The January garden: How to make compost

January in the UK isn’t always the most cheerful of months; the excitement of Christmas is over, and spring is still a long way off. Now’s the time, though, to finish up the last of those lingering garden jobs and have a final tidy up before the growing season. If you don’t already make your own compost, this is also a great time to get started as compost made now should be ready to use in the autumn.

Getting started

First you’ll need either a compost bin or a heap. Heaps are fine, but are messier than bins and harder to keep under control. Bins can be homemade or purpose-bought, and should be sited in a well-drained, level area and placed directly on the soil.

We like this wooden easy-access compost bin, from garden specialists Primrose – it’s affordable (£26.95 to £39.95, depending on size), and features removable slats so that you can fill it easily.

What can be composted?

Compost is a mixture of kitchen and garden waste, and you can also add small amounts of paper and cardboard. The trick is to keep a good mixture of ‘green’ waste (vegetable peelings, used tea bags, coffee grounds, grass cuttings) and ‘brown’ waste (wood shavings, shredded leaves, paper, cardboard, woody plant stems, crushed egg shells). The ideal compost ‘recipe’ is to use half brown and half green.

Keep this stylish caddy, available in slate, ivory, apple green and cream, in your kitchen as fill it as you cook. £20 from Lily and Lime.

To start off a brand new heap, use grass cuttings, straw or, if you can, a layer of horse manure to give a bit of bulk.

What can’t be composted?

Cooked food scraps shouldn’t be composted, as they’ll break down slowly and attract pests (you may be able to put cooked scraps out for the birds, though). Raw meat or fish or cat litter are also unsuitable.

The ‘cool’ heap compost method

This is the easiest way of creating compost, and really just means adding bits of waste and scraps as you along, and trying to keep the balance roughly right. Compost made in this way is very nutritious, but may take a long time to be ready to use.

The ‘hot’ heap compost method

If you need to speed things along a bit, you can take your cool heap pile and accelerate it. Fork the heap into a container, and between every few forkfuls, water the contents of the bin to keep it damp. When the bin’s full, cover it and leave it for a few days, and you should find it gets hot.

At this point, give the contents a really good mix to let the oxygen get to the middle of the pile and kickstart the composting process. You can repeat this step several times if you like, the more times you do it the less time the compost will take to be ready.

If that all sounds a bit too much like hard work, how about this tumbling composter, £78.95 from Primrose as above? Just load it up, and turn the handle for well-mixed compost.

When to use compost in your garden

With the cold heap method, you’ll probably find that the bottom of the pile is ready before the top, so you can just start using it from the bottom. When it’s ready, compost should be dark brown, crumbly and have a faint earthy smell.

With a hot heap, all the compost will be ready at once. The best time to use it in the garden is spring or autumn, and you can use it to enrich existing soil, pot plants or grow seedlings.


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