it to be. Up to a point larger is better but if you make your own remember you may have to get it through doors or gateways to its final site. Also if you move house and want to take it with you size will be especially important.
Try to site it where it will be convenient to access. If you want to buy a compost container, there are several companies on our Composting page selling a range of different types: wooden ones, plastic ones, worm composters; there are also sites you can visit giving information of how to make your own composter. You can make compost in a plastic bin liner/sack but it takes a long time; see the end of this page for some details.
If you only have a small space for a composter, then a plastic one may well be the most practical; these can be fairly compact; they have a lid at the top to fill from and usually a 'door' of some sort at the bottom where you can remove the rotted compost. And you can buy one made from recycled plastic. Some councils enable you to buy a plastic composter (usually one per household) at a reduced price, or even free.

The art of making good compost seems to be a bit of a black art.
Some people appear to have the knack, others don't. In our experience, compost doesn't always turn out like that shown on TV gardening programmes! Below are some suggestions, hints and tips that should help but its likely that you'll have to experiment and find out the best methods to suit you. If the compost is not perfectly as you would like don't despair, dig it in or even spread it as a mulch around plants as early as possible in the year and the end results will probably be very rewarding.

Collecting some grass for composting
Collecting some grass for composting, click to enlarge
What's Good to Compost?
  • Basically, all organic waste from your garden and kitchen.
  • All fruit, vegetables and waste from these, flowers and leaves, tea and tea bags, coffee grounds, egg shells (preferably crushed).
  • Weeds, grass, soft cuttings and prunings.
  • Shredded twigs, prunings and cuttings.
  • Waste paper including tissues, kitchen towels, newspaper, printer paper, corrugated paper/card and cardboard but not too much; it should all be torn up or crumpled and well mixed in with the rest of the compost.
What's Bad to Compost?
  • Meat, fish, dairy produce, fat, egg, bread, cake, biscuits, pastry and things containing these; they rot and attract vermin.
  • Nearly all cooked food, for the same reason.
  • We think you shouldn't compost tomato plants and tops of potato plants; we understand that they can transmit disease (the actual tomatoes and potatoes are fine).
  • Cat and dog faeces, because it could carry/transmit disease.
  • Plastics, shiny paper and card.
  • Coarse cuttings, prunings, stalks and twigs, as unless they are shredded they'll take too long to decompose.
  • Big roots and roots of dandelions, ground elder, mares tail, couch grass, bindweed, ivy etc as these may re-grow.
  • Diseased plants or leaves, like those with black spot, mildew, rust or other visible diseases.
  • Grass cuttings, moss or other garden waste recently treated with chemicals; you should follow instructions on the packet/tin etc regarding composting following treatment.
  • Soil. Small quantities are acceptable, and may be beneficial if well distributed, but you should shake or knock excess soil off plant roots before composting them.
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Mole statue in Crocuses
Mole Statue in Crocuses,
Click to enlarge
Tips to Improve your Compost
  • You should compost things with a range of textures; you need a mix of soft waste material as well as coarser rougher stuff, sometimes called 'green' and 'brown' compost waste. This helps to aerate the compost. Too much green can result in a slimy, smelly mix; too much brown and the mix won't compost well or will take a very long time.
  • One way to aid this is to compost waste paper/card and cardboard but not too much; it should all be torn up or crumpled and mixed in with the rest of the compost. The Composting Tip Sheet from CAT (see our site) gives more details, emphasising the benefits of composting paper and card, stating that you should recycle what paper and card you can and compost all the rest that's suitable.
  • Mixing and turning the compost also helps it decompose faster. In a small container, this can be done with with a special compost mixer tool which can be purchased quite cheaply.
  • Organic waste will turn into compost faster if it's in small pieces. A compost shredder is useful to chop up larger and coarser material so that it's suitable to put in the composter.
  • The above tips all help to introduce and maintain oxygen into the compost; this helps the organic matter to decompose faster.
  • Grass cuttings can be composted but you should not put thick layers in the compost bin without mixing other, coarser materials in with the grass to get oxygen into the mixture. Grass cuttings in large quantities will compact and form a thatch, restricting air flow and slowing down decomposition of the grass as well as other waste and will eventually end up as a slimy, smelly mass.
  • The compost in the container should be moist, but not too wet. If it's too dry, you can just water it. If it's too wet and soggy, you could mix in more brown waste, or maybe liquid cannot drain away from the bottom; you could try standing your compost container on paving slabs with a slight slope and small gaps between; this will also make it easier to to remove your compost from the bottom. It can be helpful to pack small pieces of tile or slate under the legs to get the container upright and also delay the onset of wet-rot if they are wooden.
  • Organic waste turns into compost faster if it's warm. Positioning your composter where it gets some sunshine is beneficial; if it's in full sun this may dry out the compost too much.

(This is brief; for our detailed reference page see the bottom of this page)
Making compost using a wormery is fun, especially if you like worms!
There are many wormeries on the market, you can find information on several of these on our Composting page.
The same basic rules of composting apply to wormeries, including what to use and what not to use, as above. If you buy a wormery, it will almost certainly be supplied with instructions.
In our experience, it takes a while to get a wormery started - well the worms have to become acclimatised to their new surroundings! Also the quantity of compost produced is not great, but the quality is. We have a tray at the bottom of our wormery which catches the surplus liquid; this makes an excellent liquid fertiliser.

Pampas Grass and Hibiscus
Pampas Grass and Hibiscus
Making Compost in a Plastic Sack

We haven't much experience of this method, but we have found it useful when collecting large quantities of leaves because the woody stalks are slow to decompose. Putting them into bin bags for a few weeks, or even months, starts the process, then they are mixed with the main compost. However, you can make compost in a large plastic bin liners with the normal garden and kitchen waste. It is likely to take a long time, about six to twelve months, for the organic matter to decompose into reasonable compost. This is because you are making compost without oxygen and this slows the process down; it's called anaerobic composting. All you do is fill up your plastic sack with organic waste, see What's Good and Bad to Compost above; try to ensure there's a mix of textures, add some crumpled/torn paper if necessary. We've read that to improve the compost, to each bag mix in about 15ml (1 tbspn) garden fertiliser and 225ml lime. Close up the top of the bag and leave it. When you open up the bag, you'll probably find what's in the bag is a bit (or a lot) smelly and could be soggy, especially if the mixture was quite wet; however, it'll still be good for the garden in the long run!

To learn more about Wormeries, see the detailed Reference page on Tips on Wormeries, Worm Composting and Vermiculture.


By Brenda Shaw  

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Originated: 30 September, 2001,  Last amended: 27 October, 2013