Building up your soil and making compost

6 October 2007

These are the heirloom purple eggplants we grew earlier this year.

One of the main principles of organic gardening is to build healthy soil that enable plants to grow and bear fruit. If you build up your soil and keep increasing the amount of organic matter you add to it each year, it will reward you with a bountiful harvest year after year.

You don’t really need to know what type of soil you have because it will all benefit from having compost added to it. If you have sandy soil, the solution is to add compost and as much organic matter to increase the water holding capabilities and structure of the soil. If your soil is clay, the solution is to add compost to help break up the thick glug that doesn’t allow adequate aeration of plant roots. Actually, clay soil is full of nutrients, it’s just that it’s trapped in a structure that is so sticky that it can’t be accessed by plants. If you’re blessed with good loamy soil, you guessed it, it will be greatly improved by adding organic matter.

Organic matter is basically anything that was once alive. There is one exception to this rule though, don’t add meat or anything that will attract rodents or other wandering wildlife. The usual things that are added to soil to build it up are:

  • grass clippings
  • newspaper
  • shredded computer paper
  • cardboard
  • fruit and vegetable peelings
  • crushed egg shells
  • straw and hay

Other not so usual things, but still valuable additions are:

  • hair
  • the contents of your vacuum cleaner - check to make sure there's no plastic
  • tea bags, loose tea leaves, coffee grounds and coffee filters
  • saw dust and untreated wood shavings
  • wool and cotton clothing
  • seaweed
  • poultry manure and manure from non-meat eating animals. It’s a good idea to avoid using manure from meat eating animals as it contains dangerous pathogens.

Theoretically you could bury all the above onto your garden bed and it would eventually rot down. A far better way it to make compost – nature’s fertiliser. Forget commercial fertiliser, compost is natural fertiliser that you make yourself.

Composting takes place when plant matter, cuttings, paper, peels, lawn clippings and whatever else you use is broken down by worms, bugs, good bacteria and fungi. All these little creatures process your waste materials and mix it all together so that what was once a pile of lawn clippings, cabbage leaves and apple cores turns into dark brown, sweet smelling compost that will make your plants grow like the dickens. The smart side benefit of this, apart from all the goodness in your garden, is that you’ll be cutting down on what you put in your rubbish bin that would have once gone to the ever-growing pile of landfill.

The principle of composting is to add things that are mainly dry and carbon-based like paper, straw etc, to things that are wet and nitrogen based like vegetable peelings and lawn clippings etc. You mix all this together with some manure, give it moisture and air, by mixing it with a fork, and voila! Compost.

One day's harvest from earlier this year. Tomatoes, Asian eggplant, purple eggplant, lemons, eggs and cucumber.

You can make compost on the open ground or in a container. A compost bin uses the same materials as an open pile and has the advantage of being smaller and out of sight.

Spring is the best time to start a compost pile. You’ll have plenty of grass clippings and other material then. Start collecting newspaper and cardboard now. In the past, newspaper and computer print was toxic. Now, most print is okay to use except for coloured print and photos. So never use coloured segments from newspapers and don’t use magazines.

The more you fiddle around with your compost pile by turning it over and keeping it moist, the quicker your compost will mature. Try to get into the habit of turning it once a fortnight. If you just heap it up and leave it there, it will eventually turn into compost, but it will take a very long time. So be proactive and help the pile along, it will reward you.

Choose a site that is fairly close to your kitchen door and also close to your proposed garden. If it is next to the garden or in it, that’s ideal. The site should be well drained and level. If you can support three sides of the compost pile so much the better. You can use hay bales, bricks, wire or untreated wood to support the compost.

Lay a base of straw or shredded paper about 15cms (six inches) high over an area of around 1 metre (3 feet) square. You are aiming for maximum internal area with a minimum external area so try to keep the sides rising up as vertically as possible. Add a layer of manure and kitchen scraps or any of your saved green waste. Don’t add anything that clumps up. Try to fluff up everything that you add to allow maximum aeration of the pile. This helps with decomposition. Depending on what you have to add to the pile, you want to add layers of alternating green or wet waste like kitchen scraps and lawn clippings, to brown or dry waste like straw and newspaper etc. Every so often you need a layer of manure, dried poultry manure pellets or comfrey to activate the pile and keep it decomposing.

Keep your hose close by so you can moisten each layer. Ideally you’ll build a pile that’s a metre tall, but you probably won’t have enough material to complete your pile unless you’ve been out collecting like mad. When you run out of material, water the pile so that it’s moist by not soggy. Never let the pile dry out because that will slow down the rate of decomposition.

Now you have the beginnings of your compost. Stand back and marvel at this pile of pure gold. Over the following days, save everything you can to add to your pile. Decluttering? Add old, ratty pure wool jackets and pants or anything cotton to the pile. Cut them into little pieces first. Any old books? Rip up the non-coloured pages and add them to your mix. All your kitchen waste, old letters, crushed egg shells, coffee grounds, whatever you can lay your hands on. The list is endless. Just remember when you’ve added a layer of dry, add a layer of wet and an activator such as comfrey or manure. In no time you’ll have your compost ready to go. Don’t forget to turn it to help it along.

You’ll notice that the compost pile will keep getting smaller as it decomposes. This is a good sign as it means all the bugs and bacteria are doing their best to turn your rubbish into compost. Keep adding your layers, keep collecting and keep turning. If you have a long period of rain, cover your compost with a tarp or piece of plastic.

I can’t tell you a definitive time that it will take to make compost as it depends so much on weather conditions, how much you turn it and what’s in the pile. However, a good pile that’s looked after in warmish weather should be ready to use in 6 – 8 weeks.


  1. Excellent.

    I would also add that city dwellers with restrictions on compost piles should not let that deter them from making good compost -- or make them feel the need to buy expensive composting systems.

    Compost happens. It's part of life.

    And it can readily happen in a garbage can & lid drilled with a few air holes. You don't need fancy solutions you see in garden catalogues even if required to keep it out of site and contained.

    But I'd much prefer Rhonda Jean's suggestion of just letting it break down on a garden bed. Sometimes, when my bins overflow, I do the next best thing -- dig a trench and bury it! Given time the garden will reward you for your efforts.

    (RJ, thanks for the hugs, sorry for the craziness!)

  2. Another excellent post Rhonda Jean. Thank you! I also really enjoyed the posts with pictures of your yard - lovely. And the guest post on cloth diapers was also terrific. Thank you.

  3. Ohh, this makes me itch to get out to our block of land and get the compost started. Guess I'll have to make do with my worm farm until then. Thanks for the inspiring post Rhonda.


  4. Fantastic! Another nugget that will save me some money and the planet a bit of forest - thanks Rhonda! I was just planning to go buy timber to build some compost bays in an unused corner of my garden where I can deposit larger prunings and the endless leaves from the camphor laurels next door, and just let them sit, but you have shown me a better solution - hay bales! Now all I need is an old fashioned alternative to shredding all the envelopes and read-and-throw mail I get in the post. I lose interest in tearing and cutting these by hand. I've been thinking of buying a shredder, but that doesn't seem the right thing to do.

  5. Dear Rhonda J;
    Compost is definately "black gold" for the gardener. I started a compost bin and taught my boys to put peels, etc in a bucket we keep in the kitchen for that purpose. This is the best way to fertilize your soil.

  6. Excellent advice, Rhonda. I went to an agricultural highschool and remember with pleasure our compost-making experience! :)

  7. I did buy a shredder, I now shred everything paper, junk mail, kids' school papers, newspapers. Then I use it to line the pan under my rabbit pen. That saves me money on shavings. Then the whole kit and kaboodle go into my compost bin when I change the pan. There is a litter pan with shavings in the pen that is used daily by the bunny, but what falls through the floor onto the shredded newspaper is mine!
    thanks for the great blog Rhonda,

  8. This was our first year gardening in clay. I was surprised at how well the garden did though. We are slowly building up the soil with compost and manure.

  9. marg, like meri, we have a shredder. Ours is a leftover from my days in business. We are still shredding paper I was using when I was writing for a living! How shameful is that. Anyhow, it's a great tool to have in the simple backyard.

    thank you everyone. : )

    Stephanie, it's great to hear you're gardening in clay and using some of those nutrients. I hope you continue to build up your soil as it will give you excellent harvests with all that compost.

  10. After reading all this, I started thinking "I need a shredder". I even looked around at them, but I didn't buy one! I rang my mum, and she's sending me hers (which she doesn't use). Go me!

    So now, in terms of printer paper etc, is anything that doesn't have colour OK? What about kids drawings and paintings? We don't get newspapers, so most of our paper is going to be the bleached printer paper kind, is all that OK to use?


  11. I get the shredded papaer form work to put in my compost, which reminds me i need more. My compost just needs some animal manure to amke it happen a bit better!


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