Composting 101

Here we introduce the basics of creating your own compost. Composting is simple if you follow some basic principles. Home made compost is a valuable, organic resource to help grow healthy plants.

Where to start

Brown and green. Or, carbon and nitrogen. You should have a good mix of the two, with more ‘brown’ materials than green. Here are some examples of what you can include:
Carbon / brown




Junk mail

Nitrogen / green

Vegetable peelings

Grass cuttings

Coffee grounds

Different types of composting systems

There are many different setups for your compost system, and you surely can find one that works for you. Here are some popular ways to inspire you.

Dalek plastic bin

These are available on special offer through Cornwall Council.

These bins are enclosed to keep heat and moisture in your compost pile. They also work to deter pests, to an extent. They hold at least 200 litres of compost (that’s the equivalent of 4 big bags of compost). You simply add your materials in the top of the bin and take out finished compost from the bottom.

Three bin system


A three bin composting system. Comfrey is growing beside the bins, absorbing any surplus nutrients, which can then be added back to the compost piles.

A three bin system accommodates a greater volume of material, and one tends to have one active bin, one almost ready bin, and one bin of compost ready to be used. You add your fresh materials to the active bin until it is full, then start using another empty bin/bay until the first lot is ready to take out. They can be made from 7 wooden pallets, plus some timber for the front.

Worm bins

These are slightly different, and may be better suited for you if you have limited space. This is vermicomposting. Specialist compost worms are kept inside an enclosed bin and fed suitable materials (e.g. food scraps), plus bedding added (e.g. shredded newsaper). You can drain the ‘worm juice’ from the bin and use as a general fertiliser, in addition to the compost. Read more from the RHS here.

Or, go the way of Ruth Stout and just compost in place. Learn more about her ‘no work’ gardening in this video.


Problems with your compost heap? Maybe the following can help.

My compost is dry and not doing anything

This can be common in new heaps or those that are maybe a little neglected. Think of compost heaps as habitats for microbes, insects and of course worms. They need food, bedding, and water. The key is to get a good mix.

If you have a pile of dry, woody material, you could add more green (nitrogen rich) matter; this fresh material gives food. A traditional mix is leaves of comfrey, yarrow, and stinging nettles – all common, wild plants you may find growing at the edges of your garden or nearby. Tear them up and add them together in your heap, then add a watering can full of water.


My compost is wet and sludgy

Add oxygen! The pile likely needs turning, or mixing. Gently insert a garden fork and move the material around. This allows oxygen in to help the microbes thrive. This video features Monty Don giving a demonstration of turning a heap.


I don’t see any worms in my compost heap, should I add some?

You could do, but maybe wait and see first. ‘If you build it, they will come’. A healthy, balanced compost heap with the right composition of material and water will create an ideal habitat, and all you can eat buffet for compost worms. It should be noted that earthworms are different from compost worms and perform different functions. Earthworms are fat, long worms often found near the surface of lawns. Compost worms (red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) and redworms (Lumbricus rubellus)) prefer a compost environment.


My compost has a mouse living in it!

It’s not the end for your compost. Mice are often attracted to the heaps, which harbour slugs, snails, worms and of course food scraps. Mice don’t like to live in wet heaps though, so add liquid to your compost to persuade the mouse to move on. Mice can be beneficial to compost, as they create air pockets when they run trails through. Don’t despair, just try to make the heap less attractive to mice, or learn to live together.

How to use your compost

Once you start producing compost and seeing the results, you’ll realise there’s no such thing as too much! Compost is packed with food for plants, so you may feel you want to use lots, but efficient use is best. Applying compost as a surface dressing is fine, it acts as a soil covering. There is no need to dig it in, worms and other soil dwelling life will pull down the compost and its goodness into the soil.

Apply your compost in concentrated patches, around plants that are getting established, or plants that need a feed. 9mm (⅓ inch) deep is ample. Compost also acts as a mulch, preventing, (or at least slowing), growth of weeds.

You can also use compost as part of a potting mix, meaning you don’t have to buy pricey bags of potting compost. You can mix homemade, sieved compost with aged leaf mulch and some sharp sand. This is a great way to grow on seedlings in pots.

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