Learning how to make your own compost is a great way to save money on the ready-made variety and it’ll give your veggie patch (or flower pots) a super-charged boost of nutrients.
Plus, it can help to cut down on your food waste. In the UK, 7 million tonnes of food is thrown away every year* from households alone. So thinking more carefully about what you throw away and how you do it is a great next step for any aspiring eco-friendly household.
Patience is key to making compost, especially at the start. You’ll need to wait for around a year to see results. But once you do, you’ll never look back. It’s an amazing feeling when you harvest that first bucket full of black gold.
In this guide, we’re going to run through how to make a compost heap, how to use a ready-made compost bin, what to put in your compost, and a whole lot more besides.
So grab a cuppa and a piece of fruit (banana peel is particularly good for compost) and get comfy. Here we go...
How to make a compost heap
It’s easy to get started making a compost heap – all you need is a suitable spot and enough materials to kick off the process.
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1. Pick your location
Ideally, you want a quiet spot, a good distance away from any exterior household walls, that gets plenty of sun. Situating your compost heap away from your house will help prevent any insects it attracts from checking out your home as their next hangout spot, and the heat from the sun will help the compost to ‘cook’ faster.
It’s best to set up your compost heap on soil if you can – this will make it easier for worms and microbes to access your heap and help break it down, as well as making it easier for any liquids produced by the decomposing matter to be absorbed into the ground.
Ideally, you want enough space for three heaps, as it makes turning them much easier. So keep that in mind when you’re choosing your spot.
2. Start collecting food scraps and garden waste
Set up a caddy or other container in your kitchen that you can fill with compostable materials. The waste you use is a key thing to consider when you’re thinking about how to make your own compost: you want a good balance of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ materials.
Green materials are things that rot quickly, such as vegetable and fruit peelings, coffee grounds, grass and plant clippings, fallen leaves and cut flowers. These give moisture to your compost, as well as providing minerals like nitrogen.
Brown materials are slower to rot. They add fibre and carbon to your compost, as well as allowing air pockets to form in your heap. You can use things like sticks, eggshells, torn-up cardboard – even the content of your vacuum cleaner!
Larger brown items will take longer to break down. If you just chuck a log in there, you could be waiting decades. So try to shred or chop your brown waste as small as possible. If you have a lot of trees and hedges in your garden, so a lot of branches to compost, it’s worth investing in a shredder.
3. Add the right mix of green and brown materials
Try to aim for a 50/50 green and brown mix, or even up to 75 per cent brown if you’re mainly using smallish browns like shredded cardboard or twigs.
If you have too many brown materials, your compost could take several years to fully break down. Too many green materials could lead to a stinking, slimy mess. So try not to add too much of either in one go. For example, if you dump on a load of grass clippings, mix the pile up with some shredded cardboard.
Keep in mind that not everything is suitable for the compost heap. Meat, fish, dairy products and anything oily, fatty or greasy are not suitable for composting – these should be disposed of separately (unless you have a hot compost bin – more on that later).
4. Keep turning
Materials break down quicker if they get some rain, heat and air. So you want to turn the compost regularly with a garden fork.
If you have space, you can pile new materials onto one heap, then move them onto another heap once they’ve started to break down (in three to six months, depending on what you have in there), and onto a third heap a few months later. This is easier if you have enclosed heaps or home-made compost bins (see below).
If you only have space for one heap, just use the garden fork to turn the heap every month or so in the warmer months. In winter, you don’t need to turn it as often, because you don’t want all the heat escaping. Plus, you don’t want to accidentally harm any slow worms, toads or other reptiles that might be overwintering in there.
5. Be patient
Your materials could take up to a year to start transforming into compost, so you need to be patient!
How to make a compost bin
A home-made compost bin, or enclosed heap, is easier to keep under control. You’ll stop the materials leaking all over the place and it’ll look neater. An enclosed heap is pretty essential if you have a dog, particularly if you have one that likes to roll in muck or eat anything even vaguely edible (we’re looking at you, labradors).
According to the RSPB, the most wildlife-friendly compost bins are those made from slatted wood, as they allow slow worms and other animals easy access.
You can buy ready made slatted wood compost bins, but they’re pretty easy to make with pallets. You basically just need to attach four pallets together so that each one is joined to another on the shortest side. It’ll be open to the sky and to the soil.
Three sides can be permanently fixed together, with wire for example, but one side should be removable so that you can access the compost.
How to make your own compost in a plastic bin
Plastic compost bins are pretty easy to get hold of and they don’t take up as much space as a compost heap. It’s not as easy to turn the compost, but it is easier to keep it warm.
You might be able to buy a discounted compost bin from your local council. And, if you’re trying to reduce plastic, it’s always worth buying second-hand. They often come up on eBay, Gumtree and local selling pages on Facebook.
Ideally, you want one that doesn’t have a base, or at least has decent sized holes, to allow worms and other microbes easy access. You’ll also want one with a hatch at the bottom so you can take out the finished compost. A secure lid is a good idea if you’re worried about flies or vermin.
Then just sit it in a sunny spot away from the house, add your brown and green waste in, and be patient. If you have a lid, it can be worth watering your compost from time to time to speed things up.
How to make compost in a hot bin
Some compost bins are specially designed to heat the waste up more efficiently. These bins are more expensive than other options, but you can get compost in as little as two months. And, you can add cooked meat and other food scraps that you usually can’t include in a normal compost bin or heap.
You’ll still want to aim for a 50/50 mix of green and brown waste, but you won’t have to turn it.
So, if you don’t mind the extra cost, and you’re wondering how to make compost easily, hot composting could be the answer.
What can you put in your compost heap?
Making compost requires a number of different materials, but how can you be sure that you’re putting the right things into it?
Roughly, you want a 50/50 split of green and brown materials. Here’s a quick summary of the sorts of materials that make up these groups:
Fruit and vegetable peels and pulp
Tea bags (as long as they’re plastic free – most aren’t)
Grass and hedge clippings
Weeds (be careful to remove the roots and seed heads)
Livestock manure (this does NOT include cat and dog waste)
Evergreen clippings, eg from conifers
Sticks (cut them up as small as you can, or they’ll take years to decompose)
Paper bags and newspaper
Compostable corn starch bags
The contents of your vacuum cleaner
What should you leave out of compost?
Some things are not safe to compost in most cases, as they could contain harmful bacteria, produce foul smells as they break down, or attract vermin. So, you’ll want to leave out:
Dairy products, like sour milk or cheese rinds
Fish and fishbones
Oil, grease and fat
It’s easy for plastic to sneak into your compost bin. Make sure you remove any sellotape from cardboard or paper (and staples). And check for hidden plastic. Tea bags, for examples, are usually sealed with a tiny amount of plastic. If your tea bag box doesn’t say they’re plastic-free, they aren’t. So snip them open and empty the leaves into the compost.
How long does it take to make compost?
You’ll know your compost is ready to use when it’s turned brown and crumbly and looks and smells like a rich, moist soil. Scoop it out through the bottom of your composter, and it’s ready to use. (You can read about the benefits of finished compost here.)
If there are still some sticks left in it, you could sieve the compost through a garden sieve or some chicken wire.
There are some things that can affect the speed your compost develops at and the texture of your compost, so if you do have any concerns it’s worth checking out this trouble-shooting guide by RecycleNow.
How can I keep rats and other vermin out of my compost?
It’s really important to avoid meat, cheese and other food that might attract them (see our list of what to avoid, above). If you’re really worried about rats, it might be worth having a plastic lidded bin, rather than an open compost heap.
Or you could have a compost heap for garden waste, and a lidded bin for vegetable scraps.
What’s the difference between compost and leaf mulch?
Compost is made from loads of different food or garden waste. Leaf mulch is just made from leaves. Leaf mulch isn’t as rich as compost, but it is really handy for adding to borders to keep moisture in and weeds at bay.
How to make compost: the tl;dr version
Pick a suitable location for your compost heap – a quiet, sunny spot away from the walls of your home.
Think carefully about what you’re going to add to your compost heap and opt for half ‘green’ material (which is fast-rotting and rich in nitrogen and moisture) and half ‘brown’ material (which is slow-rotting and adds bulk and air pockets).
Chop bulky browns up as small as possible so that they break down quicker.
Turn your compost regularly to let in air and moisture.
There you have it. Now you know how to make your own compost, why not try these other sustainable gardening tips?