Nigel's Gardening Hints and Tips

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A country lane in Texas.

Magic Home-made Compost

Making compost is helping our environment by cutting down on the amount of
waste which reaches our landfill sites each year. Composting should result
in lovely crumbly compost which can be used all around our gardens. It
provides our plants, fruit and vegetables with the essential nutrients they
need to flourish and grow.

Home-made compost can be peat-free and, with a little help from nature, much
better than commercial products. It is rewarding and much cheaper than
buying compost from your local garden centre, where many brands are not

First you need a compost bin. It is worth checking with your local council,
as some provide plastic compost bins at very reasonable prices. However, the
plastic bins do have their good and bad points. Most have a locking lid
which helps to keep out vermin, but they can still get through the
underside of the bin. A good tip is to use wire mesh around the base,
burying it partly under the ground. However, some of the round plastic ones
are designed to be partly buried in the ground. Plastic ones are not as
expensive as the wooden types, and they are useful for putting material in
such as kitchen waste, which I will discuss next.

Wooden ones hold a lot more and the material is much easier to turn than in the
plastic ones. The only drawback is, that rodents or other unwanted pests can
enter the bin more easily than the plastic ones. My advice would be to use a
plastic one for kitchen waste and a wooden one for garden waste, if you have
the room. For use in the kitchen, you can buy an air-tight small bin to put
your kitchen waste in, emptying into the compost bin when full. It saves you
from going outside in the rain!

You can make your own wooden bin by burying four wooden posts into the ground
to make a one metre square. You then attach wooden slats onto each side,
leaving a one to two inch gap between each for aeration. If you are able to get
hold of four pallets, they will be ideal for wiring together to form a bin.

Another option is to drive the four wooden posts into the ground, but instead
of using slats, use small-holed wire mesh. This will provide a well-aerated
compost bin suitable for putting leaves in to make a leaf mulch, which can
be used around your plants.

There is also something called a 'Compost Tumbler'. This is a device on a
turning stand, designed to create compost in just 14 days. You simply give
it a couple of spins a day, and let it do the rest. They are expensive but
if you have enough waste to fill it quickly, then it is ideal. There are
other types of composters available, you could even use a dustbin! New
designs are coming out all the time.

Now that you have your compost bin, you are looking a bit confused. "Where do I
put it?" is the question you are asking. Do not fear, Nigel's here!

Most will fit into a corner of the garden without being too unsightly. I
would recommend keeping it away from the house and patio area; occasionally
there are odours, more during the hot weather. The best place is a partially
sunny spot in a well-drained soil. This ensures worms and other creatures
can easily get working to break down the contents, which is an essential
part of composting.

Many tiny creatures help with the 'breaking down' of materials. Many are too
tiny to see with the naked eye, except the more visible ones like beetles,
centipedes, etc. First they eat the succulent, fleshy material, which causes
the centre of the bin to heat up with all the action. It is like eating a
meal, most of us eat our favourite bit first before moving on to the less
tastier! After the best bits are gone, the creatures start on the boring,
tougher ingredients, which is when the earthworms come in. Earthworms like
less activity and tougher material, usually when the bin is at its coolest
temperature after the rush for the fleshy stuff. The waste material that
these creatures excrete is full of nutrients for our compost, especially the
earthworm excrement.

Of course it is not just creatures that are needed to create good compost.
It is a mixture of natural biological processes which include sufficient
quantities of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. These are needed to create
something called microbes which help bacteria to grow, aiding in the
decomposition of materials (see below for further
scientific information).

The recipe to success is to make sure you add the right ingredients. These
are the things which you can add to your bin:

  • Fruit and vegetable waste
  • Tea bags
  • Used coffee grounds
  • Grass cuttings
  • Plant prunings (cut small)
  • Fallen leaves
  • Shredded or ripped paper
  • Pet bedding
  • Crushed eggshells
  • Wood ash
  • Dust from your vacuum cleaner
  • Hair

A general rule is, if it rots then it is suitable for your bin.

However, there are materials which must not be added to your compost bin.

These are:

  • Meat - encourages vermin
  • Cooked vegetables
  • Diary products
  • Dog or cat waste - will create nasty odours
  • Perennial weeds such as Docks, Thistles etc...
  • Plastics, glass or metals - these do not rot and should be recycled
  • Babies nappies

It is all about getting the right balance of materials to get good compost.
When putting in green materials such as grass cuttings, plant prunings, etc,
you may find the heap gets too wet, making it go mushy and smelly. At this
point it is best to add dry material such as shredded newspaper, wood ash,

If there is too much dry material, then the heap will not rot. If you find
it is very dry, then put a layer of wet material in and give it a gallon of
water. Some gardeners recommend urine to speed up the process. Just make
sure the neighbours aren't watching! Put your hand in the heap once a week,
to feel if it is either too dry or too wet, and alter accordingly. Remember
to wear disposable gloves.

If you have fruit or vegetable waste in your bin, you may notice flies. The
best way to discourage them is to cover the waste with a layer of grass
cuttings or other materials to discourage the smell. Do not use pesticides.
By covering the material with a plastic sheet, it will generate more heat
which will speed up the process of composting. This is recommended if using
a wooden compost bin rather than a plastic one. Remember to weigh down the
plastic with bricks so it does not blow away.

Ants, bees and wasps indicate the heap is too dry and requires more wet
material. If you ever come across a wasp nest inside your compost bin,
contact your council or a professional firm to come and deal with the
problem, unless you can keep well away from it eg on open ground. If it is
a bee's nest, you should start to get all excited, because honey sandwiches
may be on the menu! If it needs removing, contact a local beekeeper.

It is important to put air into the contents of the bin for microbes to be
present, this helps with the decomposition process. It can be achieved by
either of two ways. The first is to turn the material using a fork once a
week, the second is to create holes in the contents by using a broom
handle, again once a week. I would recommend the first for a large or wooden
bin, and the second for a small plastic bin.

If you would like to speed up the process of composting, then add some young
nettles to your bin. Some gardeners add soil, but this can contain perennial
weed seeds which you do not want in your home-made compost. You could use a
compost accelerator which you can buy at your local garden centre. It is
available in liquid or powder form, which increases the biological
formulation, speeding up the composting process. It will take approximately
6-12 months for your batch of compost to be ready if you are using a
standard compost bin. When it is ready, you will find there will be a dark
brown or almost black layer at the bottom of your bin. That is your compost.
Some bins have a hatch at the bottom which you can lift to check if it is

Homemade compost is full of nutrients and ideal for use all round the
garden. Here are some ways you can use it:

Dig it into your garden soil for improvement and nourishment.

Use as mulch, spreading it three to four inches thick on the surface. The worms and
other creatures will take it down deep into your soil.

Use for potting up, mixing in small amounts of sand and grit for added
drainage. Sieve before adding the sand or grit, to remove any woody material
which did not break down.

For the scientifically minded

The contents of your bin go through three scientific stages to achieve a
stable compost. The first stage is where you add material to the bin, this
is called 'The Raw Material' stage. You add grass and green material which
increases the nitrogen content, then you might add woody type materials such
as finely cut prunings, even leaves, which adds carbon to the bin. The other
two important ingredients are air and water. Air is added by aerating the
heap eg turning or prodding, and water is either collected by the fleshy
material or added manually, if needed.

The second stage is called 'The Composting Activity' which is the doing
stage. This is where the tiny creatures and biological processes take place.
There is an increase in activity, causing the temperature to rise and carbon
dioxide to be produced. There may be an increase of water vapour which helps
the decomposition stage.

The third and final stage is called 'The End Stage', where you look in the
bottom of your bin and find the lovely nutritious compost. It should be full
of essential nutrients, and any unwanted ingredients such as weed seeds
should have been killed off by pathogens (bacteria).

Nigel's Gardening Hints and Tips


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