Composting Is A Natural Process That’s Older Than Gardening. Composting Is Simple And Doesn’t Need Special Equipment. This Post Explains Why People Struggle To Make Garden Compost. Read My Composting FAQs.

All organic matter eventually rots. It’s a fact of nature and older than human civilisations. So it always amazes me that gardeners struggle so much with it. They often buy expensive equipment, complain of smells and rats and want their compost made in days rather than letting nature take its course.

What Is Compost?

Simple. It’s decomposed organic matter. All organic matter eventually rots , garden composting just speeds it up.

Is Composting Really Natural?

The physical process of decomposition is perfectly natural. But putting the methods we try to use aren’t all natural. for example nature doesn’t use plastic bins or pallets heaps to decompose plants, thats what humans do!

A decaying tree that demonstrates Garden Compost principles
A decaying tree that demonstrates Garden Compost principles.

But in nature organic decay is just part of the growing process. For example fungi wil invade a tree and start the decomposition process before the tree dies. Bracket fungus will invade the heartwood of the tree and start to decompose it whilst the tree continues to grow. It’s not harming the tree as it is only devouring the part of the tree that is already dead. And hollow trees are often more storm resistant than solid ones (Check out how, in engineering, hollow tubes are stronger than solid bars of steel. Its proves the science). A decomposing tree is also releasing nutrients back into the soil that it can then use to grow more branches etc. It also feeds nearby trees and plants.

The fungus in this image is Ganoderma australe, the Southern bracket fungus.Though infected, trees often live many years after the fungus appear.

Are There Different Types Of Composting?


Natural Composting, aka Cold Composting is most basic composting method.  All we need to do is gather together a pile of organic matter and let nature take over.  Sooner or later the organic matter will rot down and make compost.  At one extreme the organic matter might be a pile of logs or branches and could take years to decompose.  This is the natural process that happens in woodland when a tree blows over .

In our gardens natural composting could be as simple as stacking a pile of garden waste and leaving well alone.  The process can be speeded up by adding accelerants such as carbon or nitrogen, monitoring the moisture content and turning the heap to add more air.  But even without help the heap will decompose, it just takes longer.  Mine takes about a year.  But gardening isn’t a race  … so for many of us waiting is part of the process.

Hot Composting is much faster and is aided by the heat generated by the decomposition process.  In hot composting the sim is to get the right balance if carbon to nitrogen, get the moisture content right and ensure there’s enough air for aerobic decomposition.

Using insulated compost bins will help maintain the temperature and ensure the process is a hot one.  In the Berkeley composting process the heap is turned every other day after day four.  If conditions are good thé material produces compost in 18 days.  That’s a lot quicker that my year long process.

Worm compost can replace peat
Worm compost can replace peat

Worm Compost is another natural process.  In my own compost bins I find the worm numbers build after six months.  I don’t add any, they just appear and breed because the incitions suit them.

In some worm systems worms are added at the outset and they produce worm compost without heating up.  Some systems such as SubPods can be purchased if you want to produce worm compost.  Personally I believe it to be an expensive composting process, which though claimed to be easy, seems to have too many people struggling with it.

Worm farms can be built from recycled materials at nil cost. Done properly there’s no need to buy worms.

What Will Compost?

Any organic material.  Many people say avoid cooked food and meat as it attracts vermin and makes the heap smell.  That’s not my experience  my heap doesn’t smell and there’s no rodent problem.

What Shouldn’t I Compost?

Inorganic materials will not compost. But any organic material can be composted. Some people prefer not to compost meat and cooked foods as they fear it’ll attract rodents.

Does Composting Take a Lot of Space?

Gardening Myths of which there are many are discussed here
Gardening Myths of which there are many are discussed on this website

People sometimes say they don’t have space to compost.  But it takes just a few square feet.  Dalek type compost bins are 76 cm / 30 inches in diameter.  That’s not much space if you are a gardener.

With your own compost you’ll not only save money but you’ll have your own compost that will make your garden more fertile and able to produce much more.  I find gardens that lose 30 inches of space for compost produce so much more on the rest of the space that the loss of space is actually positive.

How Do I Make Compost?

As I mention above. Composting is a natural process. All you need to do is pile your organic matter in to a heap and it will compost. If you want to accelerate the process you can turn it occasionally to add more air. And if you want the heap to be tidy you can put it in a container of some sort. Simple compost heaps can be made from pallets. Just tie four together to make the sides, in a square, and load your organic matter into the middle of the square

What Equipment Do I Need To Make Compost?

Nothing really. If you want to speed the process you could use a fork the turn the heap. And as I mention elsewhere you might want to keep the heap tidy by putting it in a container of some sort. And you could add an accelerant .. some people do. I don’t bother.

And you could go all out and buy an expensive composting system. It’ll make compost quicker. But the compost will not be better compost. It’s just faster compost.

No expensive equipment is needed to make compost

Composting Requirements

Composting requires the interaction of several factors. Starting with the compost heap size, the amount of air that permeates the heap, moisture levels, composting material fragment size, the ratios of green matter to dry matter, and temperature levels

What Requirements Do Composting Bacteria Have?

Composting bacteria require nitrogen, carbon, air, and water.  They can derive (some ) the nitrogen, carbon and moisture from the organic material. Some air will be found between the compost particles. There will be more where particle size is large and less where the material is finely chopped. More air will be added when the compost is turned.

What Is Worm Compost?

Worm composting is as cold as worms. The Romans called it vermiculture. Some people still use that word for worm farming or worm composting.

The process here is to use the worms to make the compost. They eat the organic material, digest it and pass composted worm casts. It’s slower process but gives good quality compost.

Do I Need a Compost Bin?

Low Cost Gardening Techniques Using Compost Bins
Low Cost Gardening Techniques Using Compost Bins

No. Most people choose to use a bin but it really isn’t necessary. It’s just a refinement. It makes it look tidier. Though the Victorian gardeners could build a compost heap with vertical sides that looked very tidy!

How Can I Speed Up The Process?

An insulated bin will increase the heat which makes it faster. And if you turn the heap a few times it will make quicker. And if you chop the material it composts faster. Getting the moisture content just right also helps. If when you squeeze a handful of compost in your fist it just oozes a small amount of moisture the moisture content is about right.

Do I Need To Add A Compost Accelerant/ Activator?

No, you don’t need to. But if you do it will compost faster. But, as I say elsewhere making compost isn’t a race.

What’s The Best Compost Accelerant/ Activator ?

There are loads of expensive products that claim to speed up composting. Most of them work to an extent. But the real secret is they all add nitrogen to the heap. Thats what does it. Old gardeners used to add urine. It’s high in nitrogen. Blood or dried blood also works for the same reason as does fresh poultry manure, feathers, grass mowings and spent coffee grounds. But whatever you use ensure its in modest quantities. Too much is as bad as too little. And a deep layer of grass being added will just slump into a smelly wet mass that stinks. Keep stirring grass and it makes good compost.

Can I Compost Weeds?

Yes. The only proviso being they need to be dead. If in doubt leaving them in the sun for a while does for most weeds. And most weeds die just by being added to the heap. the lack of light and heat kills them. An alternative way is to soak them in water for a week or two. I don’t do this though, it’s a smelly process.

I add docks, ivy, couch grass and much else. The only thing that seems to regularly persist are Montbretia corms They seem too thrive in cold compost heaps.

Things like couch very rarely survive if put in late and near the top of the heap. But on the rare occasion I’ve had any I’ve just gently tugged on a root and pulled it free. The live stuff and then gone into my next heap! Why waste it?


Do I Need To Buy a Bin to Make Compost?

No. A heap is all you need.

Where Can I Put the Compost Heap?

Anywhere where it’s not in the way. But ideally somewhere where it’s easy to get to.

What Can I Put In The Compost Bin?

Anything organic. Preferably it needs to be capable of rotting down relatively quickly. For example twigs and branches are better chipped as large pieces of wood can take years to break down. But when chopped small they have bigger surface area and rot quicker.

Cooked food and meats are controversial composting topics. They will rot but some people fear they will attract rats. The decision to compost them is very much a personal decision.

Can I Put Weeds in My Compost Heap?

Yes. See above.

What’s the Easiest Way to Compost, Without All The Turning of the Heap?

Just heap the organic material up and leave alone. It’s not a very efficient way, it’ll take ages. But eventually it will all rot. I prefer to turn it at least once.

How Often Do I Turn the Pile?

As many times as you want. I do mine at least once. But in the Berkely method they turn it every other day after day four. But it will eventually compost without turning. Just much much slower.

What Temperature Should My Compost Be?

There is no correct temperature. Cold composting sees very little heat being generated. Hot composting will often see temperatures between 135° -160° Fahrenheit.But if it gets too hot the bacteria slow down They are called thermophiles because the love heat. But there s limit to what they can cope with, though a few manage above 160F.

You can cool a heap by turning it a few times.

There’s more on composting on Wikipedia.

3 thoughts on “How To Make Garden Compost: Composting Basics

  1. Sandra Reader says:

    Can you please amend your answer to “What can I put in the Compost Bin”. Your answer mentions the location. Thanks

    1. Stefan Drew says:

      Ooops. Noted and amended

  2. Thank you much needed this article..<3

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