Penny’s gardening blog: how to make compost

making compostAs I get older, my body complains sometimes about the physical exertion I put it through, so I’m becoming a bit of a fan of the no-dig approach to growing. Charles Dowding is the guru of this method. Using his book, I’m gradually making more no-dig beds in the Field Kitchen garden at Riverford. Basically, it’s less work, and much better for the soil structure, but you do need lots and lots of compost to use as a mulch and conditioner.

For years I’ve simply chucked all the debris from cutting back and weeding against a wall, under a tree, in a rather redundant area of my garden. I’ve also lobbed the kitchen waste and ashes from my fire in that direction, plus a weekly or fortnightly layer of lawn clippings. It’s been a hazardous affair really! I need to up the ante on the compost-making front, and so should we all if we want to be green and put our own waste to good use.

Alys Fowler, the garden writer for the Guardian, likens making compost to baking a cake. I like this analogy and find it a useful visual, so I’m going to borrow it here. By following this basic recipe, you should be able to make a really nice, crumbly, rich smelling, loose textured compost within 6 months.


  • One third GREEN, nitrogen-rich material, such as weeds, lawn clippings, flowers, green stems, kitchen waste, tea bags, coffee grounds, egg shells.
  • Two thirds BROWN, carbon-rich material, such as twigs, branches, brown stems, leaves, roots, straw, ashes, paper, sawdust, wood chippings.
  • AIR is important to help with decomposition. Start your heap off with a load of broken branches and stems to encourage air up from the bottom. You should also turn your heap every few weeks to get some more air in there; it will be hotter in the middle, so move the outside in.
  • WATER. You may need to give it a watering every now and then, especially if your heap is under a tree. Don’t let it dry out.

Do not add

  • … any cooked foods, meat, or fish. This will encourage rats.
  • … diseased waste such as tomato plants that have suffered from blight and the like; you’ll risk spreading it around your garden.
  • … weeds that have gone to seed, if you can avoid it. You may be giving yourself a lot of extra work when they germinate around your garden after spreading it over your beds.


  • Add the different ingredients to your heap in alternating layers not more than about six inches deep.
  • Water occasionally.
  • Cover with an old piece of carpet or some black plastic to encourage the build-up of heat.
  • Turn the heap every few weeks.
  • After about six months, maybe sooner, it should look like a brown crumbly compost and smell good and earthy. If so, it is ready to use.

compost heaps at the riverford field kitchen garden

Even the hottest heap may not kill nightmare weeds such as ground elder, bindweed or horse tail. Do not add perennial weeds to the heap; instead, keep them and their roots to one side and drown in a bucket of water. Within a few weeks, this will have turned into a sludgy soup. Pour this liquid on your heap and run! It may be a bit pongy but think silage, hold your nose, and all will be well.

Be sure to break up twiggy stems and branches and tough veg waste to help even decomposition.

Compost is a fantastic soil conditioner that helps to improve its structure, drainage, and moisture retention. It’s full of micro-organisms that will release nutrients when the soil warms up in spring, encouraging healthy growth from your plants. Hopefully there should be a fair few worms in there too.

There’s nothing quite like spreading this nutritious crumble over your beds and amongst your plants to make you feel truly virtuous, like Demeter or Gaia.

Penny Hemming


9 responses to “Penny’s gardening blog: how to make compost

  1. Noble idea but many don’t have the space.

    • If you’ve a need to produce a lot of compost (i.e. a large surface area to mulch) then it stands to reason you can use a portion of that large space for producing the necessary compost. If you’ve s smaller space, you won’t need as much compost – and a dalek type bin sited on earth would do…

  2. If you’ve a smaller space with no garden at all?

    • So are we talking about proper kitchen waste disposal rather than specifically compost making? If you’ve no outdoor space, and the local council doesn’t offer small brown bin collection, there are indoor wormeries/composters. Then donate to neighbour with garden?!

  3. I had a wonderful bokashi bin system that ate all my waste – unfortunately there was a fault with the tap on the bin and I spilt the foul smelling liquid all over the kitchen – not dared to use it since. Fortunately my council now supply brown compost caddies. My black compost bin has been eating waste for about 8 years now without producing any compost – it is a worm and slug haven though! I’ve just acquired an allotment so am very interested in the noxious weed soup – am definitely going to try this one!’

  4. In an ideal world.

  5. Being old,arthritic and with a small garden,I have been able to make really good compost in a two chamber tumbler – just a few turns on passing when
    I come back from the hen house,with a nice addition of the droppings and fibrous bedding.

  6. Great post! Quite helpful tips on composting 🙂 My husband hade made a perfect compost bin on the balcony for me. I tried some vertical gardening when we were living in an apartment. Since we moved into our new home the first thing I did was to find the perfect place for the compost and the new garden beds. Still have few of my old vertical containers in the kitchen. Greets!

  7. I will be doing my own composting soon with the help of my husband and what you shared here will surely help him. We have a little garden too ( Hopefully we won’t have to buy compost soon.

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