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24.02.2023

Making Compost at Home – The Complete Guide

making your own compost at home for gardening

How to make your own compost

Making compost at home is a great way to make use of kitchen scraps, spoiled food, garden waste, and even paper and cardboard. Compost also provides a home for a variety of insects, boosting the biodiversity of your garden.

Recycling, using up food waste, and providing you with free nutrient-rich food for your plants – what’s not to love? Making your own compost requires a little effort to begin with. But once your compost bin or heap is established, it requires very little work. This guide tells you everything you need to begin composting at home, and how you can use homemade compost when gardening.

Compost heap vs compost bin

a composting enclosure made from wood

So when you are making compost at home, the first thing you will need to decide is if you want a compost pile or heap, or a compost bin. Some people even build a wooden open topped enclosure to keep their compost in. They may even have several lots in various stages of decomposition at the same time, but for most people, just one lot of compost will be fine.

A compost pile, or heap, is just what it sounds like – a pile of decaying organic matter in your garden. Remember that a compost heap is exposed to the elements and any animals that frequent your garden. Some people find that compost heaps can attract rats – they are a valuable part of the ecosystem but it’s understandable to not want them in your home garden, especially if you live in a town or city. To ensure even decomposition, you need to turn compost heaps by hand regularly. They also may need to be covered to protect them from overly wet or dry weather.

You can buy a compost bin, or obtain a second-hand one from sites like Gumtree or Facebook marketplace. Other containers can be used for composting, although they would need to be quite large, made of a material suitable for outdoor use, and have good ventilation. They would also be accessible from the top and the bottom. For this reason, we would recommend using a receptacle designed specifically for making compost.

Where to make compost

a plastic compost bin

Compost doesn’t usually have an overly bad or strong smell, but just in case we wouldn’t recommnd placing it right next to your house. Place your compost bin or pile directly onto the earth – this will help with the composting process, as worms and other microorganisms will have easy access. It will be difficult to move your compost bin or help once it is established, so make sure it is in a suitable place. Consider where you are going to be using your compost in the garden, and make sure it’s in an accessible spot.

Place your compost on level ground that has good drainage. Avoid placing it somewhere that gets no sun, as heat will help speed up the composting process. Some people also find that if they place their compost bin too close to a tree, the tree roots can end up growing up into the compost bin! Bear this in mind when considering placement.

What can you add to your compost?

kitchen scraps for making your own compost at home

A good compost is made up of two main types of ingredients – green waste and brown waste. Green waste is rich in nitrogen and includes things like grass cuttings, fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, and manure from animals like horses. Brown waste is rich in carbon and includes things like cardboard, paper, sawdust, prunings and hedge trimmings. You need a 50:50 mix of both kinds of waste when making compost at home. For kitchen scraps, you may want to utilise a tub with a lid for storing fruit and vegetable peels. This will save you having to go out to the compost bin every time you peel a potato.

Below is a full list of everything you can put into your compost:

Green waste

  • Crushed up eggshells – not rich in nitrogen but do contain other elements like calcium and potassium
  • Teabags (check they don’t contain plastic or metal)
  • Nettle leaves and other green leafy plants
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Manure from herbivores
  • Coffee grounds
  • Grass cuttings
  • Annual weeds

Brown waste

  • Cardboard and paper (shred it for faster composting)
  • Woody prunings and hedge trimmings
  • Wood ash (but only a small amount)
  • Used pet bedding from herbivores
  • Paper towels (plastic free)
  • Dry leaves
  • Sawdust
  • Straw

Don’t put these in your compost:

  • Meat, dairy, bread, fats, cooked or processed foods
  • Cardboard or paper with inks or gloss finishes
  • Perennial weeds like bindweed
  • Dog or cat poops
  • Diseased plants
  • Citrus fruits
  • Coal ash

Maintaining your compost

If you have a compost heap, you will need to give it a little more attention than a compost bin. Heaps require turning with a garden fork around once a month to ensure all the materials decompose evenly. Whether you have a compost bin or a compost heap, keep an eye on the colour and texture of your compost. If your compost is sludgy and smelly, it likely has too many nitrogen rich ingredients. Conversely, if your compost is dry and doesn’t appear to be actually decomposing, it probably has too many carbon-based ingredients. If your compost is equal parts green and brown waste and still seems dry, you can add some water.

During the process of composting, the compost will become very warm as the material breaks down at the microbial level, reaching temperatures as high as 71°C. This is more likely to occur if you are composting in an enclosed environment like a compost bin. This method is known as ‘hot composting’, and can speed up the rate of decomposition, and also kill off any harmful bacteria or pathogens that may thrive in rotting organic matter. 

snails may take up residence in your compost bin and will help to decompose the organic material into compost

Note: there will be bugs! Compost is home to all kinds of insects, worms, and tiny microscopic creatures, who all play a part in the decomposition of organic matter. They are helping you make the compost, and you are helping them by providing a home and plentiful food. So if you open your compost bin and see a variety of small friends, like earthworms, slugs, snails, ants, and woodlice, don’t be alarmed.

When you can use your compost

homemade compost that is ready to use

Once the compost has rotted down sufficiently, you can use it in your garden or even as potting compost. You will know the compost is ready to use because it will be dark brown and crumbly with no recognisable bits of food scraps or anything in it, and will have a slightly sweet smell. In short, it should look a lot like the compost you can buy from shops. The composting process can take anywhere between 6 months to 2 years. You can speed it up by maintaining a healthy mix of green and brown waste, shredding up cardboard or any larger ingredients, and (weirdly) by making a larger amount of compost at a time. The larger the compost pile or bin, the more heat will be generated, and the faster decomposition will occur.

How to use homemade compost

Now that you have your lovely, rich homemade compost, there are several ways that you can use it when gardening. Try spreading a layer of compost on top of garden beds as a mulch. There’s no need to dig it in, the microorganisms and worms will ensure it gets worked into the soil nicely. You can top-dress already established garden beds, or use the compost to create brand new ones. If you want to use your compost as potting soil, you can do that too! Try mixing it with a topsoil and vermiculite for a nutrient-rich potting soil that you can even use for indoor plants.

Alternative ways of making homemade compost

Some people use specialist techniques to make compost at home, such as using a worms in a process called vermiculture. The worms make a very nice compost full of worm castings that is even more nutritious than regular compost. Worm composting can be tricky though, as it can be hard to separate the worms from the compost, and it does take the same amount of time as regular composting.

You can also make a very fine potting soil mix by composting exclusively with brown leaves. In autumn, try raking your fallen leaves and composting them in a sealed container or thick, opaque bag. This can take up to two years to make, but leaves you with a fine growing medium ideal for planting seeds in.

Did you enjoy this blog? Check out our post on planting your own wildflower seeds if you like gardening!

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