How I made really great compost

Simon Watkins
Thursday, 29th March 2012

Making compost is often more of an art than a science. In this case, Simon managed to hit the aerobic decomposition jackpot. Here's his compost how-to...

For the first time in my composting career I've produced a rich, dark pile of beautifully crumbly compost teeming with worms.

On the face of it, this shouldn't have happened. It's in a loose hippo sack in a shady corner on top of a concrete patio – no sunlight, no warmth, no soil underneath. The only reason I put it there was because it's close to the kitchen and relatively out of view.

So how did it work out so well?

Tracing back through the history of this heap might provide some clues. The first thing I did was put down a layer of fine brush cuttings from the garden, to keep the pile free draining and avoid an anaerobic slime forming at the base where it's in contact with the concrete.

Next, my aim was to create sufficient material to spread over an area of approximately 8 square metres of garden which is currently covered in plastic sheeting and gravel: a dead soil in a dead space. Ideally I was aiming to get a layer of compost at least 100mm deep – so that's nearly a cubic metre of the stuff. Living in a small household that's quite a target to generate out of kitchen waste in one year, so I made it my mission to garner as much green waste from any source possible: surplus growth from my garden, weeds from the back alleys (making sure they hadn't been sprayed with herbicide recently), donations of grass cuttings from friends, wood shavings, the ends of compost and manure bags, kitchen waste from my workplace, everything and anything biodegradeable.

As a result, the ambitious size of the heap helped the decomposition process by allowing heat to build up within the pile – in fact once it had all but filled the hippo sack I'd often find it steaming away on even cool mornings when I went to add the latest caddy of kitchen stuff. The other aspect of that is the sheer variety of material that went in maximised the chances of the right kind of micro-organisms being present to set the whole thing off.

Another major contribution came I think from covering the heap with a bit of geotextile fabric which was lying about in the shed. This is permeable, allowing the pile to breath whilst keeping much of the heat in. I also drenched the pile with kitchen waste water every now and then, re-covering with the sheet to keep this moisture in.

At one point I transferred a fruiting body from a fungus found in a nearby grow bag into the compost, hoping rather unscientifically that the spores would find a suitable home in my home-made pile. I don't know if this worked, but I some time later a very active fungus made an impressive appearance in the form of a beautiful toadstool on the top of the heap. It was then that I knew we were heading for success, but I never dreamed that the result would be as opulent as the fabulous earthy mulch I turned over last weekend. I can almost hear the carrot seeds booking their square inch of compost...

One word of warning – on one occasion (and, happily, only one) I disturbed a rat scouting the pile for titbits. Really, it's better to securely sequester food waste in some form of container which can be protected from rats, (though burying 12" deep under the soil is another way to put food waste into your nutrient cycle directly).

Bagging the compost up to transfer to my raised beds last weekend, I found the final proof of the pudding: dozens of seeds germinating – discarded beans, mainly – but among them, a couple of quite exciting chancers: an avocado stone, and what looks like a nectarine, both sending hopeful feelers into the unknown. Happy to help, I pot these into a couple of empty yeast pots, and look forward to watching a couple of new recruits settle in to my indoor jungle.

Seeds, germinated in the compost, potted on into yeast tins

The lesson for me is that variety really is the spice of the life of a compost heap; in other words, the more opportunities you leave to nature the more chances she'll have to work her magic.

This article first appeared on Simon's website, Simon Watkins is a landscape architect with a special interest in sustainable edible landscapes and is currently studying for the Diploma in Applied Permaculture.

-- Read more articles by Simon here --

Nicola Didsbury |
Sat, 31/03/2012 - 21:36
My compost heap gave me two avocados - they have been happily growing away in my summer house over winter, they're nearly a foot high now! Isn't life wonderful. :)
Bintarong |
Mon, 30/04/2012 - 15:00
I'm so jealous- the compost sounds like true black gold! I've been composting for years- not scientifically, just throwing any veg/fruit/paper waste in my purpose built bin. Its nearing the top right now but there is a plague of fruitflies of biblical proportions. Am I doing something wrong? I now creep up to the compost bin, swipe the lid off, duck and run away for a few minutes, then creep back and deposit my veg peelings. You think its funny- the neighbours are in hysterics!!! The worst thing is the flies seem to follow me back inside and our house is full of them. DH vacs them all up (very unethical) and then we're fine- until the next compost bin visit and as we eat so much fruit veg and tea that's 1-2 times per day. Any ideas what I'm doing wrong? We no longer keep our compost caddy indoors, there is no indoor bin, the sink is new so I don't think they're living down there. In fact the whole kitchen is brand new so there shouldn't be anything lurking that they are thriving on. I thought it might be my HM vinegar cleaning spray so I have switched to a bought one with no luck. Its getting so bad that landfill's looking appealing!!
Bernie |
Tue, 08/05/2012 - 17:43
Try: 1. covering the compost caddy inside with some sheets of newspaper. Push it down well after adding new bits. 2. Even better, get some Bokashi bran and sprinkle that on the new stuff in the compost caddy. I used to have a fruit fly problem. Since using Bokashi, hardly ever. After six weeks, empty the caddy in the compost heap and mix it in well. Worms love it. And because the Bokashi pickles the ingredients, including meat, fish, dairy products, bread, rice, old fat - they all go in - rats and mice hate alcohol and leave it all alone. 3. Don't forget to have a tap at the bottom of your caddy if the stuff will be staying in there more than a few days - you will need to drain off the liquid - Dilute it 10:1 and use as fertiliser. 4. Making your own Bokashi is quite easy - lots of help on-line - e.g. livingsoil;; etc. 5. Tip the caddy into a wormery - also here, keep the contents covered with wet cardboard. Good Luck!