A simple beginner’s guide to composting

Home composting is also a win-win activity. Not only is it a sustainable way of disposing of kitchen food scraps and garden waste, it also happens to make top-notch compost that your plants will love.

You don’t need a massive garden to get into composting — even small gardens and balconies work!

If you’re not sure quite where to start, we’ve created a helpful beginner’s guide to composting for getting started.

As Kerry Connolly, founder of Willow and Greene gardening school in Northern Ireland, told me: “homemade compost is recycled goodness which powers up your plants.”

What time of year can I compost?

All year round! Composting is also a year-round activity. According to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), late summer to early winter is peak compost-making time.

You’ll get a thriving compost pile in six months (at the very most) even in winter months.

How to pick a good place to compost

Picking the perfect spot for your composting site is really important. Ideally, it’s best not to position your compost heap or container somewhere that’s subject to a lot of changes in temperature and moisture. This is because the micro-organisms that turn the waste into compost prefer constant conditions.

Claire Ratinon, author of How to Grow Your Dinner Without Leaving the House, told me it’s best to choose a site that’s partially shaded “to prevent it drying out on sunny days or getting saturated in wet weather.” Placing your heap or bin directly onto soil is also advisable, according to Ratinon.

“It might be tempting to place your heap or bin on paving slabs but since it’s essential that the contents are accessible to worms, insects, and soil-dwelling microbes who do the work of decomposing your kitchen scraps, you’ll get far better results placing it directly onto soil,” Ratinon explained.

Look at these beautiful compost scraps.
Credit: Getty Images

What type of composting bin should you use?

Composting containers come in all shapes and sizes, from repurposed wooden pallets to compact plastic bins. Guy Barter from the RHS told me it’s best to aim for bins with one cubic meter capacity or more. “Smaller bins work less well than larger ones. Two bins one rotting, the other being filled is ideal,” he added.

In need of some compost bin inspo? Here’s a fancy indoor composter for small apartments. Want to make your own compost bin? Read this helpful guide. Struggling to decide? Same! Here’s a useful guide on which type of compost bin is best.

Short on space?

If you don’t have loads of room in your garden, that’s not a problem. Simon Akeroyd, author of Perfect Compost, told me the simplest type of compost container is a small cardboard box. “Fill it up with all your fruit and veg kitchen waste, and when it’s full, plunge the box and its contents into the soil and leave it to decompose,” said Akeroyd. Leave it there until it is fully decomposed. When it’s fully composted, you can dig it up and use it around your garden. Try to make sure the kitchen waste is sufficiently buried to deter any rodents!

If you have cardboard packing you need to get rid of, this could be a good solution for you. Make sure you remove any packaging stickers, plastic tape, or anything that’s not biodegradable. Plus, you don’t have to worry about the expense of buying a compost container, said Akeroyd. “Furthermore, your garden soil is enriched with carbon from the cardboard and nitrogen-based material from the kitchen waste, two essential ingredients for healthy plant growth,” he added.

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Do you have a rooftop garden? Add a compost bin to make your plants happy.
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Getting the balance just right

The RHS are strong supporters of composting and have done it heaps of research (pun intended) on the matter. Getting the right balance of soft green materials to woody brown material is key in getting the bacteria and micro-organisms to do their job.

“Blending moist soft material such as vegetable waste, lawn mowings, and weeds with drier strawy material such as spent flower stems and fallen leaves in about a 50:50 mix greatly enhances the speed of composting,” Guy Barter from the RHS told me. “Unfortunately there is often a lot more soft material in the garden than strawy, but scrunched up newspaper, torn up cardboard and indeed shop-bought straw works well.”

Try to get between 25 and 50 percent soft green organic matter — vegetable kitchen waste, grass clippings, weeds. The rest of your compost heap should be comprised of brown waste, woody material like paper, cardboard, dead leaves, and pruned yard waste. Try not to let one material dominate the heap. Too many grass clippings could make your compost really slimy and, let’s face it, no one wants slimy compost.

Connolly from Willow and Greene advises putting twigs and branches at the base, then creating layers of brown ingredients then green waste. Then repeat!

Turn it up

Want to speed up your compost’s rotting? Mix or turn the contents of your heap or bin. “This usually involves tipping the bin contents out and refilling the bin,” said Barter. “A long-handled fork lightens the labor.”

Added bonus: Turning it makes your compost better.

Common composting problems with easy solutions

Has your bin gone dry and moldy? Barter recommends adding water or lawn mowing.

Too slimy? Connolly recommends adding more browns.

Too dry? “Add more greens,” said Connolly.

Flies? Make sure you cover your kitchen waste with garden waste to ensure moisture levels aren’t too high.

To speed things up, “break ingredients into small pieces, adding moisture, turning the heap regularly and adding in extra worms or compost activators,” Connolly added.

What about weeds? According to Barter, weed seeds and perennial weed roots will die in a hot compost bin “where the contents rot so fast they generate much heat.” But achieving that “good heat” is pretty difficult unless you fill up your bin quickly with the right balance of materials. “This does not matter – material rots down well enough, if more slowly, at lower temperatures but it is best not to add weed seeds and perennial weed roots,” he added.

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Try dry leaves as a brown base to balance your green material.
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When will it be ready?

It’ll take between six months and two years to get mature compost. You’ll know it’s mature from its color and texture: “dark brown with a crumbly soil-like texture and a smell resembling damp woodland,” per the RHS.

Additional resources to help your composting process

Fancy a composting app to help in your efforts? ShareWaste connects people with kitchen waste with neighbors who are composting, keeping chickens, or worm-farming.

Not sure what items you can compost? Check out CompostThat, a very cool Instagram account that posts beautiful photos to inform you what works as compostable material.

If you want to find a compost program near you, the CompostNow website will help you check availability in your area.

Here’s a great guide on all the myriad composting contraptions that you can buy.

Good luck and godspeed on your composting journey.

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