- Lucy Carter
I Love Compost Heaps
Updated: Jun 26, 2021
Ask any avid gardener what the secret to their beefy beetroots and luscious lettuces is, and they will probably say one thing: compost. The key to healthy plants is healthy soil, and the best way to make soil healthy is to add compost. There’s a reason they call compost “black gold.” Not only does it enrich the soil by adding nutrients, it also benefits soil structure by increasing water retention and improving drainage. Making your own compost at home has the added environmental benefit of diverting household organic waste from landfill. You could say, I love compost - heaps.
My love affair with compost first began when I was given a compost bin as an engagement present. My husband (then fiance) and I set the bin up in the corner of our yard, and with much enthusiasm, we embarked upon our composting journey. The only thing was, that instead of getting the dark crumbly loamy compost we expected, we got a pile of stinky, slimy rotten sludge in our compost bin. It wasn’t until I went along to a composting workshop put on by our local council that I learned that there is a little bit more to this composting business than I had originally thought. That is not to say that composting is particularly difficult or complex. But, by keeping a few general principles in mind, you can create an environment within your compost heap that encourages the efficient breakdown of your organic waste and gives you the dark, crumbly, nutrient rich humus of your dreams.
The simplest way to approach home composting is to keep in mind that a healthy compost heap requires three key things:
The right balance of carbon rich and nitrogen rich materials
Carbon and Nitrogen
All organic matter contains carbon and nitrogen in varying ratios. For example, fresh grass clippings have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of approximately 20:1, whereas wood shavings have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of roughly 400:1. As a general principle, the more brown and dry organic matter is (think dry leaves, straw, wood ash, twigs and paper products), the higher its carbon to nitrogen ratio, whereas wetter, greener materials tend to have a greater nitrogen content (think fresh garden clippings, animal manure and fruit and vegetable waste). The ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio in a compost heap is 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen. Too much nitrogen rich material and you will end up with slimy stinky sludge. Too much carbon rich material, and your compost will take years to decompose. As a general rule of thumb, if you add 2 parts of brown/dry material for every one part of green/wet material you will achieve a carbon to nitrogen ratio that is roughly 30:1.
Have you ever noticed that a pile of dry leaves takes forever to breakdown, but a pile of wet leaves quickly decomposes? That’s because the microorganisms that breakdown organic matter require water to survive. A healthy compost heap will be moist, without being waterlogged. While some of your heap’s moisture will come from the nitrogen rich materials, you will also likely need to add water to your heap from time to time.
Composting microorganisms also require oxygen to survive. If your compost is not sufficiently aerated, it can become anaerobic and will not decompose efficiently. To keep your heap aerated:
turn your heap fortnightly (or as frequently as you can manage)
don’t let your heap become waterlogged
add material to your heap that is different shapes and sizes. This creates air pockets within the heap (I like to add toilet rolls and corrugated cardboard).
If you keep these guidelines in mind when you compost at home, you will be harvesting black gold in no time.
If you are interested in delving deeper into the wonderful world of composting, I highly recommend Shoalhaven Council’s sustainability workshops (linked below).
For information about Shoalhaven Council Sustainability Workshops: https://events.humanitix.com/tours/shoalhaven-city-council-waste-services