How To Start Composting – The Definitive Guide

Composting is an all-round secret weapon in the garden with which you can improve (almost) anything, regardless of whether you have light sand or heavy clay soil in the garden. If you don't have a compost heap yet, you should put one in - preferably immediately. The earlier you start, the faster you can "harvest" mature compost. Compost is a complete, natural, balanced organic fertilizer - and, best of all, it's completely free of charge!

Creating A Compost Heap

You don't have to make a science out of the layering - just make sure you have a good mixture of the material so that you don't form lumps that can rot. It's best to shred or chop twigs and green waste beforehand, as this will make the process much quicker. At the bottom I put some dry twigs into the compost - so the compost rent is automatically well ventilated from below.

I rearrange our compost heaps either at the beginning of the season - just before the big harvest - or in autumn - just before the vegetable beds are cleared. I put a coarse grid on the wheelbarrow to sieve the ripe compost.

Watch out for small animals such as lizards when you rearrange the compost! I take out the humus that has formed during the year. I then pack the rotten leftovers into a bag or bucket and fill the compost container with them later together with leaves or cuttings.

What Can Be Composted?

  • Green, lawn and shrub pruning
  • Fruit and vegetable residues (banana and potato peels, stems, etc.)
  • Eggshells
  • Coffee grounds
  • Newspapers/magazines (not coloured!!!)
  • Autumn foliage

What Can't Be Composted?

  • Meat and fish scraps (can spread disease and will attract vermin)
  • Peel of sprinkled citrus fruits
  • Sick plant parts (e.g. late blight, mildew) - The disease will spread to the new soil you apply compost to, so never put them on the compost
  • Leaves or fruit infested with fungi (e.g. ruffle disease, Monilia)

Where Should You Put Your Compost?

The ideal place is in the shade or half shade, ideally something hidden, e.g. behind the pergola. If possible, do not place it next to where you spend most of your time. Even if you don't mind the stench of a hot and rotting compost (I mean, who would mind), it attracts fruit flies or wasps depending on the filling. Our composting place is directly at the entrance because there was only enough space there - that's why I always plant pumpkins in it. It looks nice, the plants give shade to the compost heap, and in autumn there's something to harvest.

Which Container Should You Choose For Your Compost?

To be honest, you can stack up a compost heap and be completely fine without a container, but I like wooden borders, which you put on top of each other. The only reason I choose that is that it looks tidier. The height of the wooden composter can be adjusted without tools, which makes it very easy to rearrange. Metal lattice baskets are useful as well if you have problems with voles. Also, I use plastic thermal composters for the contents of our compost toilet, since I feel it requires a closed container. The compost toilet deserves an extra contribution, as it is an ingenious alternative to annoying septic tanks.

How I Arrange My Compost

How I Arrange My Compost

We have two composters in the garden for everything green. I fill one container bit by bit until it is full - then the second one. If it is full, I empty the first one, and so on. We also have two containers for the compost toilet, and we do the same. It only takes much longer for them to be full - so the contents stay longer and are completely rotten when I empty the container. I also use the normal compost for the vegetable beds - the toilet compost only for perennials, shrubs and hedges.

How You Can Improve Your Compost

I put some amount of bentonite and zeolite coal or wood ash between the different layers of the compost heap. These combine with the organic material during rotting and valuable clay-humus complexes are created, which further improve the quality of my lean garden soil year after year.  Autumn leaves, coffee grounds and snippets of untreated old newspapers I also like to put on the compost, because earthworms love them - and we love earthworms. They significantly speed up the rotting and decomposing process. Two to three times a year, I water the compost heap with EM (effective microorganisms), which you can also use for Bokashi. I imagine that everything will rot even better.

Too wet or too dry?

If something's wrong with your compost, it is usually due to too much or too little moisture. During the winter, I sometimes cover the compost heap with a cloth to protect it from too much rain and to avoid the risk of rot. In summer, however, I water the compost heap occasionally. That makes the earthworms happy too!

What happens during composting?

What Happens During Composting

You may wonder what happens "under the hood" in the compost. During the rotting process, organic material is broken down by soil organisms (microorganisms), but also snails, woodlice, beetles and earthworms contribute significantly to composting. This produces carbon dioxide and water-soluble minerals such as nitrate, ammonium salts, phosphate, potassium and magnesium.

These later act as fertilizers. The soil organisms need a balanced ratio of oxygen and water for the decomposition - the compost should, therefore, be well ventilated and not dry out.

During the first weeks, most of the substance decomposes, releasing energy that warms the compost heap from the inside. This effect is often used in the garden when building a raised bed or a cold frame, as the filler material acts as a kind of heating. The heat development can be accelerated by the addition of water after the layering.

Alternatives to a Composting

While having a rotting pile of organic material in your backyard may sound exciting, some people may still look for alternatives. As we try to provide you with the answers to all your questions as needs, let's take a look at some of the alternatives to composting.

Compost without a compost heap

You can also simply shred green waste, e.g. from shrubs or hedges, and use it as mulch in vegetable and shrub beds. The mulch will protect the soil from drying out, and the material rots directly in the bed and release nutrients where they are needed.

Raised beds as an alternative to compost heaps

If you don't have much room for a compost heap, but plan to build a raised bed, then pack shredded twigs, chaff and other green waste into the lower third. Over the course of months, the materials will slowly decompose and merge with the soil. That way, you've got a raised bed ready for planting!

Final Words

Like with many things in life, it's best to start composting right away - no matter whether it's spring or autumn, there's always something to cut and something to add to your new compost heap. In no time, you'll be looking at a large mound of high-quality soil ready to be put to good use!