A beginner’s guide to composting

Want to turn your kitchen and garden waste into ‘black gold’? Here’s how you can do it and why you would want to.

Do you like the idea of composting but haven’t tried it because it seems too difficult?

Put simply, composting breaks down organic matter, which is anything that was once living. This means you are recycling vital nutrients so you can use them to improve the quality of your soil.

Up to half of the waste thrown out by the average Australian household is organic material.

Of course you can put your organic waste in your green council bin to be collected and turned into mulch and other products. Or you can set up your own composting system and make your garden healthier at no extra cost.

Here are some simple tips to get you started on turning your kitchen and garden waste into what some gardeners call ‘black gold’:

1. Choose a method and location

For smaller backyards, static or tumbling compost bins are good options.

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Composting bin

If you have more room you can opt for a compost pile or bay, or even several bays for compost at different stages.

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Composting bay

Choose an area of your yard with some shade so the material doesn’t dry out.

2. Know what to compost

There are two broad categories that you can put in your compost bin or pile – green and brown.

Green materials include fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings, green plant cuttings, old flowers and many weeds.

Brown materials are things like straw, paper and cardboard, dry leaves, woody prunings, crushed eggshells, old potting mix, tea, coffee grounds and sawdust (but not from treated wood).

3. Know what to avoid

Don’t put diseased plants, pet droppings (apart from chook manure), cooking fat, glossy paper, weeds with seeds, treated timber and large branches in your compost bin.

Some gardeners say you should avoid adding meat and bones unless you have a larger compost system.

4. Layer the material

Start with a base layer of twigs, mulch or old potting mix to encourage air circulation and provide drainage.

Follow with layers of green and brown material — say garden clippings and kitchen scraps, then leaves and wet paper.

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Add water after each layer to keep the pile moist but not too wet. Finish with a layer of soil or finished compost to help reduce odours.

Remember that the smaller the items are, the faster they will decompose.

When layering, try to add two parts brown material to one part green.

Turn or aerate the compost with a fork every week or two. Another option is to poke garden stakes or plastic pipes through the heap to allow air in.

Covering the compost at the top will keep in heat and moisture, which are essential for the process.

5. Distribute your black gold

The compost is ready for use when it’s a rich brown colour and crumbles easily. This could take a few months, depending on the size of the bin or pile.

Compost is a great soil conditioner that adds nutrients and helps your garden retain moisture. It can also reduce the need to add fertiliser and make your plants more resistant to disease.

You might also find that setting up a composting system opens your eyes to the amount of food that gets wasted, and makes you rethink your next shopping list.

Check out the Natural Resources Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges’ website for more information about small things you can do to help the environment from your own backyard. Or check out our stories: How to attract native bees and How to make a raingarden.

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