Composting is nature's way of breaking down materials, be it on the forest floor or in your bin. Anything natural such as leaves, fruit, vegetables, wool or paper will slowly rot and decompose over time thanks to the help of myriad organisms, bacteria, fungi, and insects. It might sound gruesome but what remains is a rich, nutrient packed substance, which looks similar to soil, that your garden will love. While composting isn’t particularly hard to do, experts agree that it isn’t an exact science either as there are numerous variables that can lead to either a slimy pile of goo or a heap of dry chippings that aren’t breaking down – neither of which you want. Here’s our foolproof guide to getting it right.
There are plenty of good reasons to compost. Estimates have shown that around 30 per cent of household waste is compostable, although most of it ends up in the bin. By collecting your food scraps, you dramatically reduce the size of your rubbish bag each week and help to reduce the amount of household waste ending up landfill. Composting also gives you a constant supply of chemical-free fertiliser, which your plants will thank you for. Better still, eschewing commercial compost of the type found in your local garden centre means you’re not buying peat. Thanks to the national appetite for compost, 94 per cent of Britain’s ancient peat bogs have been destroyed or damaged, and as a result, some of our most important eco-systems have been lost forever. While nothing can ever really compensate for that, by creating your own compost, you’re both helping to protect boggy eco-systems and making a new one, as many species will be attracted to the food and warmth available in your heap. Even city dwellers can get involved in composting. The ‘dalek’ style bins are ideal for smaller spaces and can be moved around easily and work just as well on concrete they do on grass. These are also the kind of bins that councils provide so you can get them cheap. Even if you only have a balcony, you can still compost and give away the fruits of your labour to friends with gardens or who are trying their hand at container planting and growing their own.
The easiest way to start is by ‘cool composting’. For this, you’ll firstly need to buy a compost bin or set up a suitable spot in your garden. There are different kinds of compost bins on the market, ranging from ultra basic such as the plastic ‘dalek’ style, to more technologically advanced galvanised steel with a lockable lid. If you have an allotment or a large garden, you could invest in, or build, a New Zealand box (an open air wooden tub with slatted sides). Choose a nice sunny spot with plenty of heat and light, and place your heap or bin on a patch of soil or concrete. Once your compost site is sorted, all you have to do is regularly top it up with the right sort of waste and watch the natural decomposition process take place, giving it a gentle helping hand when necessary. You can be as lazy or as active as you like. The more you manage your compost, however, the faster it’ll be ready for the garden.
So what can you throw into your compost bin? Anything natural that rots will compost. Grass, chopped up trees, vegetables, fruit peel, brown paper or even the dust from your hoover can go on the pile. Creating the right balance is key and you need just the right mix of dry, wet, hard and soft waste to get the most beneficial mix. Try to get a good balance of wet and dry ingredients from raw fruit and vegetable scraps, tea bags, old flowers, soft prunings, straw and hay, and also throw in household waste such as old egg boxes, cardboard, paper bags, kitchen roll and egg shells. Hot rotters that work to speed up the compost process are essential and include weeds, grass cuttings, comfrey leaves, nettles and even diluted urine. Also important are slow rotters that decay over a long time. Autumn leaves, wood chippings and the results of seasonal pruning are all good bets. Older and tougher materials take longer to decay but add quality to the compost. Avoid things like cooked food, meat, poultry and fish, dairy products and bread, and never, ever include items that could actually pollute the soil in your garden. This means no coal ash, dog poo, nappies, cat litter or glossy magazines.
One problem that many people face is the millions of tiny fruit flies, which are attracted to the compost. ‘These are part of the decomposition process but their numbers can be reduced by burying any fruit waste among other ingredients, say the experts at Garden Organic. ‘Flies are also a sign that the compost is a little too wet or has too many 'green' ingredients so make sure that the bin has a lid and add 'brown' ingredients such as straw, cardboard or paper to re-balance the heap.’
After about six months the bottom your compost pile will have turned into a lovely dark, silky soil like substance and is ready to use. ‘Using compost on your soil will dramatically increase the amount of life in that soil,’ says Nicky Scott author and coordinator of the Devon Community Composting Network. Remove it from the compost bin and either use it on the garden straight away or bag it for future use. It’s best to add it to your garden a few weeks before you plant your seeds, bulbs or vegetables to give it a chance to work into the soil. You can also use it to feed your house plants.
The composting checklist
• Keep a good balance of wet and dry materials
• Try not to add lots of the same thing
• Turn your compost pile as often as possible
• Avoid oranges, lemons and limes as they deter worms
• Break up any weeds so they don’t start to grow in your bin
• Avoid having too much wood as it takes forever to break down
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