It’s one of the wholesome joys of gardening that everything needed to bring forth new plant life is, essentially, already there. Plants will grow with or without us, and all we really do is cultivate, channel and select in order to create beauty in the space that we’ve got! Like everything in the garden, compost is something that happens anyway – all we do is speed up the process.
Defined basically, compost is decayed organic matter, or plant material, that has become, through the process of decomposition, a nutrient rich organic fertilizer perfect for enriching your soil. Anything comprised of plant material – which can be found in a surprising number of everyday items from newspaper to coffee grounds – will be suitable for composting. Composting is neither strenuous nor complicated, and with a few very simple items, combined with the organic material that is literally all around, you have everything you need to get started!
Why Should I Compost?
Composting is a solution to a number of gardening and everyday problems. For one thing, it can reduce your gardening costs enormously as a well constituted compost can be a totally optimal fertilizer for your soil. In all sorts of situations, compost can be used to help you get the most out of the earth, acting as a nutrition rich organic fertilizer. And you can very easily make a lot of it into the bargain, often enough for a whole season’s gardening! Composting is suitable for all gardens bar the very smallest.
Composting has other, less obvious, benefits as well. For one thing, composting is the most environmentally friendly way of dealing with both garden and kitchen waste. Nearly every item of food scraps can be composted (although there are some important exceptions). Local councils in the UK do provide a green waste bin but, should you dispose of your waste in this way, there’s the added environmental impact of transport. More to the point, a compost bin is one kind that doesn’t need to be put out once a week!
How to Compost
Composting is a fairly straightforward process. The most important things to keep in mind at the outset is that the process of decomposition of organic waste relies on a few essential ingredients, best remembered as so-called “greens” (nitrogen rich material) “browns” (carbon rich material), air and water – that’s it!
You can compost in either a compost pile or a compost bin. A compost pile happens to be just what it sounds like – a great heap of compost that sits on the ground in a designated area of your garden. Having your compost heap open to the elements will allow ease of access and contact with air. That said, they can be a bit messy, smelly and not a little unsightly. Often, a sheet or tarpaulin is used to cover it up when not in use or during adverse weather.
More popular amongst gardeners is the compost bin. This is essentially a holding cell for your compost, elevated a little off the ground and ventilated. It’s much more discrete and offers protection against pests, although naturally there’s a limitation on space.
When to Compost
The optimal conditions for composting are moist, aerated and at a consistent warm temperature. Compost also naturally relies on a supply of organic material. For this reason the majority of compost production will occur in late summer through autumn, when there is a ready supply of garden material and the conditions are optimal. That said, it’s most likely that you’ll be composting all year long; the process, after all, takes a while and your kitchen will likely be producing scraps the whole year round.
First off, you’ll want to compost in a suitable area. Compost relies on a steady temperature without much change, so it’s best to compost in shade or partial shade.
Beyond location, it’s important to compost with the right mixture of the aforementioned “greens” and “browns”. It’s advisable to go for somewhere between 25% and 50% green material. This can be anything from weeds and leaves to green vegetable kitchen waste – grass cuttings are a gardener’s favourite to add. The remainder of your compost should be brown waste, that is to say woody material such as woodchip, hedge trimmings, newspaper and card. With your “greens” providing the nitrogen and encouraging microbial action and your “browns” supplying the carbon which gives them energy, you’ll be well on your way to creating nutritious compost for your garden.
Turning the Heap
Whether you use a bin or heap, you’ll need to occasionally turn it around and break it up. This can be done with a pitchfork or a shovel. Turning over the heap introduces air which is one of the essential components of compost. You’ll want to do this around once a month.
Turning the heap gives you a good opportunity to check the moisture of your compost. Water is another one of the vital components here and the trick is to have your compost neither too dry nor too wet and to keep that consistent. Be on the lookout for water seepage from your compost bin, clumping of the compost or a noticeable ammonia smell as these are all indicators that your compost is too wet. If the compost ever appears dusty, you’ll want to add a little more water.
Ideally, aim for compost which, when squeezed yields only a few drops and ultimately takes a on a rich dark colour. Due to the different stages of decomposition that different sections of your compost may be at, it’s also a good idea to check the moisture levels while turning the heap, as this will let you know if certain sections are too wet or too dry.
As we hope you now realise, composting is not a particularly arduous or complicated task. It may take a little patience and a watchful eye in certain situations but, should you get your ratios right, occasionally turn and check moisture levels, you have everything you need right at home.