The longer compost takes to make, the more nutrients will be lost to the soil below it – and the more will be churned down by worms. Obviously the longer it takes, the more space it takes up in the garden while it’s maturing too. Whether you’re short of room, don’t want lots of bins lying around, or just want to get more compost on the garden, here are some tips.
The more you can do to break down material before it goes in the bin, the quicker it will mature. Depending on the size of your garden, and the amount of extra garden waste you could potentially recycle, you might consider investing in a shredder (sometimes called a chipper or mulcher).
Heavy duty shredders will do wood and branches – great brown material for your compost. Simpler ones are still pretty versatile though. We have the Dirty Pro Tools™ Compact, which we’ve found really useful for a medium-sized garden – perfect for twigs and tough stems that would usually just go in the green bin. Like many compact models, it’s easy to wheel around and takes up very little storage space in the garage.
Using a traditional heap, bin or tumbler is an ‘aerobic’ process. Micro-organisms decompose the matter using oxygen, which generates carbon-dioxide and heat. You can give your compost a helping hand by improving aeration.
The first way to ensure good aeration is to have a good brown-to-green waste ratio – roughly 1:1 in volume. Some people say that if you carefully create alternating layers of brown and green, the aeration will take care of itself. In reality you might find it’s easier just to mix it all up, and throw things in as you go along, rather than having to think about the construction.
The second way to improve aeration is to use a little elbow-grease. If you’re fighting fit and your pile is easy to access, you might be able to turn it all over with a fork or spade – this is the traditional method.
The least labour-intensive method is to use a long pole and just prod it down as far as you can in several places.
Probably the most efficient use of strength is to use a purpose-built aerator. It’s generally a long pole with something that sticks out at the bottom to catch the debris. This is plunged in as far as possible, then pulled out again so the older material is drawn to the top. Some aerators have prongs that come out at the sides, while others are like giant corkscrews. We use a Dolmen screw-type, a simple and sturdy design that works very well.
If you can spend perhaps 15 minutes every couple of weeks on aerating, it’ll make a big difference to the final product… and it’s a good workout 🙂 Take care with this method if you have any back trouble though.
The words ‘accelerating’ and ‘activating’ seem to be used interchangeably in composting. A traditional accelerator is a kind of ashy substance that you mix in. It’ll probably include some undesirable ingredients for a vegan organic gardener – not only chemicals, but also animal products, and some fairly gruesome ones at that.
EM-1 (Effective Micro-organisms)
Thanks to the lovely Gentle World for putting us on to EM-1. If you think of the compost pile as a kind of digestive system, where the greens are the nourishment, and the browns are the fibre, EM-1 would be a probiotic. It acts like a sort of compost kombucha, contributing good bacteria.
Although EM-1 is not cheap, a bottle will go a long way, as you only need about 20ml per litre of water. Mix up a batch and just spray it directly on the pile every couple of weeks. Use it as soon as possible after mixing, as the water activates the bacteria, and it will go off within about 24 hours. You can also use this solution as a soil improver straight on the garden – every month or so in the growing season.
As mentioned in How to make plant-based compost, if an ‘aerobic’ pile is kept warm, the decomposition process will be quicker.
- Locate your bin in a sunny spot if you can.
- Ideally use a container that has some insulating properties. Wood is the best if you want to go for natural material. Double-walled plastic also works well.
- Water will cool the pile down, so make sure it has some kind of lid or covering to protect it from the rain. If it gets too soggy, add more brown material to the mix.
- If the weather is too dry, decomposition will slow down. You may need to add water to the bin occasionally in summer, but it should just be moist, not soggy. If you’re mainly adding fruit and vegetable waste daily, it shouldn’t dry out – we’ve never had to add water to ours.
It’s best to avoid adding the following if you want your material to break down properly within 6 months:
- Avocado skins
- Melon skins
- Pineapple tops and bottoms (skin is fine)
- Compostable bags
Make sure you cut any tough rind or stems down to small-ish pieces. Brown paper and cardboard are fine in moderation. See more recommendations in How to make plant-based compost.
You might not be able to produce enough for all your garden needs throughout the year, but since homemade compost is almost free, any savings are worth making. We probably produce about half as much as we use – the rest we buy in.
The best option we’ve found for delivery is Vegro, by Fertile Fibre – certified by the Soil Association and the Vegan Society. Not a great deal of compost is available online though, as it’s so bulky to transport, so it’s worth contacting your friendly garden centre or organic producer. They might have other options available for collection.
While compost is a popular mainstay for gardeners, there are so many other plant-based organic ways to improve your soil, for example: making leaf mould, growing your own ‘green manure’, or making ‘compost tea’. We’ll look at those another time. Meanwhile, good luck in your own composting adventure…