Simplifying composting for the first time composter

I’ve been making my own compost at home for years now, but I still don’t consider myself an expert. Mainly because there is so much you can learn and so many interesting and amazing things you pick up along the way so you are never an expert. However I do know from experience that you can start making your own compost without being an expert, all you need is some basic info to get you started and then, you will very soon get a feel for things.

I started off with the traditional pile at the back of the garden which was fantastic and produced gorgeous compost, albeit slowly. But more recently I’ve been using a compost bin to put all my kitchen and garden waste into. I won’t go into too much detail here on why I switched, because I really think either way is great, but if you are interested I’ll put a link to another post with my story at the bottom of this one, for further reading.

So how do you make your own compost?

First things first – this post is not going to give you super detailed info and in all honesty, it’s not going to give you the standard info out there either. Because I believe that a lot of potential composters are put off by how seemly complicated or time-consuming it is. So instead let me give you the most basic info you need to start, a way of starting your own composting journey without the faff or the degree in rocket science.

You make compost by giving your waste to the bacteria to eat. That pretty much sums it up – yup, compost literally makes itself. So where do you come in? Well, let me give you a visualisation to help. If you are feeding bacteria to help them make your garden compost… then if you give them a well-balanced diet you’re going to get the best results. And that balanced diet, in compost terms, has two food groups, green and brown. Green is the label for the materials you add which are high in nitrogen and brown is what we call materials that are high in carbon and it’s the mix of these two which make compost.

This is the bit where most folks are put off. The info you’ll find online for the best recipe of combining your green and brown can be a bit confusing. You’ll hear people telling you to add brown and green items in a ratio (the best ratio is 30:1 carbon:nitrogen) but often what is often missing is that that ratio doesn’t refer to adding 30:1 in volume, instead, you need to know the ratio of brown to green in each item you are adding and then do the maths to work out the overall ration.

My homemade compost filling a raised bed

I’m not going to do that – not because that is wrong – in fact, it’s actually correct and the perfect way to do things. I just think that to get you started, it’s better to start super simple and get the basics first THEN you can move on to adjusting your own process to suit.

So that’s it, you add your garden and kitchen waste to a big pile (or in a bin) and this makes compost. Basically. But let’s give you a bit more information. I’ve added a list of what is considered green or brown at the bottom. You’ll be surprised at how much of your garden and kitchen waste you can compost, and maybe save you from having to put our the collectable bins with your garden or food waste.

How do I actually make compost?

So I am going to give you a volume-based recipe to start you off. This will let you get composting and get a feel for how it works. That recipe is to add 2 parts of your brown materials to 1 part green. So basically if you use a bucket or a kitchen waste caddy or similar, for every 2 buckets full of brown add 1 full of green. Give that all a good mix together and add it to your pile, bin etc. Now another top tip – chop everything up really small, shred any paper, twigs etc too. This will get things working much much quicker.

The reason I say mix it is because there are actually a couple of other things your compost pile needs to get working and that’s air (oxygen) and moisture. Remember I said we were relying on bacteria to eat all that lovely waste to turn it into compost? Well, the bacteria we are feeding rely on the air, so we want to make sure there is always loads for them. You can help this by having some air pockets to help air flow in your pile. You can add a few larger bits of bark and twig or scrunched up balls of paper. And you can also “turn” your pile occasionally. This just means get in with a fork or spade and literally lift and drop it, turning it.

Now the other thing I mentioned was moisture… basically, this is a goldilocks thing, you don’t want your pile being too wet or too dry, the perfect level is damp. So if you live in a super dry climate or somewhere it gets hot and dry in summer, you may have to actually spray your pile with water from time to time, or if like me you live somewhere really wet and rainy, you may want to keep it covered to shelter it from the rain.

It will go wrong from time to time

I want to put this out there because it’s important that we all realise that things will go wrong from time to time and it’s ok. You can fix it. Trust me on this, I’ve had some real horrible stuff with my compost over the years.

So the two ways it can go wrong is basically if the pile is too dry, things just won’t break down and it will just sit, not doing anything. If you shove a long probe thermometer deep into the pile and it’s sitting at say 30c or less, then your pile isn’t really doing anything exciting, cause the bacteria that make your compost generate heat. If this is the case, you can either damp the pile down, or adjust your mix by adding more green. Green tends to be higher in water than brown.

The opposite can happen too, and with my bin, this is more of a problem, it can be too wet. This can cause your compost to be smelly and sludgy, essentially because when it’s too wet, it gets compacted and stops airflow and so the bacteria we want get replaced by anaerobic bacteria, the ones who give off the bad smells. So to fix them, add more brown, this will help, and also give things turn or mix to introduce airflow.

What are green and brown?

Greens: high in nitrogen

Kitchen Waste

  • Vegetable peelings
  • Salad waste
  • Fruit waste like apple cores, skins etc.
  • Used tea leaves (be careful with teabags as they can contain plastic so I tear them and add the leaves from them)
  • Used coffee grounds and filter papers
  • Dead flowers and house plants

Garden waste:

  • Grass cuttings
  • Prunings
  • Flowers and plants
  • Nettles, comfrey etc
  • Rhubarb leaves
  • Annual weeds (avoid adding seed heads)
  • Pondweed
  • Seaweed (if you live near a beach)
  • Horse and cow manure – Rabbit and Guinea Pig droppings

Browns: high in carbon

Kitchen Waste

  • Plain and corrugated cardboard packing – think eggboxes, toilet and kitchen roll tubes delivery boxes etc but remove any labels and tape.
  • Newspapers, printer paper etc – not glossy magazines etc
  • Tissues, paper towelling and napkins
  • Fibre string (not plastic)

Garden waste:

  • Dry leaves, small twigs and pine needles dropped in autumn
  • Straw
  • Ash from wood or paper fires (not coal)
  • Sawdust

But what about the 30:1 ratio?

OK this bit is a bit more complicated and involves a bit of maths, but if you want to go find out more about this side of it, then it can really help you get good quality compost, much faster.

So I mentioned that doing things super properly is not about adding volumes, so not about 2 buckets of brown to 1 bucket of green. Well, this is because each item actually has both carbon (brown) and green (nitrogen) in it. So you need to know these amounts, and then work out what the total ratio is by weight.

This is a rough guide to the amounts (very rough)

Estimated Carbon-to-Nitrogen Ratios

Browns = High CarbonC:N
Ashes, wood25:1
Cardboard, shredded350:1
Corn stalks75:1
Fruit waste35:1
Leaves60:1
Newspaper, shredded175:1
Peanut shells35:1
Pine needles80:1
Sawdust325:1
Straw75:1
Wood chips400:1
Greens = High NitrogenC:N
Coffee grounds20:1
Food waste20:1
Garden prunings and other old plants30:1
Grass clippings20:1
Seaweed19:1
Vegetable scraps25:1
Weeds30:1

Want to read more about my composting adventures?
Composting in my backyard

Getting usable compost from the hotbin

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