With the focus on sustainability this month at the Harmonious Hub, I wanted to look more in-depth at composting. I think it is perhaps overlooked or underestimated, but it is actually a really important way to live sustainably, help the natural cycles of the earth and create good environments for plants and insects. It also makes wasted food more meaningful than just dumping it in the bin. Plus, when you get going with your composting you’ll almost never have to lug those big plastic bags of compost back from the garden centre again!
We might think it’s fine to put our food waste in the bin because it biodegrades, right? Well, not quite. The food waste that is sent to landfill is usually mixed and compressed with other waste and so it doesn’t get enough air to decompose properly. The result of this is that methane is produced instead, a greenhouse gas that causes global warming.
Composting at home is a good way to help live a sustainable lifestyle. Not only does it keep rotting food out of our bins, it produces a beautiful ‘black gold’ soil conditioner, helping you grow great veg and plants – a truly circular process. You’ll be doing your garden a huge favour by returning nutrient-rich food to it and helping it keep its pH balance.
How do I get started?
First, buy a compost bin or find an area you can make a compost heap. It should be in a sunny spot not too near your house.
I’ve been composting at home a couple of years now. Where we live doesn’t have a food waste collection so I felt bad putting food waste into the bin. I also have an allotment a short walk away but decided to compost at home just for the ease of only having to transport the food waste to the bottom of my garden. I have cats so I’ve never had a problem with rats or mice being attracted to the compost heap, but if you just avoid composting dairy, meat, and cooked food and also regularly visit and turn your compost heap this greatly reduces the likelihood of rodent visitors.
I bought a special bin from my council website, just a basic one with a removable lid like a dustbin and a flap at the bottom to extract the compost. If you get into composting there are all kinds of fancy composters available to buy, but it’s perfectly possible to make great compost on a small budget. Many people up at the allotment have a simple cornered off section as a compost heap, if it’s a decent size you can do ‘hot composting’ which means there is enough bulk to allow warming. This means that weeds and seeds are heated to the point they cannot germinate again – very useful if you are putting the compost back on your garden.
Make sure the ground under the compost bin is soil, and dig it over with a fork first. This helps the worms and other insects find their way in. If you know anyone with a compost heap and they are able to give you a little of their compost to start you off that’s a big bonus.
What can I compost?
Learn from my mistake the first time I composted – you can’t just chuck anything in!
There are a few rules to follow to make the best compost, and this is getting a balance between ‘browns’ and ‘greens’.
Greens are nitrogen-rich materials such as veg and fruit waste, grass clippings (ideally dried out a little first), old plants, coffee grounds, tea bags, and so on. You can put weeds in if you are sure they are annual (ie. not the sort that comes back year after year). It’s the greens that make the initial heat to get the composting going.
Browns are carbon-rich materials such as fallen leaves, cardboard (make sure there’s no packing tape stuck to it and tear cardboard boxes down to smaller pieces), eggshells, paper towels, wood ash, woody prunings, and straw.
The right mix is 50% greens to 50% browns
Remember that compost needs air, otherwise, we risk creating the methane that is produced in landfills, so keep your pile aerated.
So much of our everyday waste can be composted! You can keep a check on your heap and make sure it isn’t getting too wet or dry (if too wet, add more browns, if too dry, add more greens or water), and turn it over regularly with a garden fork. Before long your compost heap will be teaming with life; worms, fruitfly larva, slugs, and so on – all happily munching away and turning your waste into something much more useful. It’s a whole ecosystem!
How long does it take?
I found that my compost took about a year in total, although if you put the effort in you can reduce that time considerably. By adding smaller pieces that break down faster, turning the pile more often, and keeping the compost in a warmer spot you will speed up the process. If you are adding fresh material regularly (like me) then don’t mix it in with the already partially rotted material at the bottom, this will slow the whole process down. I found that after about 9 months I could use the bottom layer of my compost but had to wait longer for the rest. You will know it’s ready when it looks and smells like rich, dark earth, with a crumbly texture.
There is a huge sense of satisfaction using your own compost to grow your own veg and plants, and it’s something almost anyone can do. Even if you do not have a garden you can buy indoor composting systems, they are small, compact, and although expensive, you may feel the benefits offset the cost.
This morning I opened my compost bin lid to put some old plants in and it was wonderful to see it teeming with life, the gorgeous dark compost being created by a process that creates benefit for hundreds of insects, my garden, and the world around me.
If you are interested, why not start now? This time next year you will be reaping the benefits.