Hannah Stephenson looks into how to create a compost heap
Nthis age of recycling – plastics in one bin, glass in another, garden matter and food waste also being separated – there can be no better time to start your own compost heap.
If you have to sort out your rubbish, you might as well make use of the matter which can be turned into a terrific soil enricher.
However, it isn’t just a matter of piling up your vegetable peelings and grass cuttings and turning them every so often. In every successful compost heap, there is a balance to be found.
The container or makeshift frame (ideally wooden) should be at least 1m (3ft) square otherwise it will be too small to generate enough heat to rot it down. You’ll also need a lid to keep out rain and keep in the heat, even if the lid is in the form of an old carpet topped with plastic.
Remember, the hotter it gets, the faster the compost matures.
Good elements include kitchen waste, such as vegetable scraps, eggshells and tea bags. If you want to add newspaper, you’ll need to shred it first. Keep a small, lidded bin by the back door for all your kitchen scraps.
If you’re pruning this autumn, keep the clippings and spent flowers for the compost bin, along with any grass clippings and end of season bedding.
Some gardeners have become so obsessed with the quality of their compost that they grow plants specifically for it, including potashrich sunflowers which boost its nutritional content, and comfrey, which is rich in nutrients.
Don’t add meat, fish or bones to the heap because you’ll just attract rats, and keep out really tough weeds such as ground elder, which may survive in the heap, and diseased plants, which should be binned or burned. Woody prunings should also be omitted because they will take an age to rot down.
If you want to give your compost a helping hand to rot down, you can buy organic activators containing herbs, honey and seaweed. Other natural ingredients including nettles will also help rot down the pile, while a handful of horse manure will add bulk and nutrients.
You could also buy some worms from a fishing tackle shop which will work their way up and down the pile, breaking up the debris as they go.
The secret to good compost is firstly to break up the bulky stuff before it goes in. If you haven’t a shredder, chop up your prunings into small pieces.
Then you need to alternate the materials in different layers. Place grass clippings in thin layers – and don’t put too much grass on the pile, or you’ll end up with a slimy mess.
Alternate the clippings with coarser material or mix it with shredded newspaper. Add moistened straw to bulk up too much green material. Layers should be peppered every so often with earth, blood, fish and bonemeal, manure or an activator to encourage bacteria.
The dry, woody, carbon-rich materials such as prunings and straw should be combined with the layers of nitrogen-rich soft waste such as vegetable scraps and grass clippings.
Ideally use two parts woody material to one part soft material. The woody debris allows air to circulate through the heap, while the soft material provides nitrogen, other plant foods and moisture.
Once your container is full, don’t let it dry out in summer or become too wet in winter. A good test is to squeeze a handful and see how much moisture comes out. It should only be a few droplets for perfect compost.
If you are making compost for the first time, turn the new heap after about a week to allow the cooler outer material to enter into the hotter centre, then turn it again two weeks later, after which you should leave it for around six months.
If you are filling the heap gradually, the material at the bottom of the pile should almost be ready for use by the time the container is filled. Ideally, have two heaps on the go at one time, so you can move the upper layers of uncomposted material into a new heap when the lower levels are almost ready for use.
In less than a year, you may have soft, crumbly fruitcake-like compost to spread as a mulch or just add to your soil to improve its fertility, or sieve it to use in your potting compost.