- How does it work?
- What can be composted?
- How to get great compost
- Where to put it
- An answer to the landfill problem?
How does it work?
Composting is the breakdown of organic material such as kitchen or garden waste by organisms that feed on the waste and convert it into an earth like mass. The resulting material is rich in nutrients and very good for the soil in your garden.
All organic materials eventually break down and composting is simply speeding up the process. To put it another way, composting is creating an incubator for all the beneficial bugs in our garden.
You can have a loose compost heap or you can make or buy your own compost container. It is not advisable to start a compost bin in the winter, as this is when the decomposition process slows down.
If you have decided to go for the heap option at the end of the garden you could throw an old carpet over it to protect it from the elements. However, it is advisable to go for a structure with a lid.
You can buy a compost container in most garden centres and hardware shops and the average cost is around E60 – E100, though you can get smaller ones for less. For good value check with your local council as they offer containers at reduced rates and will also give you information on composting.
What can be composted? (Never the cooked stuff!)
Most garden waste, such as grass cuttings, hedge clippings, old plants (but not diseased ones), weeds (but not perennial roots or some pernicious weeds), garden cuttings, fallen leaves and vegetable waste can be composted.
Kitchen waste like fruit and vegetable peel, tea bags and coffee grounds, eggshells, flowers and scrunched newspaper are suitable. Also you can add the contents of your vacuum cleaner, stale bread and cardboard boxes (though shred them first).
Remember scraps such as meat, fish, cooked food, and dairy products are never to go near your compost or you will attract rats. Also do not put in shiny magazine-type paper, any garden matter sprayed with pesticides or used tissue paper.
You need a good mix of ingredients i.e. not too many fruit peels or too much grass. You need equal quantities of dry and wet material; so if you put in lots of wet tea bags and vegetable clippings, then throw in some scrunched up paper (an old ESB bill may give you some pleasure to tip on the compost heap!).
To cut down on trips to the heap every time you boil an egg, it is wise to have a plastic container in your kitchen that collects your waste and then pay a visit to your heap each evening. Apparently urine is good for the heap but we will leave that decision up to you!
The perfect heap: How to get great compost
To obtain the optimum environment for the bacteria, or decomposers to break down the organic material you need half nitrogen-rich matter, which is green stuff such as grass clippings and kitchen waste, and half carbon-rich stuff which is woody matter, straw, newspaper and dead leaves.
- The heap should be regularly turned to introduce air and this can be done by thoroughly mixing the contents with a large garden fork.
- The speed at which your compost will produce the goods can vary and it could take from two months to a year. Shredding of any tough matter such as cardboard helps, as it is easier to break down. If conditions are right – i.e. sufficient moisture, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon – heat will be generated and the process will accelerate.
- When starting out, put in a six-inch layer of garden waste, then alternative layers of different materials. Each layer of vegetable matter should be moistened if dry and sprinkled over with soil. If starting an open heap, make sure your first layer is twigs and straw to ensure proper drainage.
- You can use compost accelerators to speed up the degradation process, though these could be harmful to wildlife so check for hedgehogs first if you have an open heap. Biotal and Garotta are two good accelerators available from most DIY shops and garden centres and cost around E4.
- Your compost is ready for garden action when it looks and smells like soil. A well looked-after compost will never have a bad odour.
Where to put it
The best place to position your compost bin or heap is on bare soil or grass, as this makes it easier for friendly bugs such as worms to climb in and also ensures better drainage.
- Plenty of air is required to speed up the composting process and to avoid odours. Worms are a great way to circulate air, as is regular turning of contents. As the material decomposes, moisture seeps out and you will need to allow this liquid to soak into your grass or earth so it does not clog up your compost.
- Bins with bases have holes to allow for worm entry and should be raised slightly off the ground (i.e., by 1-2cm.). You can achieve this by placing a few small stones under the base.
- The compost heap should be located in an area protected from direct sunlight and heavy rain. This will prevent the compost from drying out or becoming water-logged.
- If you want to build your own bin, hammer into the ground four 4in x 4in wooden posts to enclose an area around 40sq inches. Then either tack wire netting to the posts, or nail planks around them, leaving the front side easily detachable so you can get the finished compost out.
If you notice a lot of ants, add some water to the heap. Compost bins can be made fly-proof by covering the top mouth with close-mesh wire and only moving the lid when new material is added. If you do have a lot of fruit flies, immediately cover new material with dry soil. As flies breed in compost, the heap should be frequently turned so that sufficient heat will be generated to destroy fly eggs. Another route to take is to leave the lid off for 24 hours and let predators, such as birds, tackle the flies.
An answer to the landfill problem?
The Government set targets in 1998 to reduce biodegradable waste sent to landfill by 50% over a 15-year period. Recycling and composting of domestic waste will help reach this target. By composting you can expect to cut the number of black sacks you leave out for collection by around a third, and with bin tags now costing E2.60 this could save you E125 over the year if you usually rack up three bags a week.
Finally, it seems a shame that all those apartment dwellers should miss out on having a chance to compost. You could look into building a wormery if you are not too squeamish – this is a small compost bin where you introduce worms yourself. Or how abut getting together with other residents in your building and discussing if you could establish a large composter in your community garden? It should not be too tough to convince your property management company – free excellent fertiliser for the soil and less household waste to be hauled away are great incentives.