Making & using organic compost

Posted on: 26 February 2019 by 50connect editorial

Alan and Joan Gould garden two acres at Woodrising in North Lincolnshire. Here they explain the how to create the perfect organic compost.


Let's begin with some terms used in practising and describing organic gardening. I will keep them as short as possible. They all have other meanings, hotly disputed at times by people who have more time for semantics than for spadework.

  • Organic: Gardening as closely to nature as feasible.
  • Natural: Occurring without human help.
  • Compost: Soil like compound/s prepared for particular gardening uses.
  • Compost box: Receptacle or container in which compost is made.
  • Compost heap: Material collected for making compost.
  • Soil / earth: The main garden ingredient in which plants grow.
  • Ground: Where we stand things, make growing areas, paths, buildings etc.
  • Manure: Stable or farmyard dung, urine and bedding.
  • Mould: Soil composted from leaves or other natural materials.
  • Liquid feed:  Infusion of nettles and/or comfrey etc. with rainwater.
  • Nutrients: Liquid substances in the soil ingested as feed by plants.
  • Weed: A plant growing where the gardener did not intend it to.
  • Natural plants: A plant growing of its own accord. Wildflowers etc.
  • Cultivated plant: A plant growing by the actions of the gardener.
  • Fertiliser: Manufactured concentrated and/or processed plant nutrients.

The composting system

If space allows operate a three-heap system: one making; one maturing; one using. Heaps progress through the three stages concurrently. The length of time taken for maturing is the time from making a heap until it is opened after maturing, which is when you have used up the previous heap. The maturing time varies according to the size of the heaps and the rate of use of compost. In this system, maturation is around 12-24 months. Sometimes maturing material is moved from one heap to another, or extra new material may be added to a maturing heap.

The boxes

Compost boxes can be of any size or construction providing they will hold up in use. Wooden palettes are often used, and a compost heap can be built adjacent to a wall or fence. Heaps can be any size and can be made without boxes if it suits the gardener, but smaller and free standing heaps do not heat up or stay heated as long as the larger ones.

maturing compost

Building & managing the heap

As soon as material is applied to a heap it should begin to heat up (work). Heating up is essential to begin the process of maturing and to kill out any weeds or diseases which may have entered the heap. If it does not heat up it may be because it is too dry, and needs to be moistened. If material still has not satisfactorily worked, it should be turned as well as moistened. Moistening is often helped by rain, but nutrients in a heap can be leached out if it is left open to too much rain. Cover finished heaps with a tarpaulin unless they need more moisture. As the heap is built, it rises with the addition of new material, but sinks again as heating occurs and softens the contents.


When a heap has reached a limit you are happy with, cover it with a tarpaulin. Doing so accelerates the working process until the tarpaulin is too hot to put a hand onto. A maturing heap should remain covered most of the time unless it needs moisture or additional making material on it. Within six months, the height can have dropped by 50% and the box can take extra material if that seems appropriate depending on the progress of the other heaps.

biodegradable waste

What goes into compost heaps

When starting a new compost heap, start with a good thick base of strawy material. That acts as a buffer between the heap and the ground on which it stands. Have an ongoing supply of stable manure delivered, containing bedding straw which can be put to one side for use as compost bases.

The base absorbs any leaching nutrients and becomes compost like the rest of the heap. An organic principle worth adhering to is that what comes out of the soil should be returned to it - as far as possible. Thus, all grown plant material apart from actual harvested crops. You can compost raw vegetable trimmings from the kitchen. Add all grass clippings, weed strimmings and softer prunings to your compost, deeper rooting plants like nettles and comfrey being especially useful. Stronger plant material like rhubarb leaves should be applied sparingly. The contents of plant plugs, pots, tubs, trays, troughs, planters and hanging baskets provide good compostable material.

Soil from exhausted flower and vegetable beds recuperates in the heap. Add fire ash, bonfire ash and soot in moderate quantities, spreading it well around, or diluting it with soil. If a layer of green material has become very thick on the heap, usually in summertime, apply a mulch of horse manure to balance the contents. If you have a shredder, you can mash down coarser material for quicker composting.

What not to use

Because you have plenty of matter to put on your compost heap, you can be a little more selective about what you use. Try to avoid putting any cooked kitchen waste on, or leftover purchased foodstuffs. Any diseased plant material should not be used, especially blighted potato or tomato haulms. If you are going to put it in, consider the origin of the foodstuff, soil or plant material - might it contain herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, manufactured chemicals, antibiotics or GMOs? If you've spent hours of effort ridding your plot of couch grass, do not compost the roots or tops of that.


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