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How to make compost

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Making your own compost is not only a great way of recycling garden waste, it’s also the cheapest and one of the most effective ways of keeping your soil rich in nutrients and the plants in your garden fit and healthy.

For the best results when making compost you need to understand the ideas behind the process. Put simply, making compost is like making a cake – you need to have certain equipment, the right ingredients in the right amounts and water to mix it through thoroughly. The micro-organisms in the soil will then do all the hard work for you. The process of making a great compost can take anything from a few months to a year, depending on the materials you use, the time of year you start (the composting process is quicker in summer than in winter) and the sort of compost you want at the end.

How long before your compost is ready?

Compost started in the autumn can be ready for spring planting, but most people usually leave their compost heap for anywhere between 6 months to 2 years for the best results. Your compost will be ready to use when it has taken on a dark brown colour accompanied by a rich, earthy smell. Try rubbing some between your fingers too – it should feel like soil and easily crumble apart.

Tools for the job:

Step 1: Getting started

To start making your own compost you’ll need a bin to keep it in. Any large bin will do, but it’s more common now to use a composter – a large plastic bin with a lid that allows you to empty waste into it at the top and a sliding door at the bottom where you can retrieve the compost. Composters keep the material you put in them neat and tidy, and help retain moisture and heat that are vital to the composting process. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes to suit different sized gardens; around 200 litres will hold enough material to compost efficiently. Aim to fill your bin as quickly as possible, because the decomposition process won't really start until it’s full.

Make sure you put your composter somewhere that provides it with a bit of shade and protection from the elements as the composting process works best when temperatures are kept consistent. Where possible, it should also be positioned over an open earth base as this will allow moisture to drain away easily. However, if you have to place it on a hard surface you can simply add a layer of soil in the base.

Step 2: Making your compost

To get quick decomposition you need to have the right ingredients in the right proportions. A balanced collection of dry fibrous material (shredded prunings, newspapers or straw), wet green material (grass clippings, discarded bedding plants and weeds) and organic kitchen waste such as old fruit and vegetables is perfect.

You can also add woody material such as trimmed branches from bushes and shrubs, but you will need to chop it finely before adding it to the compost bin otherwise it will take longer to decompose than the other ingredients. The easiest way to chop it up is with a garden shredder, but if you have the patience you can get the same results with a pair of secateurs.

Avoid putting processed food products, meat and fish in your composter as these can attract vermin, while weed roots and seeds may spread around the garden when you eventually distribute the compost. Make sure not to add sawdust as it can contain toxins, while cardboard, glossy magazine paper and thick woody material should all be avoided as they take too long to decompose.

Step 3: Turning your compost

Although the waste materials can generally be left to their own devices once you’ve put them in your composter, it’s a good idea to turn the heap to help promote decomposition. This is an easy process whereby you simply turn over the material in the composter with a garden fork, aerator or similar tool. This prevents it from becoming too compacted or wet and helping to introduce more air which is necessary for decomposition to take place. Try to turn the compost around once every month or so for the best results.

Top tip

  • Although it’s important you don’t let your compost get too wet, you’ll also need to make sure it doesn't dry out either, particularly in the summer months. Turning the compost will let you see how damp it is and give you an idea of whether or not you need to add more moisture.

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