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Compost in a wooden frame compost bin
Making compost is an environmentally friendly way to give your plants the nutrients they need. This guide shows you how to make it, where to use it plus top tips to compost with ease.

Helpful information

Timing: All year around

Where to do it: Outdoors

Garden space: Small garden, large garden

  • A satisfying activity, that can be continued regularly through the year
  • Using waste material helps the environment as well as providing valuable nutrients for your plants
  • Did you know? A teaspoon full of compost contains more microorganisms than there are human beings on the planet. Your compost will help sustain life!

Top tip

If you do not have outdoor space, you could make a small amount of compost indoors using an old plastic bottle. Read our article on how to make compost in a bottle.

Essential items

  • A space in your garden for composting
  • Something to compost in. You could buy a compost bin or make your own compost bin (see below)
  • Material to put on your compost pile (see below

Optional items

  • Garden fork or spade (to turn your compost if needed)
  • Watering can (if compost is dry)
A person turns the compost in a wooden compost bin
A person turns the compost in a wooden compost bin

Over time, the soil in your garden loses the nutrients that plants need to grow. One way to restore these nutrients is to use feeds and fertilisers. Another way is to add garden compost to your soil.

Making your own garden compost is great for many reasons. It is good for the environment. It allows you to reuse waste plant and food items. It is free! (you can, of course, buy bags of ready-made compost). It increases the health and vitality of plants.

Compost can be made in any sort of garden, so long as you have some space and somewhere to create your compost pile.

A row of wooden compost bins
A row of wooden compost bins

Most gardens, unless they are very small, can fit a compost pile in.

When choosing a site for your compost, you should:

  • Keep it away from your doors and windows, as there is a small chance a compost pile will attract flies and pests
  • Find a spot that is not in full sun or complete shade. Compost works best when it is not in extreme hot or cold
  • Decide whether to place on a hard surface or on your soil. A hard surface makes it less likely for any pests, like rats, to get in. The disadvantage is that it makes it harder for worms to get in. Worms are very helpful for creating compost quickly.

Top tip

If your compost bin is on a hard surface, add garden soil to it along with the waste materials. This will help make sure the necessary microorganisms get into the compost.

A worm composter in a container
A worm composter in a container

The best compost bin won’t be the same for everyone. It should suit your garden size, the type of food or plant material you have to fill it and your physical ability.

These are some of our recommendations:

  • For large gardens. Wood or plastic compost bins are available, with or without lids. Bigger bins help the compost break down more easily (aerobic breakdown)
  • For small gardens. A wormery is a good alternative that is usually smaller than a compost bin. It can still break down food and small amounts of garden waste
  • For a physical challenge. Make your own compost bin. Read our guide to making a DIY chicken wire compost bin. Or the Gardener's World website has advice on how to build a compost bin from wooden pallets
  • To speed up the composting process. Choose a tumbling style composter. You turn a handle to mix the compost inside, instead of turning it by hand

Top tip

When you turn your compost pile (see below), there is a chance that it will release bioaerosols. These can particularly affect people with a chest condition, like bronchitis or asthma. Wear a mask while turning your compost or choose a tumbling style composter.

Compost pile with brown and green waste material including apples, cuttings and plant waste
A compost pile with brown and green waste material including apples and plant waste

There is a science behind creating good garden compost. There needs to be a balance between ‘brown’ materials that are full of carbon and ‘green’ materials that are full of nitrogen.

Brown materials are often woody (e.g. twigs). Green materials are usually soft and green (e.g. grass clippings).

Ideally, you would have more brown material than green material on your compost pile. Try and aim for at least an equal balance between the two. If you find your compost is too wet / slimy add more brown material (e.g. cardboard) and if it’s too dry add water.

Top tip

Composting is a waiting game. Use what waste material you have available and check how it is looking from time to time. Remember - it doesn’t happen overnight!

Compost materials to add:

Brown material (carbon rich)

  • Woody waste (e.g. prunings, hedge clippings)
  • Cardboard and paper
  • Fallen leaves
  • Wood ash

Green material (nitrogen rich)

  • Grass clippings
  • Soft plant material (e.g. annual weeds, old bedding plants)
  • Uncooked vegetable and fruit waste from the kitchen
  • Coffee grounds and tea leaves
  • Comfrey leaves and nettles
  • Cut flowers and house plants

There are some materials you should not add to your compost pile. These may attract pests or contain harmful parasites. Don’t add:

  • Animal waste (e.g. dog poo)
  • Meat, fish and bones
  • Cooked food
  • Dairy products
  • Coal ash
  • Perennial weeds or diseased plants

Getting waste ready for the compost bin

Small pieces of plant material break down into compost quicker than big pieces. Use secateurs to cut thin sticks and woody prunings (if they are a little finger width or less). Leaf shredders are available, although they are expensive. You could also use a lawnmower to shred leaves. Simply run it over leaves on your lawn.

Gloved hand holding compost
Rich, brown compost with a fine consistency

You need three things for your waste materials to become compost: heat, moisture and time.

To help your compost develop, turn it with a fork or spade from time to time (or use the handle if you have a tumbler style bin).

Your compost is ready to use when it is dark and crumbly. It should have the texture, smell and look of garden soil and not rotting vegetation or dry wood.

It can take a year or more for your garden compost to be ready. If you are lucky, it may be quicker than this.

Top tip

To speed up the composting process, you can buy compost maker/accelerator. This breaks down materials so you get useable compost faster.

A layer of compost spread evenly across the soil
A layer of compost spread to improve the soil

You can use your compost in different ways around your garden:

  • As a ‘mulch’. Spread across the soil in your beds and borders to keep in moisture and suppress weeds
  • As a soil conditioner. Mix with existing soil to add nutrients

Top tip

Compost can take longer than you think to be ready, especially when you first start out. Be patient - it should get there in the end!

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