Save money, have a better garden, reduce waste and help the environment – why gardeners love compost and know it as ‘black gold’. In this post I share easy ways to turn your garden and kitchen waste into rich, nutritious compost that will grow flourishing flowers and delicious crops.
Tidying your garden for spring generates loads of waste – composting turns it into a huge asset
Turning your waste into rich, fertile compost is the powerhouse behind having a great garden, because weeding, pruning and mowing removes loads of nutrient-rich material that in nature would rot down and revitalise the soil. During winter, when there’s lots of clearing to do in the garden, is the ideal time to get started. Composting and completing the cycle of nature is hugely rewarding: both financially, ethically and environmentally. While most councils recycle garden waste, it makes no sense to throw it out and then spend money buying in soil improvers.
Start with a bin of some sort (actually, all but the tiniest gardens will need at least two, so one ‘cooks’ while the other is being filled. There are good reasons for containing compost, rather than just piling everything in a big heap. Efficiency: waste rots down faster when hotter, so a solid-sided bin generates more heat. Tidiness: a heap of garden rubbish is not a thing of beauty. Moisture: covering the bin means you can keep out excess rain or retain moisture during hot weather.
Making your own from wood is an excellent option if you’re at all handy with a saw, hammer and nails. A really pukka design is the New Zealand compost box comprising two adjacent cubic-metre bins with removable fronts, full details here. For a really simple, easy and free bin, use four wooden shipping pallets tied together and lined with flattened cardboard boxes for insulation. Many businesses are only too pleased to give away pallets – but do ask first, though.
Compost bins are available to buy in lots of different designs, sizes – and prices, needless to say. Councils often offer bins at subsidised prices – usually cone-shaped designs affectionately known as ‘daleks’. Several years ago I trialled a wide range of smaller bins for a Gardener’s World magazine ‘on test’ feature: the best performers were those that provided more in the way of insulation, though the daleks performed fairly well.
Making compost is simple: the secret of success lies in getting the ingredients right and well mixed or layered. Then, simply ignore for six months or so until dark, crumbly and earthy in appearance.
Site your bin on soil and start filling, but do take care to get the ingredients right – check out the list below. Aim for a roughly equal mix of moist and dry materials – usually referred to as ‘greens’ and ‘browns’. The greens are high in nitrogen and include lawn mowings, green weeds and fresh animal manure while browns are carbon-rich and drier like plant stems, leaves, brown cardboard and paper. It’s fine to put in woody stems but as they take a long time to break down, shred or cut up into small pieces first. (Or make a stack, known as a ‘brash pile’, in an out of the way spot to make a great wildlife habitat).
What to put in your compost bin:
- Lawn clippings
- Bedding & veg plants
- Shredded prunings
- Uncooked kitchen waste: veg peelings, teabags.
- Paper, card & envelopes (plain, not shiny)
- Manure and bedding from herbivorous animals
- Clothing/bedding made of natural fibres (chopped up first)
- Wood ash
- Perennial weed roots
- Weed seeds
- Diseased plant material
- Dog and cat poo
- Cooked food
Turning problem waste into top quality compost
Some of these ‘avoids’ make awesomely rich compost but can’t go in an ordinary compost bin for these reasons. The roots of perennial weeds (nettle, bindweed, couch grass, ground elder and the like) will simply keep on growing so you end up with a bigger problem than before. The spores of diseased plant material love the cosy warmth of a compost bin, but the temperature is rarely hot enough to kill weed seeds – so again, the problem is magnified. Dog and cat waste can contain deadly parasites, while cooked food is likely to attract rats and mice. Here’s how to safely deal with all of these.
- Weed roots. Smother ‘em in stout black bags (reuse old potting compost bags, or similar) because if kept in the dark for long enough, even the toughest weeds succumb. Fill almost to the top, leaving enough spare to turn over the top of the bag and exclude light. Spear the base with a garden fork so moisture can drain out. Stack out of the way for at least a year. I started doing this a couple of years ago so my first batch of bags ‘matured’ last spring. Unsure whether everything had died, I tipped the resulting earthy sludge into large crates and planted pumpkins – which grew the biggest and most amazing crop I’d ever had!
A summer alternative is to spread roots in the sun to shrivel completely before adding to your usual compost bin.
- Weed seeds. Leave in a bucket of water for a couple of weeks so they rot completely.
- Diseased plant material. One of the few things I take to the council recycling centre, as large-scale municipal composting generates sufficiently high temperatures to kill disease spores.
- Dog and cat poo. Don’t wrap it in plastic and send it to landfill! Recycle or deal with in an eco-friendly way by using a ‘pet poo’ wormery like this one from Original Organics, or use a ‘digester’.
Worms are amazing creatures that can munch through all kinds of waste. Worm composting, or vermicomposting, to give its correct title, is a fantastic way to recycle pretty much all your kitchen waste. This topic deserves its own post, so more on this later.