The West

Make your own compost
Making your own compost is easy

Composting puts Mother Nature on a fast track by quickening the natural process of decomposition.

Microscopic organisms break down yard and kitchen waste, and manure, into a rich organic fertiliser and soil amendment. When finished, compost nutrients - primarily nitrogen, phosphate and potassium - are in a form that can be readily used by plants.

Essential elements: Successful composting depends on air, water and heat.Microorganisms need oxygen.

Turn or aerate the compost to circulate oxygen throughout the mix. Also, don't squash the compost down.

Without sufficient air, compost will turn into slime.Likewise, compost critters like their environment to be moist but not wet. (Think of a damp sponge.) Too much water will drown them (and your compost will smell like a swamp.

Too little and they die before their work is done. To maintain moisture, add grass clippings or other green waste. If adding dry material (straw, autumn leaves, shredded newspaper), sprinkle these ingredients with water before adding.

If the compost looks dry, spray it.As the organisms eat, they generate heat, which speeds up decay. Ideally, the compost reaches 140 to 160 degrees, hot enough to kill weed seeds and some plant diseases.

Too much heat can be dangerous; unattended compost piles can spontaneously catch fire.After 24 hours, the compost should feel warm to the touch. If not, add more green (high-nitrogen) material.

If it smells like ammonia, add more brown (high-carbon) material.Bin vs. pile: A bin gives structure to the process and helps speed it along. Yard waste composted in a pile or heap will break down, too, but takes a lot longer (up to a year) and doesn't get as hot, allowing weed seeds to sprout.

Also, a bin easily can be covered to keep out rodents and other pests. Make sure the bin has good drainage to eliminate excess moisture.Size: Ideally, bins should be about a metre wide by a metre deep and a metre tall.

In a smaller bin, the compost won't generate enough heat to break down quickly. Larger, the compost becomes difficult to turn.Time: Composting needs at least 30 days.

The compost is ready when its ingredients are thoroughly broken down and unrecognisable. It looks and feels like dark, rich soil.

Ingredients: Feed your compost critters a balanced diet, half green (fresh ingredients, rich in nitrogen) and half brown (dried material as a source of carbon). For example, if you use all grass clippings, they'll clump together and not break down. Instead, mix the grass clippings with an equal amount of shredded newspaper (it's a wood product and composts well).

Cut material into smaller pieces; it breaks down faster.Most fruit and vegetable kitchen waste can be composted. So can coffee grounds (including the paper filter), tea bags and crushed eggshells.

Cut citrus into pieces and cover with at least 6 inches of dried material. Avoid banana peels (too slow to degrade) and limes (too acidic).Manure (horse, cow, sheep, rabbit or poultry) is very high in nitrogen and stimulates compost activity. Use some manure to start a new batch.

Other compostable material: Dried leaves, landscape trimmings (preferably cut into 2-inch pieces), wood chips, sawdust, shredded white paper, shredded paperboard (such as cereal boxes) or paper plates, paper napkins, brown paper bags (torn into pieces), straw, seaweed and pine needles.

Avoid palm fronds -- they're too tough. Don't compost fats or oils (including salad dressing, peanut butter, etc), pet droppings or animal products such as milk, cheese or bones. They attract pests to the pile and can spread disease.

The West Australian

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