Where to start
The first step is to choose a site for your compost. This should be easy to get to, in a sunny or semi-shaded area, and sit directly on soil or turf. These days there are a variety of composting bins on the market, ranging from the plastic type (from around £40) to the bigger wooden slatted range (from around £50). You can even contact your local council's Waste and Recycling Department for a cheap compost bin. Alternatively, simply build a heap and keep it covered with polythene or cardboard - just make sure there are no gaps on the sides. It is also an idea to insulate your bin or heap with cardboard or straw to help create the perfect environment for the composting process to begin.
What to add
To create a good rich, dark and crumbly compost, you will ideally need an equal amount of 'green' nitrogen-rich ingredients, and 'brown' carbon-rich ingredients.
On the brown ingredients side, tougher, more woody prunings and hedge clippings, bracken and old bedding plants are ideal, though these slow-rotting ingredients should be chopped small or shredded to help things along. You can even add unwanted cardboard, crushed eggshells, bedding from pets like rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters (in small quantities as sawdust is very slow to rot), and even find a useful home for waste paper and junk mail.
What to leave out
Though anything that was once living will compost, it is best to avoid meat, fish and cooked food, as they can attract vermin, as well as create a bad smell. Similarly, cat litter and dog mess should be otherwise disposed of, along with disposable nappies.
Simply adding bits and pieces as you go along will eventually leave you with a decent compost, provided there is a good mix of brown and green ingredients, but try to have a layer of at least 30cm or more in the bin right at the very start to get things moving. For instance, weed your garden and mow the lawn, then add some straw or cardboard packaging, and a few woody ingredients to create air pockets and improve circulation and drainage. Thereafter, it is just a case of adding a balanced mix of composting goodies and waiting.
Your bin may never seem full, as it will sink as the ingredients rot, but it can take up to a year to get a good product. If, when you begin using the material, the upper layers are not yet fully composted, simply remove the good stuff from the bottom, and mix the remainder well, then leave to mature. It can help to add water if the leftovers seem dry, or dry, brown ingredients if it's on the soggy side.
If, on the other hand, you are keen to get things moving along more speedily, try to gather enough material to fill your container in one go, again, with a mixture of brown and green materials, known as a 'hot' heap. Should you decide to take this route, you'll need to mix all the ingredients well before adding to the bin or heap, and add water as you go. In just a few days, the heap will feel hot to the touch, but as it begins to cool down, within a week or two, you'll need to 'turn' the heap with a garden fork, mixing all the material well again, and adding water to a dry mix or dry materials if it is too wet.
This process can be repeated several times, but when the heap no longer heats up, it should be left alone to do its composting best. With this method you could have decent compost in as little as six to eight weeks.
How do I know when it's ready?
The composting process is complete when your the ingredients have turned a dark brown colour, with an earthy smell. However, leave it for a month or two to fully mature and you will undoubtedly get a better end result.
Do you have your own compost heap? What are your top tips for beginners? Leave your comments below...