How to Make Compost at Home for a Greener Garden

Here's how to make compost properly!

Scroll down for a guide to compost making methods. First, here's a brief introduction which explores why making compost at home is such a good idea.

Making your own compost is a great way to become more environmentally friendly in your lifestyle. If you care about green living, give it a try, even if you only do the easy version!

There are loads of benefits for your garden and for wildlife, too.

You can slim your bin, too, which helps prevent landfill sites from gobbling up the countryside!

Wildlife benefits because your soil is richer and supports a good population of worms and mini-beasts. This helps feed the birds.

Bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects also are helped indirectly.

And of course, you get to enjoy some pretty amazing flowers and veg.

Another important reason for learning how to make compost is that uncomposted waste adds to global warming. Waste food gives off greenhouse gases which rise through the atmosphere and then trap sunlight, making the earth as a whole warm up. As much as 3% f Britain's greenhouse gases come from waste food, according to a WWF report in March 2011.

When you compost waste, the material components are broken down in such a way that the potential greenhouse gases are contained.

This is perhaps one of the most important reasons for learning how to make compost!

The two main ways to make compost

How to make compost: there are two main ways - the right way and the easy way

If you are short of time or energy, the easy method will still contribute a lot to the health and fertility of your garden.

If you are a bit of a perfectionist and/or you have plenty of time and energy, then learn how to make compost properly. Read on for how it's done.

How to make compost:
Here's how to make compost properly!

First of all, I should say that you really do not have to have a compost bin or composting tumbler. In fact, you do not have to spend any money at all. You can just use what is available from your own kitchen and garden.

You can read about composting bins - making or choosing here below. There also recommended books on composting below.

1: Collecting materials

Gradually collect suitable materials for making your compost until you have enough for a heap.

A compost pile needs to be big enough to heat up enough to kill weed seeds and soil-borne diseases. In practice about a cubic metre of material is the minimum.

You can collect materials in bags until you have enough, or you can pile materials loosely in an out-of-the-way corner. It’s better to put your compost materials into a container so that the nutrients don’t leach away.

How to make compost properly:

2: The best materials to use

Almost anything organic can be included but you don’t want to encourage rats or other vermin, so don’t include any cooked food or meat.

Here is a list of things you can include

  • vegetable peelings
  • discarded salad materials
  • old vegetables that are beyond use (but not if diseased)
  • egg-shells
  • tea-leaves and coffee grounds
  • weeds and garden cuttings
  • discarded plants
  • lawn mowings
  • animal manure from horses, goats, rabbits, cows, sheep or chickens, (not from dogs or cats )
  • straw (you can use hay but you will risk a problem with germinating grass seeds)
  • old feather mattresses or pillows
  • any other organic waste that you can easily come by
If you find it hard to find enough stuff, you could ask traders at the local market for sweepings or past-it stock. Or ask friends or neighbours to collect for you. More and more people are becoming conscious of the problems posed by all that landfill waste so you can exploit their good intentions if they haven’t got a use for their own organic scraps.

If your garden is a bit of a wilderness, it's good to use a sickle or similar to trim back some of the excess greenery and use it to bulk out your compost. Always bear in mind the needs of nesting birds and small mammals when trimming your wild spaces. It's also best to let flowers flower, so that the bees and insects get their share.

3: Materials to avoid in your compost

  • Potato peelings (because they tend to sprout)
  • any plant with a disease which is easily transmitted (for example, don’t compost tomato plants if they were infected with blight – it tends to lurk in the soil for years)
  • any weeds which have supernatural abilities to survive - the main ones here are couch grass and bind weed.
    You know your local horrors. If it’s a nightmare in your garden, don’t compost it. You’ll only give it a chance of immortality!
  • also avoid all cooked and processed foods and anything which you suspect has been sprayed with toxic chemicals

4: Assembling the compost heap - layering

Loosely dig the earth where the bin is so that it is not compacted. This gives the earthworms a chance to work their magic. You want to do everything you can to encourage them to come up into the compost.

Alternatively, you can start with a layer of rubble or similar and cover it with a wire mesh. This stops your compost leaching (draining or dispersing) away into the ground so much, but of course it also stops earthworms from getting in.

The best compromise solution is to position your compost bin where any leaching of nutrients has a good effect. For example, you could plant rhubarb or marrows close beside the compost heap.

  • When you have enough gathered materials to fill your bin, just tip them into the bin, a layer at a time. Layers should be no more than four or five inches deep.
  • Chop up any big woody roots or stems before adding them. A spade will slice through them. For best results, mix larger woody things in well.
  • Be sure to include some animal manure as this starts the composting process. A good compost heap should heat up quite quickly.
  • Keep adding layers of material. Don’t let any one layer dominate, especially lawn mowings as they tend to form a sludgy mass if they are not mixed in properly.
  • Sprinkle a little garden soil and some activator on each layer for best results. You can buy compost activator in most garden centres. It is simply a rich source of nitrogen which helps to kick off the heating up of the heap.
  • Keep the layers reasonably light and airy - it’s better not to press things down.
  • Cover up your heap.


How to make compost properly:
5: Covering the heap

When your heap is full size, cover it with a good layer of old carpet or other insulating material and then add a rain cover. An old ground sheet, plastic grow bags or a sheet of roofing material will keep the worst of the rain out.

It is quite important to cover the heap because if you don't, valuable nutrients will wash away and your compost will not heat up properly.

How to make compost properly:
Looking after your compost

6: Turning the heap

For best results you will need to turn your compost after a few weeks.

Dig into the centre of the pile and compare what you find with the top and edges. If you find that things are rotting down quite nicely but stuff at the edges is still quite recognisable, then it’s time to turn the heap.

All you do is pull everything out of the heap and then put it all back again only this time with the unrotted things put towards the centre. The heap should heat up again and you will get reasonably even results after a few more weeks.

Make sure that you load things back in with plenty of air incorporated.

How to make compost properly:

7: Stuck composts

If your compost does not seem to be going anywhere after you have left it be for 5 or 6 weeks, then you will need to kick-start it. Buy some activator or use a homemade activator (urine is perfectly good, being nitrogen rich - but most people prefer something more socially acceptable and discreet!)

Unload your compost from the bin and re-load it, adding activator as you go. You should try to mix layers and incorporate plenty of air. Provided that the mix is not too wet or cold it should start to warm up and break down into compost.

The main reasons for composts being slow to "brew" are: too cold, too damp, insufficient air and lack of nitrogenous materials.

It's best to make compost in summer or at least avoid cold damp weather.

That's it! That is how to make compost properly. If you read lots of gardening books you will come across lots of ways of making compost but they will all incorporate most if not all the principles outlined above.

Here below is a little about choosing a good compost bin.

How to make compost properly:

What to think about when choosing a compost bin
Next you need a suitable compost bin.

You can either buy one or make one.

If you choose to buy one, it must be big enough to allow the contents to heat up sufficiently. Don’t buy one that is too small; it simply won't work! About a metre square in cross section should be the minimum.

Compost tumblers are attractive and easy to use in the main - but rarely big enough to heat up properly.

See here for more on choosing a compost bin or barrel

how to make compost - wooden compost bin

Picture above: a wooden compost bin with solid sides is ideal

How to make compost properly:

Making your own compost bin

A rough and ready home made bin can be assembled using four decent fence posts driven into the ground with nailed slats of wood for the cross bars. Just nail on three sides of the bin and as it fills up you add a removable fourth side.

Old pallets are an easy stand-by for the sides of the bin. If you want to be sure that the compost will heat up properly, make the sides from stout materials and don’t leave gaps. You can fill up the gaps in pallets with fibrous materials from your garden or recycled household materials such as old blankets or cardboard.

Don't use anything that might be toxic when it breaks down or which might prove to be a nuisance. Polystyrene has fabulous insulating properties but it tends to fragment and appear in your garden for years to come, so it's best avoided.

There are some great books on composting available now.

One of the very best is Let it Rot!: The Gardener's Guide to Composting

by Stu Campbell is a clear and non-technical guide which is actually fun to read. He deals with different approaches and techniques and gives everything you need to know for composting success.

The Complete Compost Gardening Guide

by Barbara Pleasant has dozens of different approaches to try, many of which save on the work load of making an actual compost pile in a compost bin. There are "compost craters", "comfort composting" and "compost sheets" and other easy techniques for fast results - all in a highly readable and easy to understand form. Creative composting at its best!

Using your compost

You can spread good compost around liberally. Use it anywhere, as a mulch, dug into beds, or in your greenhouse. It will do good work fertilising and improving the soil and making your plants strong, healthy and disease resistant.

If your compost is very rich in animal manure it may be too strong to spread near to growing plants, so test a bit out on a small area first. If the compost is too strong it will scorch leaves that touch it.

In that case, give the compost longer to mature or work it into fallow (unused or empty) areas only.

If your compost never properly heated up during production, you may find that you still get weed seeds germinating. If so, you will need to hoe them off regularly, or use the compost dug into the soil.

If all this sounds like jolly hard work there are some easier methods of making organic gardening compost described here

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