How To Make A Compost Heap - The Ultimate Guide
Every experienced gardener knows that good compost is an eco-friendly way to provide vital nutrients to a garden and its inhabitants. One of the best ways to look after your garden is to start producing your own ‘Black Gold’, as we explain in our guide to creating compost heaps. .
What is compost?
Composting is the process where organic material is broken down into the nutrient-rich soil we know as compost. Leftover vegetables, plant trimmings, sticks and dying plants are the fuel of any compost heap. Essential for any garden, it’s an invaluable soil improver and mulch that improves the growth of vegetation. By actively maintaining compost production, you are ensuring the return of nutrients to the soil and continuing the cycle of life for your garden and its inhabitants.
Benefits of Having a Compost Heap
Composting is an essential part of any garden. It offers plenty of benefits and is well worth the effort.
If you maintain the supply of high-quality compost, you’ll encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria and fungi that will improve the overall soil quality of your garden for years to come. Regular composting means vital nutrients are returned to the soil. This enriches it, boosting the growth of your garden’s plants.
It’s eco-friendly. By reducing the need for chemical fertilisers, you reduce your impact on the environment and reduce the amount of waste that heads to landfill, lowering your carbon footprint and creating a habitat for all kinds of wildlife in the process.
How Does Compost Work?
As your pile of compost begins to deteriorate, bacteria, microbes, bugs, worms and fungi start to further assist with the breakdown of organic material. Their consumption of this material continually improves the texture of the compost. Larger decomposers such as slugs, snails and worms digest and then excrete the compost, further quickening the process. The secretions of all microorganisms and decomposers aid the creation of nutrient-rich compost.
What Goes into Your Compost Heap?
The two primary components of any compost are what we call ‘green’ and ‘brown’ material:
Green material is nitrogen rich. We class green materials as items like grass clippings from recently cut lawns, vegetable peel, and other plant-based material that you might usually throw away in your bin.
Green materials include:
- Grass cuttings
- Vegetable peelings
- Fruit and vegetable peels, and other organic kitchen waste (avoid using meat or animal leftovers – these will attract vermin and unsavoury pests)
Brown material is carbon-rich and includes items like fallen leaves, dead flowers and paper. If you plan on adding paper to your compost heap, you should ensure that it is non-glossy and shredded, which will allow the paper to break down. When adding tree branches or hardwood, you should cut them up or chip them to speed up the composting process. The smaller the pieces, the quicker they will break down. A garden shredder is ideal for this type of garden task.
Brown materials include:
- Egg cartons
- Dead leaves
- Dead flowers
Opt for an equal mix of green and brown material
The key to creating a good compost heap is to layer the waste and ensure an equal mix of green and brown material. A garden shredder is a great way to help with the breakdown of organic material, giving decomposers a greater surface area to work with. Once shredded, you can then easily transfer your shredded material to your compost using its portal collection bag.
Types of Compost Heap
For domestic gardeners, there are two primary directions to take your compost heap:
Hot or active composting
Compost heaps like this are made quickly. The process here means that your compost will reach a much higher temperature through an accelerated process of decay. For best results, build the heap all at once with a lot of green material before covering, then turn the compost when you sense it has cooled. Cover and repeat. With proper care and attention, if you can keep your compost hot enough, the composting process can be completed within one to three months.
This type of compost is exceptional for sowing seeds, with the high temperatures involved in the process destroying any seeds, meaning a weed-free and nutrient-rich soil for your garden.
Cold or passive composting
A more traditional approach to making compost, this ongoing process is where gardeners will add organic material to their heaps continually throughout the year. This means that decomposition takes place much slower than in hot compost heaps. This process requires more frequent turning of the compost and high-quality compost won’t develop for months.
Due to the lack of significant heat in this process, the compost is prone to seedlings sprouting. It’s not recommended for flowerbeds or places where you intend to cultivate specific plants. Weeds and other invasive species will sprout rapidly.
How To Make A Compost Heap
What you’ll need:
- Brown, carbon-rich materials
- Green, nitrogen-rich materials
- Garden soil.
- Either a compost bin or a 3x3ft area.
- A cover (if you’re making hot compost)
- Ideally somewhere sunny or partially shaded, grassy and dry.
- Firstly, begin with several inches of coarse dry brown material
- Add several inches of green material, always try to maintain a 50:50 ratio of green and brown material
- Sprinkle a thin layer of garden soil to cover the organic material.
- Add an additional thin covering of brown material.
- Add a little water for moisture, just enough to keep the pile moist, but not too much to make it soggy.
- Repeat until at least 3 feet high, this is just tall enough to keep your compost manageable.
- If you’re making hot compost, cover your heap at this point.
- Every few weeks, turn the pile to keep the process going. (using a fork or shovel)
- Over the weeks, you’ll notice the accumulation of more fine compost, once you have about 60 to 70% of your material converted, remove any partially composted material and place into a separate pile.
- Your new compost is ready to use, and your pile of partially composted material is ready to start the process all over again.
You’ll notice your compost bin or pile go through periods of warming. This is the decomposers working their magic. When you notice a cooling again, it’s time to turn the compost once more.
Why Is Aeration Important For Compost?
Aeration is vital for providing oxygen to your organic waste and a steady airflow will ensure that decomposing organisms have more fuel once their initial air supply is exhausted. Turning the compost pile periodically will return oxygen to the process, helping maintain the healthy environment for microbes and decomposers to flourish.
Turning your compost isn’t the only way to ensure aeration. Ensuring you begin your compost heap with layers of larger brown material such as branch trimmings and perennial stems will mean that air can flow upwards into the organic material initially.
Aeration is a great way to help manage compost moisture levels too. When drainage is notably poor, placing a pallet underneath your compost is a fantastic way to encourage airflow by sitting you pile a few inches above the ground.
For larger compost piles that are difficult to turn, it’s recommended to add one or more airflow tubes to the pile during construction. These tubes should be able to reach right to the bottom and have air holes throughout. If you’re using a PVC pipe, drilling holes every 5-10cm is effective. An alternative to PVC piping is to roll chicken wire into a cylindrical shape. Make sure your air flow tubes aren’t covered at the top, a piece of gauze is useful for keeping unwanted material out.
Which Compost Bin Is Best?
We recognise the importance of space and storage. Not everyone has the room available to them for a considerable compost heap and, for some, a compost bin is the most practical solution for aesthetic reasons. They’re clean, tidy and keep your compost from sprawling out of their patch.
- Slated wooden bin – With excellent aeration, improving circulation of compost material.
- Sectioned wooden bin – A layered container can be disassembled or built up to accommodate the amount of compost you currently have. Making these more accessible than taller fixtures.
- Plastic bin – One of the most common solutions, these are fitted with a hatch at the bottom to allow easy access to fully composted material at their base.
- Concrete/stone bin – Made of blocks or slabs, these sturdy structures are not prone to rot or degradation like their wooden counterparts.