Waste at Home

Waste at Home

How composting works and FAQs

Why compost?

Composting is nature’s way of turning waste back into nourishment for plants and animals. It happens all around us – in the woods, in fields and parks and it can happen in your garden too.

All organic materials – from vegetable peelings and woollen jumpers to pet hair and paper – can be turned into rich compost. As up to 30% of the waste in the average household bin is organic, most householders find that composting vegetable/fruit peelings, leaves and garden waste makes a considerable difference to how much they send to landfill.
Home produced compost improves your soil, reduces the need for artificial fertilizers and means you don’t have to buy any. It is an easy, cheap and practical way to manage your waste and take care of your garden.

How does it work?

Composting happens when small organisms (several billions in each gram of compost) such as harmless bacteria, enzymes and fungi are given a chance to ‘eat’ organic waste. This process breaks down the waste and changes its structure so that plants and trees can extract nourishment from it. In addition, the waste produced by the organisms and by worms in the compost heap increases the nutritional value.

There are several ways of making compost, but it’s a fairly simple process and will quite happily manage itself. With a bit of help from you, the process is faster and the end product better.

The ingredients of good composting are simple: organic materials, air and water.

The materials used to make compost should be a balanced mix of wet and dry, woody and sappy and should provide the right ratio of nourishment. In practice, that means that all your fruit and vegetable waste and most of your garden waste is suitable. For a complete list of what you can and can’t put in see our do’s and don’ts of composting.

Microbes need air just like any other organism, so it’s important to turn and aerate the compost heap regularly. Water is important too, as many bacteria and other organisms in the heap can’t do their job if it’s too dry. Moisture also helps to regulate the temperature of the heap, ensuring the most efficient breakdown process. You can test the moisture content of your compost by picking up a handful (it is recommended that you wear gloves to do this) and

squeezing it. If water comes out of the compost, it is too wet. If the compost falls apart in your hand, it is too dry.

Three simple steps to great compost:

1. Buy or build a suitable bin
2. Get a good balance of wet and dry materials
3. Turn the compost with a spade or fork now and then

Composting FAQs

Should my bin be in the sun?

This depends on the type of bin you have. If it’s a plastic bin with a lid, it will be less prone to drying out and the heat of the sun can be helpful in speeding up the breakdown process. If you have an open bin or box, it’s better to keep it in at least partial shade. Try and keep your bin out of the wind, so it’s easier to turn it without material flying away on a windy day.

My compost smells bad – what can I do?

If you haven’t been adding cooked food scraps, meat or dairy waste to the heap, the smell is probably due to excessive moisture. If conditions are too damp, this encourages the activity of anaerobic micro-organisms, which do not need air and tend to create smelly substances as a by-product of their activity. Turn the heap and add more dry or woody materials, such as fallen leaves or small pieces of cardboard.

My heap doesn’t seem to be heating up like it should.

It might be too dry – so add more wet materials like soft garden waste, vegetable or fruit peelings or you could pour on a few pints of water. You can also try shredding materials more finely, which increases the surface area of the particles and speeds up their decomposition. Don’t worry too much about the temperature – even if the heap isn’t steaming hot, the compost process will still take place: it will just take a little longer.

Will my compost heap attract vermin?

If you don’t put cooked foods, starchy foods, meat or dairy scraps on the heap, there shouldn’t be anything there to attract either pets or vermin. Put a rock on the lid or cover the top of the heap with a piece of old carpet to make it less accessible. The base of the compost bin can be covered with fine mesh chicken wire to prevent vermin from entering the bin from underneath while still allowing beneficial creatures such as worms to get in.

If you put on lots of fallen fruit or fruit peelings in the summer, wasps and bees may start hovering around. Try burying fruit scraps in the middle of the heap. Turn it regularly to speed up decomposition.

Why can’t I put in all my grass clippings?

Whether your compost heap can handle large amounts of grass clippings depends on how big it is and on what else is in it. Large amounts of clippings dumped on a small heap tend to turn into green slime rather than crumbly compost. Stirring and turning the heap to incorporate the clippings makes better compost, as does mixing in dry materials such as leaves or cardboard. The best way to deal with grass clippings is to cut the grass frequently and simply leave the clippings on the lawn to nourish and protect the roots.

Should I add activator or accelerator substances?

Activators, or inoculents, which provide short-term infusions of nitrogen, are not necessary. It is better to mix in manure, leaves, grass clippings or even bone meal, which deliver a slow release of nitrogen over time and are less likely than commercial preparations to wash out and contaminate the ground water.

Should I add lime to the heap?

Adding lime can cause nitrogen to be released in the form of ammonia gas and is not recommended. You don’t have to worry about the pH of your compost heap – it generally adjusts itself and stays around neutral (pH7). If necessary, the pH can be adjusted when the compost is finished, after a pH test.

How long does it take to compost?

The composting process takes from a few months to two years depending on how you manage the heap, the materials added and the conditions. A heap turned every week or so and carefully managed under all the right conditions may compost in a few months. An unturned heap will often take about six months to two years to fully compost.

How do I create ‘finished’ compost if I am always adding materials to the compost bin?

After a period of time composting in one bin, empty the bin and set aside the compost for a ‘curing’ period. This will allow materials in the heap to finish the decomposition process at lower temperatures. Make sure the compost is moist and aerated by turning during the curing period, which can be as short as one month or as long as a year. While this batch of compost is curing, you can start adding materials to the compost bin again for the active composting process.

How do I know when the compost is finished? What can I use it for?

When the compost is ready depends on what it is being used for. Unfinished compost (where you can still recognise bits of what you originally put in) can be used as a layer of mulch on the soil surface. This will gradually decompose

over time, adding nutrients and conditioning the soil. Unfinished compost can also be dug in to condition garden soils in the autumn, so it finishes decomposing in the earth by spring.

If you want to use the compost for planting trees, as lawn top dressing or as soil conditioner during the growing season, it needs to be more mature. Finished compost is moist and crumbly, smells earthy and doesn’t contain recognisable materials.

You can also make ‘compost tea’ from mature compost to feed your houseplants and seedlings. This can be done by soaking some compost in a cheesecloth bag until the water is the colour of weak tea.

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