Making your own compost is the best way to feed your garden. But it can also be painfully slow! So, let’s speed things up with some simple steps you can take to make lots of compost…fast!
1. Aim for a 50:50 Mix of Greens and Browns
Aim for roughly equal proportions of ‘green’ materials to ‘browns’. Greens have a relatively high nitrogen content and typically consist of fresher, sappier material. Think grass clippings, spent crops, old bedding plants, annual weeds (seed-free so you don’t inadvertently spread them about in the final compost), and kitchen waste such as vegetable peelings and fruit peels.
Not all greens are obvious. Coffee grounds and tea leaves are brown in colour, but still count as greens because they’re high in nitrogen. The same applies to dried grass clippings because all that’s been lost from them is water, which won’t affect the amount of nitrogen they contain.
And here we have some browns, which have a higher carbon content making them typically drier, coarser materials. So, we’ve got straw, wood chippings, dead plants, fallen leaves – plenty of these right now, old twiggy prunings, and then materials made from plant matter such as shredded or scrunched up paper and plain brown cardboard.
2. Chop Up Composting Materials
Whatever you add, try to keep everything as small as possible, as smaller pieces will have a greater surface area for the composting organisms to get to work on. Larger stems can be chopped up, for example, or woodier materials shredded. Not everyone has a shredder – I don’t! – but you may find that a lawnmower does a good job of smashing or chopping up tougher, non-woody stems such as corn stalks. Just be careful not to damage your mower – it needs to be up to the job! Alternatively, just cut stems into smaller pieces using your pruners.
3. Add a Compost Activator
Next, add a natural activator. A compost activator is something that kickstarts or boosts your compost. Off-the-shelf products described as ‘compost accelerators’ or ‘compost makers’ are expensive and really not worth it in my opinion. Instead, the very best activators are natural ones like animal manures from herbivorous animals such as cows, horses or chickens…or your own liquid gold. Yep, that’s right – you can pee on your compost heap!
If you keep guinea pigs, rabbits or other small rodents, the wood shavings used in their cages mixed with their wee and poo is a very potent mix in any compost heap and will really speed things up.
If you’re a bit squeamish about using either pee or manure, then try and get hold of spent coffee grounds, which make a great alternative. Ask at your local coffee shop and they may be only too happy to give you bags of this waste product for free.
What all these natural activators have in common is that they have a very high nitrogen content, making them powerful accelerants, especially if your compost heap has lots of browns in it.
4. Turn Your Compost
Regularly mixing, or turning your compost is a great way to get more air in there to help keep it cooking. It’ll give your compost heap a new lease of life and, although it’s hard work, is worth doing if you’re after double-quick compost. You can do this at any time, but one or two weeks after adding the last of your ingredients to the heap makes the most sense. By doing this all those beneficial bacteria will get a boost of oxygen and in turn they will build up the heat in your heap as they get back to work. This should slash weeks, perhaps even months off the time it takes to get your final, beautiful, crumbly compost.
5. Keep Compost Heaps Covered
As we head into winter it’s a good idea to cover open heaps to both insulate the heap and to stop it from getting too wet from heavy winter rains. Insultating the heap keeps it active for longer as temperatures start to drop. You can use any type of sheeting, or even just several layers of cardboard can help shed most of the rain. If you’re going to use old carpet, just make sure it’s one made from natural fibres such as jute or hemp, because you don’t want manmade fibres ending up in your compost.
6. Maintain Light Moisture in Your Compost Heap
Compost that has become too wet from either rain or excessive fresh green material will slump down and squeeze out all the air, causing things to turn smelly and putrid – not nice! If it gets in this state, dig it all out and restack it with more browns to help open it out, and make sure to keep it covered.
And in the same vein, if it’s really slowed down because things have dried out, rewet the heap by giving it a thorough watering every week or so to get things going again. How do you tell if it’s wet enough? Get your hands in and squeeze the material – it should feel damp but not so wet that water drips out.
How to Build the Perfect Compost Heap
When building up a compost heap, it’s essential to add ingredients in a way that keeps the heap lightly moist, and full of air. This will keep all the organisms that help with decomposition happy and thriving.
Site your compost bin directly on the soil, which will make it easy for all of those wondrous worms and beneficial bacteria to find their way in, and that will speed up how fast it all begins to rot down. An open heap is fine, or you can keep it tidy using pallets. Alternatively, use a purpose-sold compost bin.
A larger heap is more effective than a small one, especially as things start to cool off in autumn and winter. A large heaps stay warmer in the center, keeping it active for longer.
When starting a new compost bin, I like to add some twiggy brown material to the base to help open out the bottom and retain a bit of air down there. Try to add your greens and browns in roughly equal proportions, 50:50. I wouldn’t obsess about this – the absolute key thing to avoid is dumping on loads of greens such as grass clippings in one go. Doing this runs the risk of these water-heavy ingredients compacting down and becoming a soggy, airless mess. By adding in browns to balance out the greens you can keep the structure of your compost heap more open, and the conditions for beneficial composting organisms just fine and dandy.
During the height of the growing season finding enough browns can be tricky, but I find that plain cardboard or scrunched up paper works well and helps keep those greens from matting together into a slimy goo.
Follow my steps to speedy compost, and you could be cooking up compost in as little as three months during the growing season – that’s fast!