We know that the number of people making compost during the lockdown has shot up. We thought it may help to run though the basics of what can sometimes seem a confusing subject. After all you don’t want your new compost heap to just sit there? You want it to do magic.

So here’s our quick and straightforward guide to the brown, crumbly earthy-smelling miracle you can make at home, turning old cabbage leaves into black gold for your plants; alchemy!

Dreaming of a lush veg garden? Compost is your friend.

What is Compost?

Black gold. Think of your food bill. Ouch. Now imagine food for free. For life. That’s compost – free food for plants. And plants love food. Feeding plants, be they ornamental or kitchen garden, is about the single best thing you can do for beautiful blooms and tasty veg. And a well fed plant is healthier too, more resistant to pests and disease – bonus!  And – you’ve probably got there ahead of us – that means you can get free food too!

Compost is the food that nature intended for plants, it is literally how soil becomes soil. Without it soil is just dust. Organic plant matter, once dead, is decomposed – broken down – by a myriad of organisms, micro-organisms, fungi and bacteria into a crumbly, brown, earthy smelling substance that does several essential things. First it is rich in nutrients that plants need, second it helps retain moisture in the soil, and finally it makes great soil structure, allowing your plants roots to move easily through it hoovering up all that goodness and moisture.

So when you compost you are doing nature’s work, but with a little bit more organisation. Think of yourself as a minor civil servant in the local government of your garden, directing resources to their best usage in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Or don’t. I know, think of yourself as a minor god distributing bounty to your adoring and grateful plants, and your incredibly happy family. Or… perhaps that’s enough for now.

What is compost used for?

By applying your compost where it’s most effective you’re ensuring your plants, who are busily gobbling their way through all the food in the soil they’ve been planted in, have a continually refreshed larder of the finest quality food. A Michelin starred diet, (but without the cream or pâté). More like the best spa in the world (but without that weird green juice they insist you drink). Because you (you’re a plant now, keep up) are getting the best possible food, plus the most luxurious room (all that tip-top conditioning for the soil) and so are on a complete health regime that you actually really, really, enjoy.

How to make compost?

First thing you don’t actually need one of those plastic Dalek bins. If you have one that’s fine, they work. But if you don’t that’s also fine. You can make a simple structure to hold your compost in, or even just make a pile, though that may be a little bit less effective. There’s even a new thing called trench composting, that’s right you just dig a trench, fill it up with compostable material and cover it up again[1].

What those bins do is retain heat, and heat is the supercharge of compost making. Heat speeds up the breakdown and gives better and cleaner compost. The cool thing is that the very process of breakdown generates heat. So you just have to retain that heat with some basic insulation, hence the black plastic bin. But even a simple heap will break down eventually, it’s what happens naturally after all.

You’re after a lightly shaded spot for your bin or heap. Extremes of temperature aren’t a good thing, so keep out of direct sun. You don’t want the heap soaking wet, so some shelter from rain is good, but you need to let in some air and moisture.

Air! The compost needs air or it can get compacted and start to become slimy. This is where a heap beats a bin, it’s easy to turn a heap with a fork and that gets the air into the heap. Failure to turn the heap is probably the biggest cause of inferior or duff compost.

Moisture! Don’t let the heap dry out totally, if its getting dry a light watering is needed. But remember to protect it from heavy rain.

What can you put in your compost heap?

The simplest rule is, it if grew in the ground yes (that includes paper products). If it’s from an animal no. There are a few exceptions, eggshells are fine (but not eggs). Diseased plants are not good, nor ones killed with weed killer. Errr… that’s about it actually.[2]

The key is to keep a good mix of ingredients, an even mix of green (weeds, grass clippings, kitchen waste) and brown (twigs, leaves) will stop the heap becoming slimy and smelly. You don’t have balance every time you put stuff in, but don’t dump a big load of one thing in, just keep ringing the changes. You can feed your heap or bin all year round.

How to apply compost?

You need to wait until it’s ready. This can take as little as six months or up to two years. When it’s reached that crumbly dark brown soil-like state it’s good to go. You’ll probably find that the heap has unevenly rotted, just keep back un-rotted stuff for the next heap. Once its fully broken down it stops, and it can’t go off. So you can store it and use it as you need.

When it’s ready you can apply it to the soil as a top layer and let the rain and worms take it down in to the soil. This is very easy and has the bonus of acting as a mulch (a layer on top of the soil that suppresses weeds). Or you can till it into the soil by lightly hoeing it in.

You can apply it to your lawn as well as to beds. You can add handful every time you sow anything in your beds. You can use it in your pots, either mixing it with soil or just using compost, yes100% compost works just fine in pots and saves a fortune at the garden centre.

Easy cheap and deeply satisfying

If you follow the simple rules about what to add, how to tend it, and indulge in a little patience, you’ll have a regular supply of this wonderful material that will transform your garden. Happy composting!

Read about soil and how important it is and help your garden thrive


[1] How to trench compost

[2] What can you compost?