Composting questions

Do I have to turn the heap?

Only if you are enthusiastic! The materials you put in will compost down on their own but regularly letting more air into the heap by turning it with a garden fork or emptying it out and re-filling it will help it rot quicker.

How can I deal with larger garden waste?

Logs and branches can be stacked into a corner to make a slow degrading log pile. This makes a perfect habitat for beetles, amphibians and slow worms to live in. A shredder can be used to turn larger useful ‘browns’ into a more manageable size that will fit in your bin. You could share the cost of hiring a shredder with other composting neighbours.

What about weeds and seeds?

Perennial weed roots and seeds can germinate in your compost and cause a problem. Keep them in a plastic bag until they begin to rot before adding them to the heap.

What about rats?

Rats are attracted by cooked food, meat, dairy or bread, so avoid composting these. A bin full of rotting vegetable waste is no more attractive to rats than a vegetable patch in the garden but if you don't regularly turn your heap, rats and mice in the area may decide that it is a warm and comfy place to nest. To discourage this, keep your heap damp and break it up with a garden fork regularly (being careful of other wildlife).

How long does it take to produce compost?

Within 6 months you should expect to be able to spread your compost as ‘mulch’ around the surface of your plants, shrubs and trees. Don’t worry if it is thicker and doesn’t look like commercial compost. It is still a vital source of nutrients and the worms will soon take it down into the soil. Finer compost may take anything up to two years to be produced. Sieving it can separate larger bits that can be returned to the heap for further composting.

How do I empty the compost bin?

Some plastic bins have a door at the bottom so that the well-rotted material can be removed with a garden fork. If this proves difficult, simply lift off the whole bin and separate the well rotted from the less rotted material, which can be put back into the bin.

My compost bin is smelly! or My compost heap isn’t doing anything!

This means your heap is unbalanced. If you can manage it, turn the whole heap using a garden fork to see if it might be too dry or too wet in the centre. It should be as damp as a wrung out sponge. If it is not, follow these instructions accordingly:

  • Soggy heaps need a boost of fresh air – get the circulation going by mixing it all up, turning the top to the bottom. Add high-carbon waste such as twigs, crunched up cardboard, shredded paper, leaves, straw or shredded woody prunings as you go.
  • Dry inactive heaps need some activation - kick start the composting process by mixing in nitrogen-rich liquids like chicken manure pellets or horse manure soaked in a bucket of water. During the summer, nettles and comfrey are good things to add to a dry heap and diluted urine is excellent if you’re feeling ultra self sufficient!

My bin is full of flies

Fruit flies play a part in the breaking down process, but they can also be off-putting. Try turning the heap. This will give more oxygen to the micro-organisms and for a few days the overall temperature will increase to an uncomfortable level for the flies. Check you have the right mix and moisture as you turn. You could also try leaving the lid off for a short time. Birds will be attracted by the swarm and will come to feast on them. As it is the kitchen waste that the flies enjoy, you could cover this layer each time with a ‘bio filter’. This can be a layer of old compost, fresh grass cuttings, shredded paper or bedding from herbivorous pets. This will stop the flies getting disturbed by you lifting of the lid.

My bin is full of ants

People may think that ants are a problem but they are actually part of the natural decomposition process. They chew up the dead wood and help to turn the compost over. Of course, if they do become a nuisance you could try turning the heap or digging out the nest and leaving it on the grass for the birds to peck at.

Posted in: Sustainable Gardening on 30 April 2015

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