Home composting in a small garden

Over the last couple of years, I’ve managed to squeeze quite a lot out of what is a very small piece of garden, and I feel as though I’ve come a long way although I still have masses to learn! However, I definitely think it’s been worth it; aside from being able to eat what I grow, I find gardening to be hands down the best stress buster there is. One of my favourite parts of the day is coming out into our garden and picking salad leaves and/or tomatoes to eat with an omelette or pasta dish for lunch (sometimes the leaves are the lunch, with the addition of a couple of slices of ham or chorizo sausage and some olives).
One of the reasons I got into gardening was to save money. But I soon realised that I was spending major amounts of cash on store-bought compost; in fact, it was my biggest gardening expenditure. Furthermore, I don’t drive.
This means I either have to buy bags of compost that are small enough for me to carry home, or I have to order compost online. Both these options cost way more money than bulk-buying compost at a big DIY store or garden centre, and taking it home in the car (which I don’t have). I therefore hit on a solution: make my own compost. My efforts were pitiful at first, but now I’ve got the hang of it I get bucketfuls of lovely home made compost! Edit: My compost consumption is now far outstripping production of the home-made stuff so in spring, I now buy three 70 litre bags of compost from my local hardware store – they deliver it for an extra £5. Even when you factor in the cost of delivery, it still works out cheaper per litre than buying the smaller bags (and I don’t have to lug them home on the bus).
I still buy commercial compost, but I only need to buy half the amount I used to. Not only that, but my plants – especially tomatoes – absolutely love growing in home made compost.
You can even use home made compost indoors: when I’ve got a batch outside that’s ready, I transfer some of it into a container (e.g. a margarine tub), making sure to remove as many worms, millipedes and other forms of insect/mollusc life as I can, and also any small twigs/uncomposted matter. Then I place the container in a small plastic bag, and stick it in the freezer for a week or so to sterilise it. Once it’s thawed out again, it makes a fab medium for growing herbs such as basil and coriander (cilantro) indoors.
If you have a really big garden or an allotment, you can simply designate a “compost corner” and pile all your compostable material in that corner, without worrying too much about how it looks. But for anyone with a small garden, that isn’t really an option – it takes up too much room for one thing, and it doesn’t look pretty. As my own garden is tiny, I bought myself a compost bin. I call the one I’ve got a Dalek, because, well, it looks like a Dalek. It has a capacity of 220 litres – personally I wouldn’t go for anything smaller unless space is a real problem, because the temperature inside a bigger compost bin will get higher than the temperature inside a smaller bin, which means that your stuff will rot down more quickly.
Where to put your compost bin
Ideally, it needs to go on top of some soil – you can place it on a paved area, but you would need to have a massive layer of paper/cardboard under it to absorb any liquids produced during the composting process. Make sure the bin is accessible enough so that you can (a) fill it easily and (b) turn your compost every few weeks during the spring/summer/autumn (more on this below). It also helps accelerate the composting process if you can site your compost bin somewhere sunny.
What to put in your compost bin
The obvious things that most people would think of are all examples of “green waste”: grass clippings, vegetable and fruit peelings, tea bags, coffee grounds and weeds/old flower heads.These all provide nitrogen, moisture and heat. But what many people don’t realise is that you need to balance out the green waste with “brown waste”: old egg boxes, cardboard (e.g. toilet roll and kitchen roll cores), and the odd bit of paper. Although brown waste takes longer to rot down than green waste, adding it means that the compost you end up with has a better texture and doesn’t go all slimy. Whether it’s green or brown waste that you’re adding, the smaller you chop it up to begin with, the quicker it will rot down. When I first started doing my own compost, I made the mistake of adding some uncut broccoli stems and they were still intact months later, although the insides had started to go a bit gooey!
Some other things you can also add to your compost, which you might not have thought of
1. Water. Every time I add a margarine tub’s worth of compost to my compost bin, I wash it with a bit of rain water and add that to the compost as well. This helps to speed up the composting process
2. Egg shells
3. Human and animal hair, and feathers
4. Anything made of wool or cotton. I’ve even put a couple of my OH’s old wool suits in our compost bin. They haven’t fully rotted down yet, but give it time. Apparently, sheep’s wool compost is used by growers in the so-called “Rhubarb Triangle” of West Yorkshire, with great success.
5. Your own urine – it’s a fab nitrogen source. And it saves all that water you would have used when flushing the toilet!
6. Comfrey. Every garden should have a comfrey patch – the photo on the right shows a comfrey plant growing in our front garden. Comfrey is an attractive, low maintenance perennial. Not only do bees love it, but the leaves suck up loads of nutrients from the soil. So whether they’re added whole to your compost bin, or used to make comfrey tea, comfrey leaves will help make your compost even better. 

7. Seaweed – if it smells clean and fresh. Collect loose seaweed from the beach, as opposed to prising it off the rocks and depriving marine fauna of its habitat.

What not to put in your compost bin
Meat. It attracts rats and other vermin. Same goes for milk, cheese and any cooked food including bread – even cooked veg is still a vermin attractant. It might seem obvious, but it’s worth pointing out that plastic and metal does not compost down, and you should NEVER put cat or dog litter in the compost bin – not even when you’ve removed any, er, solid matter first. Don’t put any diseased plants in there either, for obvious reasons.
How long will it take before my compost is ready?
It certainly doesn’t happen overnight – think months rather than weeks. Much depends on when you actually set the compost bin up – if you start composting in autumn, then you’ve got the winter to get through, during which it will take a lot longer for your compost to rot down because it’s colder. Whenever you start composting, my personal recommendation is to just keep adding your green and brown waste (plus water) for six months. By this time, the material at the bottom of your compost bin will be – if not ready to use – at least well on the way. What I then do is to “turn” the compost, which with my Dalek involves lifting it up and putting it somewhere out of the way, and then – wearing builder’s gloves and/or using a fork – sorting the compost heap into two piles: stuff that hasn’t rotted down much at all, and stuff that’s “nearly there”. Once the sorting is over, the Dalek goes back into position and the stuff that hasn’t rotted down very much goes back into it, newest material first. The “nearly there” compost goes into a hole I’ve dug for the purpose. I then cover this with old carpet and weigh it down with stones or bricks, and leave it for a few more weeks. By that time, the worms have done the work for me. (Of course, it helps if this final few weeks is timed to coincide with spring/summer rather than the colder months of the year.) The resulting compost is moist but not slimy. It’s a lovely rich chocolate brown and smells… sort of earthy, in a good way – the kind of thing you could just imagine feeling well at home in if you’re a tomato plant.
© Empress Felicity June 2010