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What’s it all about?
Is it difficult?
Greens and Browns
Starting a back-yard compost
Hot and Cold composting
Batch Composting and Continuous Composting

What’s it all about?

Making compost can be one of the most satisfying and engaging pastimes, for those who are keen on understanding how the world works, who are interested in gardening and soil replenishment, or who are aware of the dangers of excessive waste in this beautiful world.

We’ll make the assumption that if you are reading this, you are interested in the process and that you may even be thinking of making compost yourself in your own back yard. Well good on you! You are on the verge of making one of the most important decisions for good that you could ever make.

The first thing to appreciate is that the act of making compost is something that goes on in nature all the time. It is the natural way in which all dead organic material is disposed of and is an integral part of the cycle of life. It is how the elements that have supported a previous existence are released back into the living community, to re-fuel the next generation. Without this, we would be done for.

When we are making compost for our garden we are managing a process that would occur anyway. All we are doing is providing optimum conditions hopefully to accelerate matters, (if that is important to us) and to ensure that the end product is of the finest quality possible. As a bonus, we are also helping to reduce the rubbish dumped in land-fill with its resultant pollution and soil degradation.


Is it difficult?

Not really, in its basic form. As we discussed – compost occurs in nature with no help from us at all. Its progress is slow, though and as a fertiliser, perhaps it is not always of the best quality.

We can make it more complicated if we wish. There are lots of theories and myths about the best way to do things and there are lots of ‘experts’ who will waste no time in telling you when you are doing something wrong. However, for centuries, mankind and nature, have composted more or less successfully and in spite of ‘mistakes’ we may make, we need to remember that – “Compost Will Happen.”

Having said that, there are different ways of making compost, or at least of managing it and we need to select the methods that best fit our life-styles, our requirements and our circumstances. If we plan properly in the first instance, we have a far greater chance of sticking to it and achieving success.

For instance, if you are not full-on, A-type personality, you may find that a more relaxed approach would suit you better than one that demands constant care to detail. If you have a tiny garden with limited opportunities for collecting up suitable materials, or for using sack-loads of humus, or if you do most of your growing in containers, you will need to choose a method that takes those factors into consideration.

Mostly, when new to this, the idea of starting a backyard compost can be a bit daunting. “What are the best ingredients for making compost?” is a question that is always asked. And then there are all the different bins that are available. Or, “Should we just have a pile?” What else do we need? Where shall we put it? What are greens and browns? Worms? Hot or Cold? What is that? Batch or Continuous? Help! The list goes on and all of a sudden, a simple, natural process just becomes a bit of a night-mare and we put it into the ‘too hard basket.’

Fear not. It is just a matter of sorting out the strands of information, deciding what suits you at this time and knowing that decay is inevitable.  Here’s the thing – if you do this and you really get involved and decide to become an Ace Compost-maker – you can always beef it up next year! You can purchase a top-flight mechanical composter, or have a fabulous 3-bin static turning unit – whatever you like. In the meantime, just start off gently, take it easy, choose wisely and don’t panic when the rats invade!

With regard to those questions about making compost in your backyard, just what are the answers?


Compost Ingredients

Kitchen waste

Compost Ingredients from the kitchen

Well, briefly, the best ingredients for making compost are – anything from the kitchen other than meat, dairy, oil and cooked food. Include certain types of manure, grass clippings and garden trimmings, with the exception of diseased plants, chemically treated plants and pernicious weeds. Add wood shavings, cardboard, paper, bark and dry leaves. Finally, hair, any natural fibres like cotton and wool, vacuum cleaner dust, in fact, anything organic. There are more complete lists of  ingredients for making compost in a later article, but if something has once been alive, chances are it will be suitable to use in one situation or another.


Greens and Browns

The four essential ingredients for making compost aerobically are water, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. These four elements must be in a rough balance for best effect and this means your compost should be damp, well-oxygenated and the ingredients used should contain roughly 25-30 parts of carbon to 1 part of nitrogen. (Known as the C:N ratio) This is not as complicated as it sounds. Fortunately it is possible to broadly identify the ingredients that contain each element by colour and appearance. (How cool and simple is that!) Nitrogen is plentiful in greens like fresh leaves, grass and kitchen scraps. Carbon is found in dried leaves, wood shavings, cardboard and paper – stuff that is often, but not always, brown. Some enthusiasts, when making compost,  are meticulous in their measuring of the ‘greens’ and ‘browns’, but in practice, many just play it by ear and add about half and half by volume.


Your First Go – Starting a Backyard Compost

A compost pile

Compost pile on bare ground

Starting a backyard compost with a simple heap is a popular way to go and is a relaxed option albeit with some draw-backs, particularly in an urban setting. An open heap is not always very attractive and if you have a small garden you may find it difficult to disguise – if that should bother you. It is also vulnerable to animals on the prowl for food and is subject to the vagaries of the weather – too much rain will flood it and too much sun will dry it out. Both will cause aerobic microbial action to come to a standstill thus halting the progress of decomposition. Covering it with a tarp is sensible to give it some protection and you may also consider surrounding it with some chicken-wire to keep it under some sort of control. The next step in the backyard compost option, would probably be a wooden enclosure and then you are on the way to the stars! Before you know it, you are considering a bin! Yes – making compost can be addictive!

Back to your project, though –

Finding the right site when making backyard compost is important, whether you start with a single bin, or a simple collection of organic waste. You need to be sure that your backyard compost is in a well-drained spot convenient for those using it. It should be in an area of warm sun, but with some shelter from burning heat which can dry compost out. Ideally, it should be close to a source of water so that you can increase the level of moisture easily whenever necessary and if you suffer from slug and snail invasion, it is better to keep it away from your vegetable patch. A well-sheltered corner with protection from the worst weather is what you are looking for, with good drainage and easy access.


Hot Composting and Cold Composting

More of those terms that are bandied about. Self-explanatory, really. Cold Composting is when you just let everything take its course and go with the flow. It is what happens in nature and it is generally a slow, continuous process. The temperature of your ingredients stays in the lower ranges, at the most getting a bit warmer with the help of the summer sun thus achieving a little bit of extra heat more by luck than by design. Most basic backyard composts are worked in this way.

Hot Composting occurs when the ingredients are actively managed using a variety of techniques that assist in raising the temperature of the ingredients up to around 1550 F. (70 C) This has the effect of accelerating the whole rate of decay and if done properly, will sterilize the completed humus,  kill any seeds and destroy many pathogens. It is more time-consuming and ‘hands on’ than cold method, so not quite so relaxed…  Note that using the hot method will not necessarily result in an intrinsically superior quality product. That is dictated by the quality of your original ingredients.

Deciding which method you will use when making compost  is important, because your system of collecting up and storing your waste materials will depend on that choice.


Batch Composting and Continuous Composting – two more commonly used terms.

Compost (humus)

Under the leaves – the soil. Natural compost – humus on the forest floor.

Batch Composting means collecting and storing all your materials until you have enough stuff to build a pile with a volume of around a cubic metre. You need this bulk to build up the temperatures needed for successful Hot Composting. Anything smaller and you will find yourself Cold Composting.

Continuous Composting means that you add ingredients as they become available – it’s a continuous operation. If you use this method, you will end up Cold Composting, as every time you add extra stuff, you are very likely to lower the temperature of your pile. Do this and you will never achieve the dizzy heights needed for Hot Composting. Continuous Composting is common though, as many urban composters are unable to collect up enough materials in one hit to consider Batch Composting.

So – there you are – a general over-view of making compost. Check out further details in ‘Read More’ below.

Further Reading:   

The Rodale Book of Composting. Edited by D.L.Martin and Grace Gershuny 

Let It Rot. The Gardener’s Guide to Composting. Stu Campbell.