How to start a compost heap

Composting scraps

Composting your kitchen waste is good for the environment and your garden wildlife, and you’ll make a free fertiliser! Charlotte explains how to get started.

I am heading down the garden with a bulging box of veg peelings, egg shells and apple cores; taking a moment of peace in the warm spring evening. I’m aiming for my compost heaps which are tucked against a wall. They’re partially shaded by an old apple tree, and they are invisible from most of the garden, but for me they are a treasured feature.

Compost heaps give huge benefits for the composter, local wildlife and the wider world. For starters any waste you put into your compost heap is not going to landfill. Compostable materials break down much more effectively at home than in a landfill site, and no fossil fuels are burned to transport them.

Compostable materials break down much more effectively at home than in a landfill site, and no fossil fuels are burned to transport them

Secondly, the waste in my compost heap will become a free soil enricher I can use all over my garden to help my plants thrive. I pile it round the roots of trees and rose bushes, mix it with potting compost in my large containers and dig it into the vegetable beds. It is full of the nutrients that plants need to grow - nutrients I will get back in the form of delicious green beans in the summer!

Charlotte's compost heaps by Charlotte Evetts

Charlotte's compost heaps by Charlotte Evetts

Lastly, a compost heap is a great wildlife-friendly addition to any garden. The heap is a haven for minibeasts that feed on the waste and help break it down.  A healthy compost heap will be full of worms and wigglies – a perfect place for a family minibeast hunt with guaranteed results (and you’ll probably spot a robin or a blackbird too, waiting to snack on the minibeasts you uncover)!

At Sutton Courtenay Environmental Education Centre we keep a wormery where the food waste from visiting children’s lunchboxes is recycled by our resident worms. The children can see the worms at work, and best of all they can hold a worm for themselves. It’s fantastic to watch a class go in minutes from disgusted squeals to begging to be allowed to hold their worm “just a bit longer!”

Inside the SCEEC wormery by Charlotte Evetts

Inside the SCEEC wormery by Charlotte Evetts

Larger animals use compost heaps for shelter, hibernating through the winter or even laying their eggs. Hedgehogs, toads, newts and even grass snakes and slow worms can be spotted enjoying them.

So let’s get started! There is heaps of information out there on composting which can be a bit overwhelming, but my advice is to keep it simple. Start with a small patch of garden, ideally with a little shade, where you can pile up your compostable waste. Or you can build a three sided bin with old wooden pallets, or look out for a lidded plastic bin.

Fill your heap with lots of different things – personally I don’t worry too much about layers or exact proportions, it all works out in the end as long as I don’t let any one material dominate.

Add fruit and veg scraps, tea bags (as long as they don’t contain plastic), torn-up paper like egg boxes or newspapers, prunings, dead flowers, leaves, grass cuttings, soft weeds and bedding from vegetarian pets such as rabbits.

Avoid meat and fish, cooked leftovers, cat litter, pernicious weeds, woody material and sticks (use these to make a stick pile instead – a firm favourite with hedgehogs).

Baby hedgehog next to fence

Hedgehog by Gillian Day

It’s good to turn the contents of your heap over with a fork every few months (carefully, watch out for wildlife). But if you can’t you will still get good compost, it might just take a little longer.

Once you’re running out of space it’s time to leave your heap to the minibeasts, fungi and bacteria to get busy. Cover the heap up with an old blanket or some sheets of cardboard to help keep the temperature up – a hot heap makes compost faster!

You’ll know your compost is ready to use when you can’t identify the things you put in anymore, and you have a rich, dark, crumbly material. Lovely!

For more information on composting at home and other wildlife friendly gardening tips visit our actions page.

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