Simple ways to compost

Scraps for the chickens

Never ever did I see green waste as waste. I grew up saving all kitchen scraps for the chickens. Later on — when I moved to a place without chickens — I threw the green waste into a separate container provided by the municipality. But to say I have been intentionally composting all my life would be a lie.

I’ve lived in the big city for a while, in a country without green waste containers. I had no garden and spent little time in the kitchen. It disconnected me from the food I ate and the waste it produced. Luckily this was only a short period in my life.

When I moved to a more natural environment I started looking for ways to compost again, whether I had a garden or not. At first, as a way to deal with my own waste, but now I see composting as a way to take care of my garden, the earth and ultimately myself.

What is compost?

Compost is very simply put decomposed organic matter. It differs from soil as it doesn’t contain clay or rock particles. Compost is also the single best thing you can use to grow excellent veggies!

Compost holds nutrients in a stable, insoluble form, so they do not leach out and are available over a long period. It is indirect fertility, made available to plant roots through a biological process. Soil organisms eat and digest organic matter, with their excretions adding to soil fertility.

Charles Dowding

Why start composting?

Maybe this new year’s resolution included starting a garden and growing food. Then the good news is you don’t have to wait until spring. Start creating your own compost and you’re off to a great start!

Maybe you want to learn more about permaculture. Then composting is a good starting point. Permaculture follows 12 principles, and composting corresponds to the following 5:

  • Obtain a yield (by creating compost)
  • Produce no waste (by converting your green waste into something usable)
  • Integrate rather than segregate (by integrating your compost into your garden, rather than sending it to the landfill)
  • Use small and slow solutions (by using a compost bin, rather than having a big truck pick up your green waste)
  • Use edges & value the marginal (by truly seeing the value of your kitchen scraps)

Maybe you have ecological concerns. Then it’s good to know and understand that the way green waste decomposes can be either wonderful or disastrous. If organic matter decomposes in an environment with little oxygen, such as a landfill, it will emit methane which is highly toxic. If you live in a place where the municipality provides a particular bin then it would be super interesting to find out what they are doing with your waste.

And, last but not least, it’s fun! It gives such a great feeling of accomplishment when you’re dealing with your own waste. Also, boring garden chores like mowing the lawn — if you have one — will now become an important harvesting task. Harvesting organic matter to fill your compost bin so you can pamper your soil and grow delicious veggies! What’s not to like?

How & what to compost?

If you look online about how and what to compost, you’ll might get so overwhelmed and confused that you’re too daunted to even get started. Don’t worry, there are a few basic rules and as long as you keep those in mind all will be well.

You’ll need about 50:50 of brown and green materials, some moisture and oxygen. That’s all.

Brown materials are woody and fibrous bits and things like brown leaves and brown cardboard. Green materials are fresh and soft things like green leaves and kitchen scraps. Just layer your compost with one layer of green and one layer of brown, that will do. The fibrous bits will provide air pockets for oxygen, and the green materials will provide moisture. Easy as pie.

Don’t worry about separating citrus peels, weed seeds or leaves with diseases like rust or mildew. If it’s organic it can be composted. And, turning is only needed once.

The above might seem like a bold statement, but it really is this simple. Plant diseases and fungi need living plant matter to survive. Weed seeds will die due to the heat generated in the compost heap. If you have a smaller compost heap you will generate less heat, in that case, the weed seeds might germinate when you use your compost in your garden. Since the seeds germinate on top of your soil, they will be easy to remove. The citrus peels are said to alter the Ph of the soil when using the compost, but I never had any troubles in my garden. We live in the land of oranges, so you can trust me on that.

Turning is another thing you’ll read lots about and will make your head spin. Originally turning was necessary because compost wasn’t collected in bins and a lot of heat escaped. Heaps needed to be turned so all organic matter was eventually exposed to the heat. Nowadays heaps are contained in some sort of bins which maintain the heat and turning is only necessary once.

There are many different ways and there is no good or bad way. Some will be more labour intense than others, but the compost will ready sooner. Personally, I prefer the more slow and lazy methods.

Bucket method

When I didn’t have a garden and moved houses quite a lot I had a 1-gallon bucket with a lid in my kitchen in which I saved all my kitchen scraps. Every now and then I went into to forest, dug a hole, emptied the bucket, covered it with soil and that was it. I’ve done this also right next to my house, and I have never had any problems with bad smells or rodents. You’ll be surprised how fast it decomposes.

Fair enough, I did see some mice every now and than but they never caused any damage

Urban composter

The last house I lived in had a small urban backyard and I decided to buy an urban composter, although I could have made one myself. It’s basically a bucket with a grid at the bottom to separate the liquids and a tap. To speed up the composting process you can spray some ‘LAB serum’ on top of your scraps. LAB is short for lactobacillus and I might write another post about this. For now, you can check out these excellent instructions or see this episode from the Weedy Garden.

Once the urban composter is full, it’s not yet composted. You’ll still need a conventional compost bin or empty it somewhere in your garden with some soil on top but it will decompose much faster. As a bonus, you’ll obtain compost tea.

The liquid you obtain is called ‘compost tea’. Dilute it 1:10 and serve it to your plants. They’ll love it!

Big compost bin

We now live next to an acacia forest. Partially due to the wild fires acacias have become an invasive species in our region. Inspired by the guys from Project Kamp I wanted to make something beautiful and useful with the acacias, hence the idea of the compost basket was born. Using wattle fencing techniques we created a 1 x 1-meter compost bin.

The bigger the compost heap, the more heat can be generated. More heat isn’t always better though as it leaves you with very sterile compost. A compost bin of roughly 1 x 1 meter will create enough heat to kill weed seeds and to safely compost humanure — which will be our next step.

Bigger isn’t always the better either, as you still need to fill it. Ideally, filling your compost heap should not take any longer than one year so take this into consideration. I’ve managed to fill this big basket almost to the top within two months’ time by collecting leaves and cleaning up my neighbor’s patch. I couldn’t help myself, it’s addictive!

The idea is to create another bin so that once this one if full I can turn it into the empty one and let it cure for about a year whilst I fill the other one.

Delving deeper

Composting is truly fascinating and I keep learning new things about it, but luckily we don’t have to be experts on a subject to get started.

Talking about experts, if you want to delve deeper into the subject check out the work of Charles Dowding. He has been using compost in his market garden for over 4 decades and is has put a wealth of information online.

Just one more thing, don’t try to compost ‘compostable plastics’. It won’t work, not even when you shred it into small pieces. I’ll save you the experiment. Well, I think that was it for now. All this composting made me hungry so I’m off to bake some bread. Please remind me to share the recipe soon Here’s my basic recipe for delicious Dutch oven no-knead bread.

Happy composting & ’till then lovelies!

6 thoughts on “Simple ways to compost

  1. Hi Marita,

    I started to compost previous winter and disliked it. First of all, it was a huge task to find out what I needed and how to do it. I turned until my arms were hurting: in a structure too small to move the layers, and how must I actually move those layers? It felt like a cake trying to turn over without smashing it. I had so much work with the garden that composting became a chore. Later I had too much work and composting was not done anymore. Now, I keep to it in a more lazy way and it composts as well. I gain that beautiful black, odorless soil.

    So recognizable, as I ask my husband nowadays to mow the grass. Something I usually find a stupid thing to do and I dislike the sound of the mower enourmously. But since I need grass, the mower has gained a lot of respect.

    Your post does inspire me and makes me see that what I do is good. I now have three compost bins, one plastic, two wooden ones made from pallets. I add ashes too, burned wood. I keep all the egg shells separately to burry into the tomato plant holes. I add our pee at times as well. Coffee and kalk from old boilers is kept as well.

    Your self made structures are very beautiful. I bet quite some time went into making them. Will they not disintegrate?

    Thank you so much Marita. Your post is truly helpful and beautifully written. I will read it again and learn from it.

    1. Hi Cindy,

      Thanks for reading, I’m so happy it’s helpful. Sometimes it’s good to read we’re doing things correctly, right? Still, our best judge is the garden itself!

      Adding burned wood to your compost heap is super beneficial, especially when you crush it so you’ll end up with ‘biochar’ which is the place where soil organisms like to hang out during heavy rainfall 🙂
      Ashes, on the other hand, slow the composting process down so be careful not to add too much. It’s better to sprinkle a bit on top of your soil. I always have more ashes than what I use in my garden, so I need to discard them somewhere in the woods.

      My ‘compost basket’ will eventually be composted as well, but I hope it will last a good 5 years in it’s current function. Collecting the materials and cleaning the sticks from the small branches took most of the time. The actual weaving is quite simple, quick and very rewarding. I’m thinking of replacing the old rotten fenches with a wattle fench – maybe next year?

      Thanks once again Cindy!

      1. Hi Eva, it is good to read that you tell me not to add too much ashes, but rather burned wood (charcoal, something I have to learn yet) I did put much ashes into my compost though. Stopped that immediately. We will have an outhouse toilet and I will try a new technique: composting poop and pee into the compost heap. I know it sounds bad but it seems to be rather normal and I will give it a try.
        What do you think about that? Maybe worth exploring as a next level up?
        Much regards Cindy

      2. I think that’s great!

        Have you heard of the humanure handbook? It has all the details you’d want to know. The information is available to everyone for free =>

        I think the most important thing is being able to monitor the temperature of your compost heap and let it cure for at least one year for safe use in the garden.

        We don’t have the space for an outdoor toilet, but we will get rid of our flush toilet and get a compost toilet. It’s on the list, maybe next year….?

  2. Ah, my reply did not get through. Well, the link you noted is where I got the idea from. We’ll start soon with our outhouse. I can’t wait to squat on a toilet that is usefully used and not flush.

Anything to add? I'd love to hear it!

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