How to Compost at Home

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Diving into the world of composting can be as simple as beginning with a heap of organic material in your backyard. This basic method is known as cold composting, and it can be easily managed by covering the compost heap with a waterproof sheet, such as a tarpaulin, to prevent it from becoming waterlogged. However, if you prefer a more structured approach, creating or purchasing a compost bin is an excellent option.

A compost bin doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. In fact, it could be as straightforward as using four pallets tied together to form a square. This homemade option is not only cost-effective but also customizable according to your needs. For those who prefer a ready-made solution, small compost bins, perfect for the amount of waste a typical household generates, can be easily found at garden centres and outdoor shops. Besides being convenient, these bins have the added advantage of minimizing odours and deterring animals, making the composting process cleaner and less disruptive.

The placement of your compost bin is another important consideration. It’s beneficial to stand your compost bin directly on the soil, as this allows worms and other micro-organisms to access the compost, speeding up the decomposition process. To keep unwanted rodents at bay, a layer of chicken wire at the bin’s base can be a useful deterrent.

Finding the right site for your compost bin can significantly enhance its effectiveness. An ideal spot would be a reasonably sunny area on bare soil, easily accessible for both adding ingredients and extracting the finished compost. This strategic placement will streamline the composting process, making it a hassle-free part of your daily routine.

Venturing into home composting might seem daunting at first, but with a few simple steps, you’ll learn how to make a compost, and you can easily integrate this eco-friendly practice into your organic gardening and lifestyle. Not only will you be contributing to a healthier environment, but you’ll also be enriching your garden, making it a win-win situation.

Compost Layers Infographic 1

What should go in first?

Starting a compost pile requires careful layering of composting materials to foster the right environment for decomposition. So, what should go into your compost first?

Begin with a layer of brown materials. These could include dried leaves, straw, or small twigs. This layer helps to aerate the pile and promotes good drainage, ensuring that your compost pile doesn’t become too wet or compacted, which could slow down the composting process.

Next, add a layer of green materials. This could be fruit and vegetable peels, fruit scraps, coffee grounds, or grass clippings. These materials are the “food” for the microorganisms that will break down the compost pile.

After these initial layers, continue to add green and brown materials in layers in roughly equal amounts. This balance is crucial to maintain a healthy, efficient composting process.

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What to put in your compost

Composting is an alchemy of sorts, transforming everyday kitchen waste and so forth into a nutrient-rich elixir for your garden. But what exactly should you put in your compost bin? The answer lies in a balance of green and brown compostable materials, each contributing vital elements to the composting process.

Green materials provide nitrogen, a key nutrient for composting. These include not only the obvious items like grass trimmings and vegetable peelings but also coffee grounds and eggshells. Other nitrogen-rich items that you might not have considered are annual weeds and nettle leaves, both of which can be beneficial additions to your compost. Even teabags, often overlooked, can contribute to the nitrogen content.

On the other hand, brown materials contribute carbon, another crucial component for successful composting. Examples of these include shredded paper, cardboard, twigs, and straw. More substantial garden waste, such as prunings and hedge trimmings, also falls into this category. Additionally, items such as loosely scrunched-up paper or newspaper, cardboard, straw, sawdust, pet bedding, paper towels, and paper bags can be included.

However, it’s not just a matter of throwing in everything you have. An equal mix of green and brown materials is recommended for a well-balanced compost. This ensures a healthy diversity of materials for the composting process, promoting efficient decomposition and resulting in a nutrient-rich end product.

Beyond these green and brown categories, there are other items that you might not have considered compostable. Egg shells, often discarded, can be a valuable addition to your compost, contributing beneficial minerals. Natural fibres, such as wool or cotton, are also compostable, as is wood ash, although it should be used sparingly.

Other surprising compostable items include the skins from a sweet potato, the top of your strawberry, old flowers, and even human hair.

What to add to compost 1

What to avoid putting into your compost

While composting can transform a wide variety of everyday waste into nutrient-rich soil, it’s equally important to know what items to avoid putting into your compost bin. This ensures your compost remains safe, healthy, and beneficial for your garden.

Animal products like meat, fish, and dairy should not be composted. These items can attract pests and may harbour harmful pathogens. Similarly, fats and oils, whether plant or animal-based, are not suitable for composting. While it may seem counterintuitive, not all manure is compostable; specifically, you should avoid adding waste from cats or dogs due to the risk of dangerous pathogens. However, droppings from herbivorous pets like rabbits or guinea pigs can be safely composted.

Your garden may seem like an abundant source of compostable material, but be cautious about what you include. Diseased plants, perennial weeds, and plants sprayed with pesticides or herbicides can negatively impact your compost pile and should be avoided. The goal of composting is to nurture your plants, not to spread toxins that could harm them.

Some seemingly compostable items, such as cooked food, citrus, and glossy or colour-printed paper, should be left out of your compost bin. Cooked food and oily or buttery substances can attract pests and create unpleasant odours, while citrus is slow to rot, and its acidity can reduce worm activity. As for glossy or colour-printed paper, they may contain inks and chemicals that could contaminate your compost.

Interestingly, certain items labelled as “compostable,” such as compostable bags and wipes, may not be suitable for home composting. These items are designed for industrial composting facilities and may not decompose efficiently in a home compost bin.

  • Animal products e.g. meat scraps, fish, dairy
  • Cooked food scraps
  • Fats, butter and oil
  • Pet waste (from cats and dogs)
  • Avoid composting perennial weeds

What are greens?

Greens are nitrogen rich materials. Nitrogen is a vital element that fuels microbial growth and hastens the decomposition process.

Typically, green materials are characterized by their moisture content. They are usually damp or wet, which aids in the breakdown process and helps maintain the compost pile’s overall moisture balance.

Common examples of greens include kitchen scraps such as fruit and vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, and tea bags. If you have a garden, you can also use grass clippings and annual weed cuttings as green materials. Interestingly, certain plants like nettle leaves are also considered greens due to their high nitrogen content.

  • Fruit and vegetable peelings
  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea bags
  • Grass clippings
  • Fresh leaves
  • Flower cuttings
  • Annual weeds (without seeds)
  • Nettle leaves
  • Green plant cuttings
  • Fresh manure from herbivorous animals
  • Seaweed and kelp
  • Egg shells

What are browns?

Browns are typically dry materials, starkly contrasting with wet greens. Brown material adds to the compost pile’s physical structure and helps balance moisture levels, preventing the pile from becoming overly soggy and compacted.

Examples of brown materials are diverse. In your garden, these can include prunings, hedge trimmings, dried leaves, straw, and even pine needles. From your household waste, suitable brown materials can include shredded paper products such as newspapers, cardboard, egg cartons, paper towels, and paper bags. Even pet bedding and sawdust make excellent brown materials for your compost pile.

In essence, browns are the “skeleton” of your compost pile, providing structure, facilitating airflow, and balancing moisture. The use of these carbon-rich materials, alongside nitrogen-rich greens, is integral to creating a successful and efficient compost pile.

  • Dried leaves
  • Pine needles
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Cardboard
  • Egg cartons
  • Paper bags
  • Sawdust
  • Untreated wood shavings and chips
  • Straw or hay
  • Prunings and hedge trimmings
  • Twigs and small branches
  • Shredded tree branches
  • Cotton or wool rags
  • Pet bedding from herbivores (rabbits, hamsters, etc.)
  • Dried grass clippings

Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio

50 parts brown to 50 parts green is a good rule of thumb for knowing what to add to compost, and if you follow that rule, you should not go far wrong. However, if you are looking for the very best combination of browns and greens you need to look a little deeper at the Carbon and Nitrogen composition and the ratio of the two elements in what you add to your compost. The best ratio is 25-30:1 Carbon to Nitrogen. We explain what that means and what the ratios are in many of the most commonly composted items in our Carbon to Nitrogen ratio guide

Turn the Compost

A critical step in the composting process is turning your compost pile. This action is necessary for a few reasons, primarily to introduce oxygen and facilitate the aerobic decomposition process. Oxygen is essential for the microorganisms breaking down your organic materials. The compost pile could become anaerobic without proper aeration, leading to a slower decomposition process and potentially foul odours.

Turning the compost also helps redistribute moisture and ensures that all the materials in the compost pile are actively decomposing. By turning the pile, you’re mixing and combining the materials, which encourages even decomposition. It also helps to break up any clumps of material, which can slow down the composting process and helps to maintain a more consistent temperature throughout the pile.

As for how often you should turn your compost, this can depend on various factors, such as the size of your pile, the materials in it, and the outside temperature. However, as a general rule, turning your compost pile every few weeks is advisable. In warmer seasons, when decomposition is more active, you may want to turn it more frequently, around once a week.

Remember, turning the compost is not a precise science but rather an art. You’ll learn to recognize when your compost needs turning based on its look, smell, and feel. A well-managed compost pile should have a pleasant, earthy smell, be warm but not hot in the centre, and have a crumbly, uniform consistency. If your pile seems too dry, too wet, or smells unpleasant, it’s likely time to give it a good turn.

When is it Ready?

While there’s no precise timeframe due to the variety of factors involved, there are some indicators you can look out for to determine the maturity of your compost.

First and foremost, your compost’s physical appearance is an excellent marker of its readiness. The composting process is usually complete when the mixture has transitioned into a brown, crumbly substance. It should strongly resemble thick, moist soil, indicating that the organic materials have adequately broken down.

Not only should it look like rich, fertile soil, but it should also smell like it too. A slightly sweet, earthy aroma is a good sign that your compost is ready to enrich your garden. This scent is a byproduct of the decomposition process and a hallmark of healthy, mature compost.

In terms of timeline, it’s a bit more flexible. Depending on the method you’re using and the conditions in your area, the composting process can range from a few months to a year. If you’re actively managing your pile by turning it regularly and ensuring a balanced mix of greens and browns, you could have ready-to-use compost within six months.

However, for a passive or “cold” composting process, it might take around a year for every component to break down fully. In some instances, with ideal conditions and active management, compost can be ready in as little as two months.

So, patience is key here. Remember to keep adding greens and browns to top up your compost and maintain the composting process. While it might take some time, the reward of nutrient-rich compost for your garden is well worth the wait.

What to Do with the Finished Compost

Once your compost has matured, it’s time to put your perfect compost to good use. The process of retrieving your compost is straightforward. Simply lift the bin slightly or open the hatch at the bottom, and scoop out the fresh compost with a garden fork, spade, or trowel.

As you do this, you might notice that your compost isn’t uniform. It might be a little lumpy with twigs and bits of eggshell, but don’t be alarmed. This is perfectly normal and part of the natural process. These elements continue to break down over time and contribute valuable nutrients to the soil.

The beauty of compost is in its versatility. It’s a nutrient-rich soil amendment that can be used in various ways around your garden. You can use it to enrich borders and vegetable patches, enhancing the soil’s fertility and your plants’ health. It’s also a great addition to patio containers and potting mixes, providing a nutrient boost to container-grown plants’ potting soil.

Compost isn’t just for flower beds and vegetable gardens, though. It can also be used to feed the lawn. Spreading compost over your grass can help improve soil structure, moisture retention, and nutrient content, contributing to a lush, green lawn.

So don’t let your hard-earned compost go to waste. Use it to create a flourishing, vibrant garden that’s a testament to your eco-conscious efforts.


Jonathan Gaze

Content Editor

Hello there! I’m Jonathan Gaze, Content Editor for Harry Rufus.

With my technical problem-solving skills and meticulous attention to detail, I present sustainable living advice clearly and understandably. I’ve developed a knack for filtering out the fluff, presenting you with only the most practical and reliable sustainable living guidelines.

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