When I first thought about starting composting, I just assumed that you threw your garden clippings and grass cuttings into a compost bin and left it to do its thing. I had no idea that there is a possibility you could get this wrong, that far more items could go into the bin or that it needs the perfect balance to create your compost. After doing a fair bit of reading I am now over 6 months into our composting journey? Experiment? Trial? I’ll let you know which is the right word once I see some results! But for now, here are some pointers to help you to get started with composting too.
I thought I would start with the why I am doing this. Composting isn’t something that had ever previously crossed my mind. I thought only those who had large gardens, an allotment or who grew their own each year would need this but once I discovered how much waste could go into a compost bin rather than into the normal bin, I knew I had to take this next step in order to continue on my waste-reducing journey. In our area, we have to pay for garden waste to be taken away, there is no food waste bin, recycling has been limited and the local tip has become incredibly busy. I don’t want to send things to landfill that could be otherwise used but then we also don’t want to be spending too much of our time trying to dispose of waste in other ways and so composting seemed to be the most sensible and the most useful choice.
On top of this, waste such as vegetable peelings, paper, leaves, old fruit all require air and water in order to decompose. In landfill, this isn’t possible. They are surrounded by plastic bags, squashed between other materials and become suffocated. This turns their process anaerobic which in turn, produces methane gases. Methane is a harmful greenhouse gas which is contributing towards global warming so the more waste we can stop going to landfill sites, the better.
Different Types of Compost Bins
When looking for a compost bin the number of choices can be quite overwhelming. Do you get wooden or plastic? Do you go for open or closed? How big does it need to be? Why are the prices so variant? Here are the most common bins available:
Moulded plastic compost bin– This is a very popular choice. It is perfect for small or medium-sized gardens, does not require assembly and needs little attention. The circular shape of these makes turning your compost easy and means you have no corners for any materials to get bulked up in. Adding items and turning every now and then should be enough to keep this compost bin working for you.
Self-assembly plastic compost bins– These are square in shape and assembly is usually just a quick click-in system. Their shape also helps with placing in your garden as they easily fit into a corner. However, this does mean that you will need a good mixture of contents in order to aid in the composting process and to prevent raw materials from becoming stuck in the corners plus you will need to turn it well. Still another pretty easy system for the novice composter.
Wooden composter– These are usually sold as a flatpack system made up of wooden slats. Once built, they will make a square composter but often do not come with a lid. If you require a lid, you can easily use something like tarpaulin as a cover. These may be more expensive than a plastic bin but they will last you so should be seen as an investment. These are usually the preference for the avid gardener or for an allotment.
Beehive composter– Resembling the shape of a beehive, these wooden composters are both more attractive, durable and can be used in all sized gardens. This system does rely on layers in order to make it work so you will need to do your research if you choose this type of composter.
Tumbler– A tumbling composter is a plastic container which you can turn in order to keep your materials mixing. This will also allow for drainage as this does not sit on the ground. It is a completely enclosed system which means even though it may seem simple, you won’t have worms and other insects on hand to help to speed up the composting process. The main benefit of having one like this is that it can be easily moved, it can be easily turned and does not require too much maintenance.
Open composting– This type of compost bin can be whatever you want to make it. You can buy them readymade or you could make your own out of old pallets of wood. You could just simply off a section of the garden and just use this, you could use chicken wire to create a basic shape to keep your heap in or go for old tyres or boxes. Leaving your materials to do their job on their own may seem like the easiest option but you will need to consider how wet/dry your compost heap is becoming and you may want to think about making a lid of some sort. As well as this you will also need to check regularly for unwanted weed growth. On the plus side, turning it is very easy with a garden fork and it is always accessible.
TIP: Shop around. Prices really vary online and you want to find the best deals. There are plenty of secondhand compost bins on selling sites which will still work perfectly fine. These are far better on the environment as buying pre-loved keeps products in circulation and reduces the need for brand new ones to be manufactured.
Your compost bin should ideally sit on earth, with a nice amount of shade and sun, not underneath a tree (as it may begin to rot the roots) and should be accessible from your home to encourage you to want to tend to it and add your kitchen waste to it. Some people also say that it should be near to a hose pipe just in case it dries out too quickly and needs some water adding to it.
TIP: Purchase a kitchen caddy to transfer your kitchen waste from your home out to your compost bin easily and with very little mess.
What Can I Compost?
- coffee grounds
- flowers and pot plants
- ‘fruit peelings and cores
- vegetable peelings
- garden cuttings
- grass cuttings
- pet hair
- human hair
- nail clippings
- pet bedding
- sticks and twigs (although they will take a long time to breakdown so don’t overdo it)
- straw and hay
- tea bags (no plastic-lined bags. You will need to rip the bags and empty the contents in)
- tea leaves
- natural textiles such as silk, wool, cotton
- soil and used compost
- wood ash
- vacuum cleaner contents (no plastic fibres- check the materials used to make your carpet)
- human urine! (this is very good for your compost as it is rich in nitrogen which activates the composting process)
- slugs and snails
- compostable packaging
What NOT To Put On The Compost
- nappies (yes, even the ones that claim to be biodegradable- do not do it!)
- cat and dog faeces
- coal ash
- cooked food
- cooked meat
- glossy paper
- sanitary towels/tampons
- synthetic materials
Getting The Right Mix
Your compost bin needs air, warmth, raw materials and water in order to process. Ok, so this can look a bit tricky when you start to do your research and when I read it, it immediately made me doubt whether I could get this right but I think as long as you don’t overdo it one area, you should be on the right path.
It is all about the right carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio and the right balance. Carbon is needed by organisms for energy and nitrogen is needed building them up. There is a lot of talk of the numbers for the C:N ratio and this can be very confusing. I believe that overthinking this will cause composting to become a chore rather than apart of your everyday lifestyle so we need to focus on understanding it in simple terms and following basic rules.
The wetter the items the higher they are in nitrogen. The drier the items, the higher they are in carbon. Too much nitrogen will lead to bad-smelling slime and too much carbon will lead to a dry compost that will not breakdown.
Or you could look at it as your greens and browns. Too many greens will breakdown and leave you with juices, slime and smell. Too many browns and you will be waiting an awful long time for that compost. A good balance, using layers and turning your compost pile will all help to aid in the composting process.
Your bottom layer should ideally be sitting on earth. This will allow the bugs, insects and worms to get up into the materials and help it to breakdown and will also allow the juices to be absorbed. If you cannot place your compost bin onto the ground and only onto a paved area, you should layer the bottom with wood, twigs, cardboard or newspaper to prevent juices from running off.
If you have placed yours on the earth, your first layer should be twigs or woody pruning to give your bin a good base. You will find a variety of tips online and you may come across conflicting advice but as long as you layer well, you shouldn’t run into trouble. Try something like this:
- First layer- woody materials
- Then soil or compost
- Kitchen waste to attract worms
- Cardboard and paper
- Grass clippings
- And repeat
All are recommended to be around 6-12 cm deep but who has the time to be checking that closely? Plus, as you turn it or mix it up you will be changing the layers’ ratios anyway. I am trying to keep to a good even layer, then adding something different. If you only added wet grass clippings on top of more wet grass clippings then tipped your kitchen waste on top, walked away and left it to do its thing, you will most certainly have a recipe for disaster. The browns help to dry, they help to absorb the moisture. The greens need to be there to help with the decomposition but you don’t want this happening too fast. Again, it is all about the balance. And of course, you can easily change things up if you begin to run into trouble. If it looks too wet, remove some materials, add some shredded paper/cardboard which will soak up the moisture.
A Good Recipe For Making Compost
A good balance with your C:N ratio
Adding browns as you add greens creates better aeration
Turning the heap adds oxygen
Shred materials before adding to create air pockets
Warmth is needed for the organisms to stay active
Worms and insects are vital
Avoid too much water from entering the compost bin
The Finished Product
Your perfect finished compost should be dark brown or even black, dry and rich. It should be quite crumbly with an earthy smell. How quickly you achieve this will depend on how many materials you add to it, the location of your bin, how well you layer it and allow oxygen in and so on. This isn’t a process that needs to be rushed and if you are just starting out, as I am, it is best to observe, see what works for you, see what gives you results and just enjoy this new experiment. There are ways of speeding composting up but I would say from reading up on this that it is probably best left up the more experienced gardener/composter but of course you can do your own research in this area and decide for yourself.
I hope this has given you a little more insight into starting to compost and it will lead to you having a go yourself, reducing your household waste and giving you some amazing compost to use on your garden all year round.
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