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Home composting

Composting is a natural process where bacteria, fungi and invertebrates break down organic waste, converting in into a rich and useful soil-like material. Making compost at home will keep you supplied with free compost - of great benefit to your garden and plants, and can divert about one-third of your household waste from landfill sites where it would otherwise create polluting gases and run-off.

Compost can be made in a simple heap on the ground covered with old carpet to keep it moist. Most people use some form of container as it looks neater, is easier to manage and speeds up the composting process.

How to make compost

The four basic ingredients of a good compost are:

  • green materials for nitrogen
  • brown materials for carbon
  • air
  • water

If your compost is smelly or slimy, your pile will be lacking in one of these four ingredients so check out our the troubleshooting section below.

What can you compost?

Greens (aim for 50% greens)

  • grass cuttings
  • weeds
  • fruit and vegetable scraps
  • old flowers and bedding plants
  • young hedge clippings

Browns (aim for 50% browns)

  • tea bags, coffee grounds and coffee filters
  • egg shells
  • dried grass and weeds
  • old straw and hay
  • wood ash
  • cardboard (scrunched up) - avoid waxed cartons and sticky tape
  • herbivore pet bedding

Do not compost at home meat, fish, fats and oils, dairy products, coal and coke ash, cat litter, dog faeces, glossy paper and newspapers (recycle them instead), plants infected with persistent diseases, pine needles.

Setting up your compost heap

Site your compost bin or heap on grass or bare earth in the shade then collect together a batch of brown and green materials, spread them out to the edges of your compost bin and firm down. You should chop up tough items using shears, a sharp spade or a shredder. You can then continue to fill the container as you produce organic waste, aiming for a good mixture of items (equal quantities of browns and greens as listed above).

Your compost heap should be kept moist (like a wrung-out sponge) so sprinkling it with water can help. Try to get air into the heap at least once every couple of months by turning it with a gardening fork. If you have the room it is a good idea to have two compost heaps or bins so you can leave one pile to decompose when the bin is full and start filling another.

Making compost can take two months to two years. Your compost is ready to use when it is dark brown and most of the original materials cannot be identified. Don't worry if it is lumpy, sticky or stringy - it will be quite usable. Remember, it's best to apply compost in the spring or summer as it will help provide nutrients to plants during their growing season.

The types of compost bins available

Compost can be made in a simple heap on the ground covered with plastic or old carpet to keep it moist but most people use some form of container as it looks neater, is easier to manage and speeds up the composting process.

In addition, most wormeries as well as the Bokashi bran composting system will take all types of kitchen waste, including meat, fish and dairy products, so you may like to invest in one of these as an alternative to traditional composting.

You can get a wide variety of purpose built compost bins and wormeries from DIY shops and garden centres.

Making a compost bin

Compost bins need only keep the rain out and moisture and heat in so you can make one if you are feeling resourceful. You can make compost bins out of the following:

  • wire mesh with wooden stakes at each corner. Line with cardboard and top with a piece of old carpet
  • an old dustbin. Cut the bottom out, turn it upside down and replace the lid
  • breeze blocks with a slatted wooden front
  • an old coal bunker
  • old tyres in a stack
  • old pallets tied at the corners (use another as a base)
  • wooden planks fixed onto wooden posts
  • an eleven-foot length of 2" x 4" x 36" welded, medium-gauge fence wire joined to form a cylinder

Please remember the following when composting:

  • Pernicious weeds such as couch grass, ground elder, bindweed and oxalis may not be killed during composting and can resprout after the compost is harvested. To avoid this, put them in a black plastic bag and leave in the sun for several weeks. Then chop them up and place them into the compost pile
  • Poisonous plants such as oleander, hemlock and castor bean can harm soil life and should be added only in small quantities
  • Ivy and succulents should be chopped up before composting, or they may sprout in the compost
  • Leaves from plants containing acids and resins toxic to other plants should only be used as a mulch around the plants they came from. Examples are eucalyptus, bay laurel, walnut, juniper, acacia, cypress and rhododendron


If you are having problems making good compost - don't give up! The cause is usually simple and this advice table will help you get back on track:




Compost has a bad smell

Not enough air/too compacted/too much green material

Turn the pile and add browns


Too much water

Decrease watering; protect from heavy rain if no lid; turn pile and add browns


Meat, dairy and fish in pile

Leave them out, turn pile and add browns

Centre of pile is dry

Not enough water

Moisten and turn pile

Pile has slumped and seems slimy

Too much green material

Turn pile adding lots of browns

Lots of fruit flies

Exposed kitchen scraps

Cover kitchen scraps with leaves, grass or a sheet of newspaper

Attracts rats

Food available

Do not put meat, fish or dairy scraps onto the pile. Put bricks around base of compost bin if necessary


Seeking warmth in winter

Turn pile and add browns to release built-up heat. Put bricks around base of compost bin if necessary



Sprinkle cayenne pepper liberally around the pile.

Not heating up

Insufficient moisture

Add water while turning pile or cover top


Poor aeration

Turn pile


Lack of greens

Mix in greens


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