Noble rot – a step-by-step guide to composting

It’s the perfect time to start making your own compost so muck in with our step-by-step guide to magical mulch…

Hollywood actresses Julia Roberts, Bette Midler and Alicia Silverstone can often be found fertility boosting, top dressing and conditioning – but it has nothing to do with their close ups.
Despite their glamorous lifestyles, the actresses are part of a growing number of celebrities turning to the dark, crumbly side: composting kitchen scraps and garden waste to make sweet-smelling, humus rich ‘black gold’.
And it’s not just a load of old rot.
Far from being the preserve of green-fingered gardeners, composting has benefits for everyone – transforming old food into new and reusing waste that would otherwise be destined for landfill.
Add to this the way it reduces our reliance on precious peat, cuts down on chemical fertilizers and provides a home for hundreds of beneficial insects – and composting is the one-stop shop for the eco warrior.

Heap or bin?

It’s handy then, that we have the ultimate in waste disposal at our fingertips.
Red, tiger, or brandling worms love nothing more than eating their way through organic matter, turning scraps into super soil – and while this process happens quite naturally every day and all around us, with the right ingredients we can speed up the process.
An informal pile at the bottom of the garden is fine for the beginner, but in reality containing your waste makes it easier and quicker to extract the good stuff. What you choose depends on your space too – where a wooden compost bin holds more debris and naturally aerates, a black ‘Dalek-style’ bin benefits from being compact, so is a good choice for small gardens.
Black bins tend to compost faster too because they heat up more quickly, and the worms do better when conditions are warm. If material is added quickly and regularly, you might be able to create a ‘hot heap’, which has the benefit of destroying weed seeds and diseases too. But be careful, as too much heat will kill the worms.
Two heaps are also better than one, as you’ll need one for new material and one for composted material, and all compost bins need to be sited directly onto the soil so the beneficial microbes can get in and the composting liquid can get out.

The right mix

Like a good coffee everyone has his or her favourite blend, but there’s no mystery or magic involved in making compost.
For the perfect garden stew, you simply need a good balance of carbon (browns), nitrogen (greens), and air and water.
Browns can be provided by shredded paper and cardboard, while greens such as plant and kitchen waste inject the nitrogen – and you need roughly 50/50 of each. Good things to compost include coffee grounds, tea bags, eggshells, egg cartons, vegetable and fruit peelings and garden cuttings, but go to www.recyclenow.com for a complete list of what you can and can’t compost.
While many believe you should also turn your heap regularly – forking the bottom layer onto the top – others allow the worms do the hard work, and, if you’ve got your balance of ingredients right, this should work a treat.
Once the base of your bin turns crumbly and darkly coloured, dig it out and use as a soil conditioner around hungry plants such as fruit bushes and trees (avoiding the stems and trunks), as a top up for containerised plants (scrape off the top few centimeters and mix in a handful) or for feeding your lawn. Compost acts as the perfect mulch in the summer to stop water evaporating, prevents soil erosion in winter, suppresses weeds, and adds much needed nutrients to your soil.
In fact, although it takes 12 to 18 months for your scraps to transform into crumbly, spongy goodness – composting is worth its ‘wait’ in gold.

Make your own mini wormery

With the Easter holidays looming, get the kids involved in making marvellous muck – and then let the worms to do the hard work!
  1. Worms eat their own weight in organic waste – with one acre of worms breaking up around 50 tonnes of soil into crumbly compost – but hidden away inside your compost bin, it can be hard to catch them in action. That is, until you make a mini wormery!
  2. Simply cut the neck off a large plastic bottle and make small holes in the bottom for drainage, layering with moist sand, compost or leaf litter.
  3. You’ll need to add some ‘brandling’ or red worms for your homemade womery, which live in decaying organic matter (rather than under the soil like earthworms). There should be plenty at work in an active compost heap, or you can get them posted to you via organiccatalogue.com or wigglywigglers.co.uk
  4. Drop a handful of the worms into your bottle and cover them with 8cm of ‘worm food’ such as kitchen scraps (think veg and fruit peelings, tea bags, eggshells or coffee grounds). Lay a piece of fabric over the top, secured with an elastic band, and keep somewhere dark and warm, between 18-25C.
  5. In a week, you should be able to watch the worms go to work turning your waste into wonderful compost – but remember to release them back on to your compost heap after a few weeks!
  6. If you’re hooked on the process, why not invest in a full-size wormery, which will allow you to create your own compost and liquid fertilizer too! Find a good range at originalorganics.co.uk

Troubleshooting tips

My mulch looks lumpy

Twiggy bits of garden debris, cardboard and eggshells take longer to degrade than lush leafy greens, so it’s a good idea to sieve your compost and return bigger bits to the bin. Alternatively, combine the lumpy stuff with potting compost and use in containers where it can decompose, but not look unsightly.

My bin smells

A reeky heap usually indicates stagnation, so ensure you regularly turn your compost to aerate it and aid the natural decomposition process. Never add meat, dairy products or cooked foods to your bin, as these can attract vermin and flies (and make a nasty whiff as they decompose) and avoid adding pet droppings.

My compost is full of weeds

Perennial weeds (roots and seed heads), such as thistle, dandelion and dock, are the titanium terrors of composting due to the fact they are near impossible to break down. Add them to a hot heap [see more on this in the main feature] or dry them to a crisp in the summer and pop on a bonfire.

It’s taking forever!

The key to successful composting is getting the right recipe. Like the yeast to sugar ratio in bountiful bread making, too much of one thing and not enough of another can turn it from rich and crumbly to dense and compacted. Make sure you balance your greens and browns (if the compost is too claggy, add more browns; if it’s too dry, add more greens) and use a compost activator, which encourages beneficial enzymes and speeds up the process. High-nitrogen seaweed, comfrey and nettles are great natural activators.

This article originally appeared in my monthly Vegetarian Living gardening column

I'd love to know what you think about this!