The 101 on composting

How to start making the most of your waste at home

There’s been much talk about composting in recent years, thanks to a growing interest in environmental sustainability and eliminating food waste. Composting is the process of breaking down organic, biodegradable waste — such as food waste, manure, yard waste and insects — into organic material, or compost. Otherwise known as “black gold” to farmers, compost is prized in farming and gardening as it is rich in nutrients and natural fertilisers. It can help improve soil and water quality, help plants grow more quickly and lower reliance on chemical fertilisers.

Farmers and gardeners have practised composting for decades, but that doesn’t mean those of us who don’t garden can’t do it. For us at home, composting is a great way to contribute to the environment. It allows us to play a role in closing the nutrient cycle, by sustainably disposing organic, not-usually-eaten items, such as banana peels and egg shells, as well as things we have little to no use for, like old newspaper and pet fur, and keeping them out of landfills.

How to compost

Composting at home is easy. Here’s how.

1. Set aside some space for your compost

You’ll first need a place to build your compost pile. This could be an empty trash can behind the kitchen in your flat, small patch of your yard or, if you’re up for shelling out a bit of cash for your project, a compost bin you can get on the market. There are many types out there to fit every living situation, from small bins to large towers and tumblers that make turning compost easy.

2. Lay the foundation

Start by laying straw and twigs first, a few centimetres deep. This helps aerate your compost and aids drainage.

3. Add moist and dry layers

An efficient compost is one that contains the right balance of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich items. One way to ensure this is to add compost materials in alternate layers of moist and dry items. Moist items produce nitrogen and include food scraps, teabags and rabbit droppings, while dry materials are a carbon source and include leaves, straw and paper. Keep items as small as you can and, if possible, add manure, as it is a good nitrogen source that activates the compost pile and speeds up the process.

4. Water and turn

Moisture and oxygen are key essential ingredients in any compost — a good balance of moisture and air ensures the microorganisms breaking down your compost have what they need to thrive and reproduce. Water your pile from time to time, or you can let the rain do the job. And give your compost pile a quick turn once a week, as this aerates the pile and quickens the decomposition process. You may do this manually with a shovel or pitchfork, or invest in a compost tumbler bin that makes this easier. If you have items to add after you’ve established your pile, simply mix them in instead of placing them in layers.

5. Cover and let sit

Covering your compost with wood or a plastic sheet helps retain moisture and heat, as well as prevent it from being over-watered by rain. 

How long it takes for compost to mature depends on the size of the materials in your pile (the smaller, the better), whether you have a good balance of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials, and how often you turn the compost.

You’ll know it has fully broken down and decomposed when it appears as a deep brown, smooth yet crumbly pile. Compost should smell sweetly fragrant, so if it still smells sour, it’s a sign it’s not yet ready for use. Remember, using compost before it is fully mature can attract pests to your garden and damage plants.

Finished compost can be used in soil for plants, but if you don’t garden, simply give it to your local community garden or a friend who does — they’d be grateful for it!

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