16 February 2010

Simple Living Series - Making compost

If you're about to start a new season garden, your time will be best served by enriching your soil.  This will do more for the health of your garden and the abundance of your crops than any fertiliser you apply later in the season.  If you plant your seeds and seedlings into fertile, living soil, you give them the best chance of success.
Our garden in full production with the compost heap and bin sitting quietly at the back. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Yesterday we talked about enriching the soil and there is no better way to do that than by adding compost. Compost is a gentle fertiliser that adds organic matter to the soil.  Organic matter will bring the worms in, and they will bring in all manner of microbes that will help creature the soil you need for good crops.  Another great thing about compost is that it will help you manage your kitchen and garden waste, you end up throwing less in the rubbish bin and recycle bin, and you will make, at home, the best fertiliser possible for your garden.

Once you start making compost, you'll look at your household waste in a different way.  Many things that were once alive, like paper, cardboard, cotton and linen fabric, hair, tea leaves etc, can be used to make compost.  Instead of being waste, they'll now be a resource to make the best fertiliser around.  So start your search today.  If you're decluttering, bingo!  You can use all those old papers, magazines and worn out skirts in your compost heap.  Set up a little compost collection bucket in your kitchen for the kitchen waste you want to put into the compost.  It's best if this has a lid if you want to empty it once a day.

Our compost heap this morning.  Hanno has moved the brown compost to the left side so he can start another heap with the new grass clippings.

There are two categories of materials you need for making compost, and for the sake of simplicity, we'll call them greens (which supply nitrogen) and browns (which supply carbon).  Greens are the wet nitrogen filled materials like grass clippings, kitchen waste and fresh manures. Browns are dry things like paper, cardboard and straw.  You will need 30 browns (carbon) to one green (nitrogen).  Now that might sound complicated but all it means is that you need much more dry material like paper and straw than you need greens. Everything you add to the heap should be small.  Chop up the scraps, cardboard etc with your garden spade before adding.  The smaller it is, the faster it will decompose.  BTW, if you don't have enough kitchen scraps to make a compost heap, chop up your kitchen waste and bury it in the garden.  It will decompose and add to the fertility of the soil.

BROWNS - carbon
  • shredded newspaper and magazines - but nothing glossy and coloured 
  • shredded computer paper 
  • cardboard - cut up in small pieces
  • crushed egg shells  
  • ash  
  • straw and hay   
  • hair  
  • the contents of your vacuum cleaner - check to make sure there's no plastic  
  • wool and cotton clothing 

GREENS - nitrogen
  • grass clippings
  • leaves
  • green garden waste - but nothing that is diseased and no woody branches, they take too long to break down
  • anything high in nitrogen like cow, goat, sheep, chicken and horse manures, chicken manure pellets
  • fruit and vegetable peelings - not onion or citrus, which are best in a separate pile because they take a long time to decompose
  • kitchen waste - but not meat or dairy products
  • seaweed 
  •  meat
  • dairy products
  • diseased plants
  • anything plastic or acrylic
  • dog or cat poo
This is our compost in mid winter.  This time the compost in use is on the right (with potatoes growing out the top) and the newer material is on the left.

Build your compost heap on bare ground, not on bricks or pavers.  You want the worms and microbes to find and colonise the compost, so it needs to be on the soil.  Site the heap close to the garden where it will be used and if you have dogs or chickens, it will need to be fenced off or else they will eat what you put in there.  If you live in an extreme climate, it might be best if you shelter the heap up against a wall.  This will also provide a solid border to one side of the heap.

  • Start on bare earth by placing a thick layer of shredded newspaper or straw as your base.
  • Add whatever other ingredients you have, alternating browns and greens if you can (sometimes you can't).  
  • Always remember the 30 brown to one green ratio.  If your compost is too dry with browns ,it won't decompose, if it is too wet with greens, it will smell.  When the heap has been going for a while, if it is too dry, add greens, if it's too wet, add browns.
  • On the first day, if you've built a reasonable heap, get the hose and moisten it.  Don't wet it, just a slight spray to moisten things and to start the heap off.  
  • If you have heavy rain or snow, or if you're in a cold climate, you will need to protect the heap with a heavy tarpaulin.  If you can, tie a brick to each corner with cord to keep it in place over the heap.
  • If you don't have any animal or poultry manure, see if you can buy or barter a bag, or, alternatively, buy a bag of chicken manure pellets from the produce store and lightly scatter them through the layers as you add to the heap.  Animal manure should also be added every so often to the heap.  The manure will heat up the compost and activate the compost a great deal.  Comfrey leaves will also help speed up decomposition.
 Comfrey will help activate and speed up the composting process.
    Making compost is not rocket science but you do need to watch your green to brown ratio.  The truth is, if you threw all the above into a heap in your backyard, it would eventually rot down, no matter what you did and you'd have compost.  But we are actively working to increase the fertility of our gardens, so we want compost and we want it NOW.  What ever you can do to speed up the process, do it.  Turning the compost helps speed it up, so turn it over with a fork about once a week.

    If you build your heap well, you'll feel it heat up and sometimes you'll see steam coming off it.  If the heap doesn't heat up, add more manure and mix it in.  But even if it doesn't heat up, if you're in a warm climate and you turn it regularly, you'll have compost in about eight weeks.  It will take longer in cold climates.  But  use your gardener's common sense and help it along however you can.  Protection up against a brick wall, covering the heap and adding manure will help heat up the heap even in cold climates.  If you have any tips on cold climate compost, please add your comment.  We'd all love to learn more about this interesting subject.

    Eventually, all the pieces of paper, hair, manure and kitchen waste will evolve into beautiful dark brown, sweet smelling compost. Planting your seeds and seedlings into soil enriched with compost will give them the best chance of survival, but compost making is an ongoing garden task.  If you can make a lot of it in summer, and you live in a snowy climate, store it in your shed over winter for the coming season.  If you're in a milder climate, it's fine to just having it sitting in the garden waiting to be used.  Making compost might seem like a chore in the beginning, but it will become second nature to you, and when that happens, you'll reduce the amount of  household waste you give to other people to dispose of for you and you'll have a continuous supply of the best soil conditioner and fertiliser.


    1. This is a wonderfully comprehensive, yet simple, guide to compost production and use. I agree that it makes all the difference, and have been trying to diligently apply it to our orchard.
      Have a great day, Rhonda.
      Tracy (Brisbane)

    2. Hi Rhonda, I am totally with you re compost. I feel guilty if I accidentally drop something into the bin and usually fish it out! Thanks for the break up on items, I will study this further.

    3. It would be difficult to describe my emotional reaction to this post, as I long for spring and look out on my yard when yet again the snow is falling so thickly that I can hardly see to the woods at the end! We've been having an extremely intense winter, as have lots of others in the US...It just keeps coming and coming. My dog can hardly make it outside because the snow is already up to his neck...

      Nevertheless, this post is really interesting. I just have to find faith that the blizzards will cease and spring will come again! I have a compost bin my son built for me, but I need to work at it more cleverly to make it work a little faster. You've given me some good ideas, Rhonda. Thanks.

    4. Thank you for the ratio, I had it the opposite, as much snow as we've had I doubt mine has done much. It is covered but, I havmuch more green. Have towait for a thaw to get to it now!

    5. Hi Rhonda, That is the best explanation for building a compost thankyou. My husband actually just started setting one up the same but smaller scale on the weekend.
      Erika :0)

    6. Thank you for this, Rhonda.I've been tentatively wanting to start a compost heap but as a complete novice, I usually end up confused and put it off. One question- can I put fresh chicken manure on it?

    7. Wow, great step by step instructions!
      We have talked about starting a compost pile, but haven't so far. YOur post will help us on our way.
      Thanks! ~Nancy

    8. This is really interesting. I use pine shavings for my chicken coops. So I guess my brown and greens are equal? It looks like it too dry to me. The Goats pen is heavy and wet with hay and manure and the chickens are dry and fluffy. So would it be better to layer the shavings and goat manure and not just a pile of shavings under a pile of hay?

    9. Hang in there Kristi. Warm weather is coming.

      Maryanne, fresh manure is good. It is not wise to put fresh manure on the garden but as this will sit for some time, it's fine.

      Domestic goddess, wood shavings and saw dust take a very long time to break down and are generally not advised for compost heaps, but as it's accompanied by lots of fresh manure, you might get away with it. I've never used it, so this is a guess. Mix the two together and see what it's like after two weeks. If it's either wet or dry, add the component it needs at that point. But if it balances itself out, you'll have a non-stop source of compost. I think that if you do need to add anything, it would be hay, or shredded paper or cardboard. Good luck and let me know how it goes.

    10. It all sounds so clear and easy but we never have any success with our compost. Three years in a row we have had maggots which I loath and we gave up. It always seems too wet regardless of what we add. We live in a very humid enviroment and I wonder if that affects it.

      Adele, Japan

    11. Wow - what a great post! All you ever wanted to know about composting in a simple and easily understood format. Thanks for all the info!

    12. Thanks so much for all of your posts Rhonda. I am a long time reader and each time I read your blog I know my choices in life are right on target. Thanks so much for being part of my daily read!

    13. Thanks so much for this post, Rhonda! I am just embarking on our first garden and this is the best explaination of 'how to" on compost I've read.


      Lisa (Nrthn NSW)

    14. Just finished reading the humanure handbook; according to the guy there you can put in dairy, meat, etc. as long as you're doing it in such a way that you protect it from animals (i.e. not just a pile in the yard) and it reaches high enough temperatures for a long enough time. You can download the book online. I don't have any personal experience, but I thought it might be worth mentioning an alternative perspective on composting. It's a pretty interesting read either way.

    15. Just wanted to add that fresh chicken manure counts as a 'green' as it is high in nitrogen.

    16. I have been doing my research on composting and the how to's for a while now. Because we are close to wildlife that will get into it I will need to enclose it in some way.

      I am thinking of getting the large cement blocks with the holes in them and stacking them with holes showing. Then put chicken wire or something on the inside to keep the critters out.(racoons, skunks, fox etc.)

      Add a front and top lid of some sort...hmmm...lots to think on but I think I have almost figured it out.

      ??One question if I am letting the compost sit for a year before use and I am not worried about how quick it cooks for me...

      Can I add the onions and citrus too??

      ---Krystal (from Nova Scotia, Canada)

    17. Thank you so much for this post! I am starting my first compost pile this week. So excited to have good info on how to do this! :) Melissa

    18. Rhonda, this is so practical and well explained. I'm going to show it to my husband when he comes home. Now you've really got me motivated to make compost. :)

    19. Thank you so much for the information on starting a compost!! We are in the process of moving our garden and I've started collecting kitchen waste and have piled it up within the garden area. Your post gave me a lot more insight of how to compost and I'm excited to start. I had not known about the brown/green ratio! Thanks so much! Janice in Oregon

    20. Rhonda - this is the simplest and easiest information I've seen on composting. Thank you so much for breaking it down for us (pun intended)! This year will be my third year for a big garden, and my first to begin composting. It's a MUST, and I'm looking forward to beginning! Thanks!

    21. Great advice! I love how you've broken down the browns and greens like that...it should be easier to remember. This was so timely...I'm just gearing up to begin prepping my garden plot out for planting and we've decided to get a compost heap going as well since we want to put organic matter back into our soil.

    22. Hi Rhonda,

      The question about the sawdust and manure.

      It takes a good year or more for everything to compost, here. Keep in mind that in the winter (Oct-April) the piles are mostly frozen on the outside but warm and steamy in the center. Ours are turned with the bucket loader every couple of weeks if not sooner.

      For the regular compost it is frozen solid all winter but I keep adding to it anyway. That is commitment to spend an hour to shovel a path through the snow :)come spring it will start working again after it has a chance to dry out a bit from all the melted snow.

      I also have 6 bins to make leaf mold. They rotate every 3 years. Each fall I will fill 2 bins that I emptied earlier in the spring, and come spring empty the oldest 2 and fill those again in the fall. I don't do anything to the leaf piles and it takes about 3 years to be just right for the garden.

      When filling the bins I will rake a pile and run the leaves over a few times with the mower then toss them in the pile.

      The garden is beautiful and I love how green everything is, here it's white, white, white :)


    23. Hi Rhonda Jean, thanks for this post on composting. Like alot of the other readers we too are about to start composting, and have been doing alot of reading up. The more info the more confused we became. Your directions lay it out wonderfully. I have one question, we are using town water as we have no tanks, we are in the middle of an E. Coli outbreak in our water supply. Is it safe to start our compost pile with this water or should we wait until we get the all clear? I know you may not have an answer for us but maybe one of your readers may. Thanks so much, Deb

    24. When we start a new compost pile we add a shovelful of the already made compost to add those good microbes etc to the new pile. Seems to get it going even faster. It is a shame that most of the newspapers now have so many colored pictures in them. Used to be we could use most all the paper one way or the other in the garden...now most have colored inks. Since we have used cloth napkins since forever just yesterday I added one way worn out white linen one to the compost pile. Loved the enbrodery on it and I liked the idea of it being used still. I have also put pages of old books well beyond repair in the compost pile as I have finished reading them. Also old letters. The thought of distroying a book is terrible to me but these had paper that was chipping apart. Kind of nice to think of letters and favotite books etc all now a part of our soil that is now nourishing our bodies like they used to nourish our minds and souls. Jody

    25. Yet another great post Rhonda. I have a query: For our compost we use an upturned garbage bin with the bottom cut out and place the lid on it with a brick. I have read about turning the compost heap but if I take the bin off I am scared the heap will spread out and the bin wont fit back on the pile! Should I be somehow "stirring" this heap up inside the bin? Not really sure how to start.

    26. Deb, I don't know how long eColi stays around or if it's killed by the process of composting. Sorry. Can't you collect some rain water next time it rains?

      Hughesey, take the bin off and let the compost and material spill out. Then replace the bin and load it up again. It will speed up the process.

    27. This is a very informative and interesting article. I did not know that old clothing could be used for making compost. I would like to try it because I have plenty of old clothing that needs proper utilization.

      I would like to know could compost be produced in a pot? If yes, what are the steps?

    28. Thank you for this simple guide to how to do it properly, if the only exclusion for citrus is that it is slow to break down, I will put mine in some water in the blender and liquidise it first.
      verification word was "larders" :)

    29. Just wondering I have tried to compost but see now have had way to many greens and not enough browns in it - just have two questions that you may or may not be able to answer - can you put weeds in it- we have nasty innocent weed and calthrope here which I am constantly pulling up from around my garden and have always wondered if I can put them on my compost and also you mention manure - we have chooks, goats, cats and dogs- I know you can put chook manure in but do you or any of your readers know about the other manure - the cats use a littler tray and I have always wondered what I can do with this rather than putting it into the bin. We have foxes so they are insude at night.

      1. you can compost cat and dog poo but it should be in a separate place and the compost should NOT be used on the vegetable garden.

    30. Hey Rhonda great post :) do you just fish out the composted stuff through the doors at the bottom once done or do you fill it up then move the bin to another spot?

      1. We rarely use the black compost maker, we just have piles of compost up against the fence. We use it when it's ready and start another heap near the one we're using.

    31. I've just built a 2 sectioned wooden compost bin after our local council as started charging for taking our green waste away. I've started to layer it up and hopefully by next Spring I can spread it around my plants as a soil conditioner. My garden is mostly a Wild Live Garden and in June/July we have around 100 wild orchids in flower. I've never used chemical control on the garden.

    32. I've just started a worm farm (both farm and worms found on freecycle :) ) to help find a home for some of our kitchen waste as I found I had more greens than browns.

      I have a question for you though - what do you do with your chicken manure in the week after worming your chickens? I've always popped it into the compost heap but am now thinking that might not be so bright!

      1. HI Ruth. I've never wormed my chickens and I've never seen any worms in their poo. Are you worming them because they have worms or because you think you should?


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