Composting in your garden

Suffolk Wildlife Trust

Grass snake by Jamie Hall

Building a compost heap is an easy way to really bring your garden to life. By simply recycling garden debris and kitchen scraps you can encourage a whole host of creatures to visit while also reducing landfill, reducing pollution, protecting peat bogs and saving money.

The addition of a compost heap to your garden provides the perfect habitat at different times of the year for a wide range of species. Decaying plant material seethes with insects, worms, mites and other invertebrates

Compost saves wildlife

A compost heap can provide a refuge and feeding area for creatures such as hedgehogs, beetles, toads, bats, birds, grass snakes, small mammals and slow-worms. Many of these eat insects and slugs and therefore act as natural pest controllers, reducing the need for pesticides and other chemicals in the garden.

The use of peat is causing the destruction of fragile peat land habitats, and the rare plants and animals that livethere. Around 95% of the UK’s endangered lowland peat bogs have been damaged or destroyed. Composted kitchen and garden waste can be used in place of peat – giving the remaining peat land wildlife a better chance of survival.

Compost makes your garden grow

Compost is a rich soil-like material and works wonders around the garden. It lightens heavy soils, helps light soils hold more water, feeds plants and helps control diseases. Making compost contributes towards a cleaner environment. It reduces the need for bonfires, cuts down on waste going to landfill, and lessens the need for
manufactured and packaged products.

Homemade compost also helps cut down on buying garden products such as soil improvers, fertilisers and mulches. It can also reduce the need for other chemical products such as pesticides, by encouraging ‘natural pest controllers’ to your garden.

What can I compost?

If it can rot, it will compost – but some items are best avoided. The list at the side of this page will give you some idea about what, and what not, to add to your compost heap. Some things, like mown grass and soft young weeds, rot quickly. They work as ‘activators’, getting the composting process started, but on their own will decay to a smelly mess. Older and tougher plant material can be slower to rot but gives body to the finished compost. Woody items decay very slowly – they are best chopped or shredded first. For best results, use a mixture of types of ingredient. The right balance is something you learn by experience.

Choosing a compost bin

Compost can be made in a simple heap on the ground, covered with plastic or old carpet to keep it moist. However, most people use some form of compost container. This looks neater and is easier to manage. Compost bins can be home-made or purchased – it is up to you whether they are low cost or expensive and what they look like.

Compost bins can be made of wood, plastic or other materials (preferably recycled). There are various points, such as size and design, to consider when buying or making a compost container. Above all it should suit you and your garden. Only then will it be guaranteed a permanent place.

Most bins on sale are plastic (often recycled), but wooden and metal bins can also be purchased. Whatever design you choose, it is important that it keeps the rain out and moisture and heat in. It is also essential that the container is sturdy and able to withstand battering with forks and spades as you fill and empty it.

Where to put it

Place your compost bin straight on the ground, rather than on concrete or another hard surface. This allows for drainage and lets worms move in easily. It should be accessible, with space around it for storing and mixing ingredients, and for turning the compost.

Making compost

You can make compost simply by adding compostable items to a compost heap when you feel like it. It will all rot eventually but may take a long time, may not produce a very pleasant end product, and could smell. Check out our two composting 'routes' below:

Cool heap route

Cool step 1 Collect together a batch of compost materials. Try to get enough to make a layer of at least 30cm. Weed the garden, mow the lawn, collect kitchen scraps. Aim for a mix of soft and tough items. Go to step 2, or see hot step 2 if you have time.
Cool step 2 Start filling the bin. Spread the ingredients out to the edges and firm down gently. Alternate soft and tough items, or mix them together first. Unless items are already wet, water well every 30-60cm.
Cool step 3 Continue to fill the container. Items can be added individually, but a bigger batch is preferable. If you are only adding kitchen waste, mix it with what’s already there, or cover it with torn-up newspaper. Go to cool step 4, or take a detour via hot step 4 on the way if you feel like turning it.
Cool step 4 When the container is full (which it may never be as the contents will sink as it composts), or when you decide to, stop adding any more. Then either just leave it to finish composting or go to step 5.
Cool step 5

Remove the container, or everything from the container. If the lower layers have composted, use this on the garden. Mix everything else together well. Add water if it is dry or dry material if it is soggy. Replace in the bin and leave to mature.

With a little extra attention you could improve things dramatically. If you want to produce more compost in a short time, and are able to put more effort into it, follow the ‘hot heap’ route below.

Hot heap route

Hot step 1 Gather enough material to fill your compost container at one go. Bring in manure, scraps from the market, neighbours’ weeds and so on to make up the bulk. Make sure you have a mixture of soft and tough materials.
Hot step 2 Chop up tough items using shears, a sharp spade or a shredder.
Hot step 3 Mix ingredients together as much as possible before adding to the container. In particular, mix items (such as grass mowings) that tend to settle and exclude air, with more open items that tend to dry out. Fill the container as
above, watering as you go.
Hot step 4 Within a few days, the heap is likely to get hot to the touch. When it begins to cool down, or a week or two later, turn the heap. Remove everything from the container and mix it all up, trying to get the outside on the
inside. Add water if it is dry or dry material if it is soggy.
Replace in the bin.
Hot step 5 The heap may well heat up again. The new supply of air you have mixed in allows the fast acting aerobic microbes (ie those that need oxygen) to continue their work. Step 4 can be repeated several more times if you have the energy, but it will heat up less and less. When it no longer heats up, leave it undisturbed to finish composting.