My mother had some funny habits as far as composting was concerned. She
ran a small free-range egg business so there was plenty of chicken manure and,
for that matter, chickens.

The deep freezer often had a dead chicken, sometimes many, at the
bottom. Not for eating, mind, these were old birds saved for when a plant
needed to be moved or something new to established, she would head to the freezer,
pull out a dead bird, dig a big hole, put the birds at the bottom and the plant
on top.

This was her secret to such a wonderful garden. For several years the
freezer held a large male peacock, only just covered by two bin liners, so you had
to push past him to get to the ice-lollies. There was an idea he would be
stuffed, but we all knew that actually he was just in waiting for the right
plant. There was no such thing as waste anything. Even a dead pet had a
purpose.

Of course, there were traditional compost heaps too. Big heaps fed on a
diet of animal manures and grass clippings, spread out in autumn across the
vegetable garden.

The cycle of life was such a visceral yet ordinary part of my
childhood: dead, rotting, rotted, new, that it is no surprise that I grew up to
love compost.

And love it I do though I am far more vegetarian about my compost. No
dead birds for me. But I do take an extraordinary delight in taking the
unwanted and turning into black gold.

Vegetable peelings, toilet roll holders, the scum from the sink
strainer, the empty flour packet, the coffee grounds and rhubarb leaves, fuzzy
fruit, moldy tomato paste, old socks, pants too, orange juice that fizzes, old
bills, dog hair, a vase worth of flowers, old tea towels and pizza boxes, if it
will rots down I will take there.

In return my garden grows lush and provides lunch or supper and
sometime both. My compost bins provide the greatest wildlife habitats I know.
They team and seethe with life. Bumble bees nest in them, worm wriggle, slugs
munch, frogs follow and trillions of bacteria, yeast, mould and microbes call
them home. Another world sits at the bottom of my garden.

I have many bins. It’s a habit, like shoes or shopping. I am forever
falling for a new way of rotting. There are bins for food waste: bokashi,
a Japanese system that rots food in two weeks with special bran and then you
bury it, a Hotbin, which cooks the compost,
a Green Cone, which is a form of
biodigestor, and a wormery. Then
there are traditional cold compost heaps – palette bins made for free, a leaf
mould and a modern tumbler.

Worms in compost
Worms provide a welcome role in breaking down waste. Photograph: Rachel Husband/Alamy

They all work on the same principle. Take waste and wait for microbes,
bacteria and fungi to invade over days, weeks and months until what was whole
will be broken down into dark, rich crumbling compost.

Good compost should be dark brown, smell sweet and be neither too wet
nor too dry. If you squeeze a handful it should hold its shape briefly before
crumbling again. It can be rough, with visible bits of woody stuff. This should
be used for mulching, where time and weather will rot it further. Or you can
leave it to rot down further so it resembles the soil it will one day become.

Either way it is the stuff of good soil. Compost holds essential
nutrients and moisture needed for good plant growth. It is rich in organic
matter and this feeds the worms and other soil life, which in turn feed the
plants.

It’s a cure for all soil ills. Your soil is heavy clay? You need more
compost to break it down. Your soil is thin, like sand? You need compost to
build it back up. Your plants are weedy and too small? Then they are hungry:
feed them with compost. Your plants are thirsty? Then lock the moisture in with
more compost.

Compost replaces fertility lost from the soil through plant growth. It
is particularly important if you are growing annuals, such as vegetables, where
nutrients are readily lost through harvesting.

It protects the fragile surface of the soil from weather, rain leaching
away nutrients, wind blowing away particles or sun burning away life. It buries
emerging weeds when used as a mulch, or boosts emerging seedlings when mixed
with potting composts. It is the end of your waste and the beginning of your
garden. This is the reason I love it so.

Making good compost comes from experience; you learn quickly
what will make your compost too slimy (too much nitrogen/fast rotting green
things) or too dry (too much carbon/brown things such as woody stems or old
roots).

Layers are the key. For example, every time some green
(nitrogen) goes in makes sure it’s followed by a layer of brown (carbon). Most food waste (remember
unless the system is designed to take cooked, this mean just peelings, tea
bags, carrot tops, etc) is considered green. If you’ve run out of
brown material such as roots or stems, use scrunched up newspaper/ripped up
cardboard, cereal boxes, pizza boxes, toilet roll holders or envelopes. You can
even put your bills in, no-one’s going to go through your compost bin to find
your data. Avoid glossy magazines, there’s something in the finish that the
worms don’t like, but other than that any paper will do. I’ve composted two
manuscripts and endless book drafts. Homework could go easily go that way too.

You will also learn that if you fail to visit your bin regularly, never
turn or empty it and fill it full of melon rinds, strawberries ends and carrot
peelings (anything sweet for that matter) a rat moves in and starts a family.
Rats hate changing environments, they are neophobic, so the more you turn your
compost, and the less they will visit. Or move to a system where rats can’t get
in: tumblers, Hotbins and worm bins are the most rat-proof I’ve tried (though
rats will eat through plastic if they are hungry).

If you are limited to space, say on a balcony, a worm bin is your best
bet. It can take a surprising amount of food and will give you perfectly
digested worm compost to add to the top of pots and containers. If you don’t
have outdoor space, but have an allotment, then bokashi bins are ideal. You can
compost in the kitchen and take the processed results to dig into the ground
(essentially you bury it in a hole to rot down further).

The cheapest form of compost bins are those created from recycled wood.
The cheapest form of compost bins are those created from recycled wood. Photograph: Alamy

The cheapest bins are those recycled from scrap wood. Three bins in a
row are ideal as you can turn one into the next easily, but you can easily get
away with one. The smaller the bin the longer the compost (unless you add worms or
bacteria) will take to make, so go as large as you can.

As this is International Compost Awareness week, it only makes sense to spread
all this joy around. If you haven’t got a heap, now is the time to start. You
can’t fault the advice of Garden Organic as a starting point.
It takes you through all the basics and has great resources for schools.

Interested in finding out more about how you can live better? Take a look at this month’s Live Better Challenge here.

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