Fast and Easy Ways to Create Superb Compost

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Compost pile

Compost is the foundation to a thriving vegetable garden. In fact, compost heaps are nothing short of horticultural alchemy, turning garden waste and kitchen scraps into nutrient-rich goodness.

If you’re not yet composting, now’s as good a time as any to get started. If you are, then perhaps there’s room for improvement. There’s a lot of advice dispensed on the best ways to do it, but really composting doesn’t need to be that complicated. So stick around as we go back to basics with our guide to making beautiful, earthy compost for free – quickly and efficiently.

Your Composting Setup

For smaller gardens a simple enclosed compost bin does the job. Compost bins with thicker, insulating sides will help to trap warmth and speed up the decomposition process, while tumbling composters may be suitable for larger gardens where a lot of material is generated in one go.

Simple uncontained compost heaps work just as well, however. Larger heaps are more efficient because the center of the compost is better insulated from the cold.

Enclosing heaps with sides made from old pallets or other repurposed wood is a great way to keep things contained and a little better insulated. One compost heap is great, but if you have the space for two or more heaps, ideally next to each other, then this can make the whole process even easier – more on why later on.

One compost bin is good, but two, three - or even four! - is better

How to Compost

The ideal compost heap has a mixture of fresh ‘greens’ and drier, more woody or fibrous ‘browns’. Greens include grass clippings, weeds, kitchen scraps and most spent crops. Browns include woody prunings, tougher crop residues like tomato stems or corn stalks, fallen leaves, as well as shredded paper and cardboard.

In an ideal world you should aim for a ratio of around two-thirds browns to one-third greens. In reality it’s hard to achieve this precise mix, so don’t fret about it! Better to add things to your heap as you have them, keeping that ideal mix in the back of your mind.

Add ingredients as they’re generated. If they are dry, moisten them as you add them to kickstart the process. Cut up bulkier materials to increase their surface area, which will also help to speed up decomposition. A shredder will make short work of woodier prunings. Cardboard is a great way to add in more browns, but make sure it’s plain cardboard – none of that glossy-coated stuff – and take the time to shred or rip it up into smaller pieces before adding.

Try to keep a good balance of greens and browns in your compost pile

Soggy heaps are a common complaint, and the best way to avoid this is to alternate wetter ingredients like fresh grass clippings with drier materials like cardboard, windblown leaves or woodier crop residues. The resulting mix should be damp but not sodden. You can sprinkle small amounts wood ash onto the heap too, but it must be wood ash – no coal ash.

Something else to avoid is dumping lots of leaves onto the compost heap all at once, which can really slow things down. So add them in modest quantities, along with plenty of fresh green ingredients, or compost them separately over one or two years to make leaf mold.

One way to really supercharge your composting is to include ingredients with a very high nitrogen content. Animal manure or bedding from chickens or herbivorous pets like rabbits or guinea pigs is especially powerful at really firing up decomposition. Nettles are another great booster, while urine is a famously good compost activator – add it direct or as broken up, pee-soaked straw bales.

Perennial weeds should be drowned in water before composting

What Not to Compost

Avoid cooked food waste and animal products like meat and dairy, which can attract rats. If rats do happen to be a problem in your area, it’s also worth avoiding adding potato peelings which are a favourite snack. Weeds are good to go onto the heap, so long as they haven’t set seed, but avoid the roots of pernicious perennial weeds like bindweed. Compost these separately, excluding all light, or drown them in a bucket of water for a few weeks until they’re definitely dead then pour the resulting slop onto your heap.

Turning your compost really gets it cooking

Faster Composting

The composting process needs plenty of air so all the microbes responsible can breathe. One of the best ways to do this is to mix up or turn all of your ingredients once the heap has been filled. This introduces more air and mixes up all those browns and greens. The result is a new lease of life as the compost heap heats up once more to finish rotting everything down in double-quick time. This is where having more than one heap makes things easier, because you can simply dig out the ingredients into a waiting bin, leaving the newly emptied bin ready to fill once again.

Compost heaps that have been mixed also give a finer end product, making the compost a lot easier to spread, which makes all the effort well worthwhile.

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Show Comments


"Will a compost heap perform better in sun, or shade?"
John Bartelt on Friday 4 December 2020
"It would generally perform better in the sun, which would help to warm the contents and therefore speed along the decomposition process. That said, it's fine to position a compost heap in the shade if this is the most practical space in your garden for it - it may just take a little longer, that's all."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 7 December 2020
"Compost is critical - need more help in this area on how to make your own. Also, Worm castings etc, anything to help. "
Rich on Monday 22 February 2021
"Hi Rich. Head up to the Videos tab at the top of this page. Click there and then you can search for more on this topic. We've got quite a few videos and articles on this, which I'm sure will be help."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 22 February 2021
"I have a lot of fallen pine needles in my yard. Can those be composted?"
Amy Huff on Tuesday 23 February 2021
"Yes, they can be composted along with plenty of other leaves to produce a traditional leaf mold. Alternatively you can set them aside separately, to create a lighter, looser leaf mold often used around acid-loving plants."
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 24 February 2021
"Is there a better time of year to start a compost pile? I live in a high desert region in CA and we have pretty standard seasons just very hot in the summer (high 90's-100 F). Thanks!"
Kacey on Tuesday 31 August 2021
"The best time to start a compost pile is immediately! There'll always be material to add to it, so the sooner you can start the better. Bear in mind that the rate of decomposition will slow dramatically during the coldest months and speed up in warmer months. But get it started as soon as possible I say!"
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 31 August 2021
"Thank you, this is great information as usual. :-) My compost bin is located in full sun right next to my garden beds. It's made from untreated boards and is open on top. Is it best to cover it with a tarp or something else or just leave it open on top? Our compost decomposes over a year, but I've never seen it look hot or give off steam. Thank you for your wonderful videos. "
Caroline Graettinger on Sunday 5 September 2021
"Hi Caroline. Keeping it covered will help to somewhat insulate the bin, which will help it to decompose a little quicker. This is also useful if it's very wet. The downside is you may need to keep an eye on moisture levels in hot weather. Keeping the bin covered in winter is certainly a good idea. Also, covering the bin will stop any weed seeds from blowing into it. "
Ben Vanheems on Monday 6 September 2021
"A potassium nitrate solution can also give the compost heap a bit of a boost."
C E Jackson on Saturday 20 November 2021
"I've just looked in my compost bin and it's one huge ants' nest. Any ideas on what I should do? Just use it and hope the ants are so disturbed they don't form a nest in the middle of one of my beds?"
Sue on Tuesday 26 April 2022
"My first compost heap was located under some trees, and I guess I didn't turn it often enough because it soon became a mass of roots. The second and more successful compost bins were circles of wire fencing cages about 4' across which, because they were still near the trees, I set on corrugated roofing material. The roofing material covered a width of about 5' wide, and I added to the length as I made more bins 4 - 5' high. Bins were held together with zip ties. Just looking at the bins it didn't look like much was happening, but when I turned them, wow, the centers were filled with fine black gold which I'd sift out and use as potting mix or soil amendment. Each time I added to the bin, I'd add a handful of wood ash, ground up eggshells and blood meal or bat guano. I don't garden like that now, don't have the strength or stamina, but the only improvement I'd make would be to screw the roofing material to a frame of some kind to prevent it from curling up. Wicked sharp on the ankles!"
Brenda Campbell on Tuesday 26 April 2022
"Hi Sue. Ants often make their home in compost bins. They aren't really a problem, so just use the compost as you normally would. The ants/eggs that get spread will soon be snapped up by predators, so it's highly unlikely you'll have others areas affected when you move them. Just be sure to spread them out so the birds can get at them. Brenda - it sounds like you had a fantastic composting setup there - it's always so satisfying to happen across that rich, black gold!"
Ben Vanheems on Thursday 28 April 2022
"Thank you for the most commonsense article on composting I have read in 70 years. I live in Napier, NZ and use 3 plastic lidded bins that provide me with about 300 litres (30 x 10 litre paint buckets) of well matured earthy compost a year. My fruit and vegetable garden includes a 4.8 x 2.4 mtr hothouse and approximately 30 sq mtrs of garden that we eat from nearly everyday. My wife calls my compost area my happy place. The answer truly does lie in the soil. Thank you for cutting through all the theory and providing a great guide to beginners"
Brian on Thursday 26 May 2022
"So pleased you enjoyed this Brian. I can tell you're a happy and content man - that will be a direct result of all the mood-boosting beneficial bacteria in the compost!"
Ben Vanheems on Friday 27 May 2022

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