The Perfect Compost Recipe

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Turning compost

Making your own compost is the best way to feed your garden. But it can also be painfully slow! So, let’s speed things up with some simple steps you can take to make lots of compost - fast!

1. Aim for a 50:50 Mix of Greens and Browns

Aim for roughly equal proportions of ‘green’ materials to ‘browns’. Greens have a relatively high nitrogen content and typically consist of fresher, sappier material. Think grass clippings, spent crops, old bedding plants, annual weeds (seed-free so you don’t inadvertently spread them about in the final compost), and kitchen waste such as vegetable peelings and fruit peels.

Not all greens are obvious. Coffee grounds and tea leaves are brown in color, but still count as greens because they’re high in nitrogen. The same applies to dried grass clippings because all that’s been lost from them is water, which won’t affect the amount of nitrogen they contain.

And here we have some browns, which have a higher carbon content making them typically drier, coarser materials. So, we’ve got straw, wood chippings, dead plants, fallen leaves – plenty of these right now, old twiggy prunings, and then materials made from plant matter such as shredded or scrunched up paper and plain brown cardboard.

'Greens' are the nitrogen-rich components of your compost heap

2. Chop Up Composting Materials

Whatever you add, try to keep everything as small as possible, as smaller pieces will have a greater surface area for the composting organisms to get to work on. Larger stems can be chopped up, for example, or woodier materials shredded. Not everyone has a shredder – I don’t! – but you may find that a lawnmower does a good job of smashing or chopping up tougher, non-woody stems such as corn stalks. Just be careful not to damage your mower – it needs to be up to the job! Alternatively, just cut stems into smaller pieces using your pruners.

3. Add a Compost Activator

Next, add a natural activator. A compost activator is something that kickstarts or boosts your compost. Off-the-shelf products described as ‘compost accelerators’ or ‘compost makers’ are expensive and really not worth it in my opinion. Instead, the very best activators are natural ones like animal manures from herbivorous animals such as cows, horses or chickens…or your own liquid gold. Yep, that’s right – you can pee on your compost heap!

Manure is a great compost activator

If you keep guinea pigs, rabbits or other small rodents, the wood shavings used in their cages mixed with their wee and poo is a very potent mix in any compost heap and will really speed things up.

If you’re a bit squeamish about using either pee or manure, then try and get hold of spent coffee grounds, which make a great alternative. Ask at your local coffee shop and they may be only too happy to give you bags of this waste product for free.

What all these natural activators have in common is that they have a very high nitrogen content, making them powerful accelerants, especially if your compost heap has lots of browns in it.

Turn your compost to give it a boost

4. Turn Your Compost

Regularly mixing, or turning your compost is a great way to get more air in there to help keep it cooking. It’ll give your compost heap a new lease of life and, although it’s hard work, is worth doing if you’re after double-quick compost. You can do this at any time, but one or two weeks after adding the last of your ingredients to the heap makes the most sense. By doing this all those beneficial bacteria will get a boost of oxygen and in turn they will build up the heat in your heap as they get back to work. This should slash weeks, perhaps even months off the time it takes to get your final, beautiful, crumbly compost.

5. Keep Compost Heaps Covered

As we head into winter it’s a good idea to cover open heaps to both insulate the heap and to stop it from getting too wet from heavy winter rains. Insultating the heap keeps it active for longer as temperatures start to drop. You can use any type of sheeting, or even just several layers of cardboard can help shed most of the rain. If you’re going to use old carpet, just make sure it’s one made from natural fibers such as jute or hemp, because you don’t want manmade fibers ending up in your compost.

With a little protection from winter weather, compost heaps will keep cooking for longer

6. Maintain Light Moisture in Your Compost Heap

Compost that has become too wet from either rain or excessive fresh green material will slump down and squeeze out all the air, causing things to turn smelly and putrid – not nice! If it gets in this state, dig it all out and restack it with more browns to help open it out, and make sure to keep it covered.

And in the same vein, if it’s really slowed down because things have dried out, rewet the heap by giving it a thorough watering every week or so to get things going again. How do you tell if it’s wet enough? Get your hands in and squeeze the material – it should feel damp but not so wet that water drips out.

Source free pallets to keep your compost heap neat

How to Build the Perfect Compost Heap

When building up a compost heap, it’s essential to add ingredients in a way that keeps the heap lightly moist, and full of air. This will keep all the organisms that help with decomposition happy and thriving.

Site your compost bin directly on the soil, which will make it easy for all of those wondrous worms and beneficial bacteria to find their way in, and that will speed up how fast it all begins to rot down. An open heap is fine, or you can keep it tidy using pallets. Alternatively, use a purpose-sold compost bin.

A larger heap is more effective than a small one, especially as things start to cool off in autumn and winter. A large heaps stay warmer in the center, keeping it active for longer.

Leaves are good browns to add to your compost heap in autumn

When starting a new compost bin, I like to add some twiggy brown material to the base to help open out the bottom and retain a bit of air down there. Try to add your greens and browns in roughly equal proportions, 50:50. I wouldn’t obsess about this – the absolute key thing to avoid is dumping on loads of greens such as grass clippings in one go. Doing this runs the risk of these water-heavy ingredients compacting down and becoming a soggy, airless mess. By adding in browns to balance out the greens you can keep the structure of your compost heap more open, and the conditions for beneficial composting organisms just fine and dandy.

During the height of the growing season finding enough browns can be tricky, but I find that plain cardboard or scrunched up paper works well and helps keep those greens from matting together into a slimy goo.

Follow my steps to speedy compost, and you could be cooking up compost in as little as three months during the growing season – that’s fast!

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Show Comments


"Excellent. Especially interested in the coffee grounds comments. I collect bags and bags and bags of coffee grounds. Our roses look delighted when I approach and the veg garden is receiving a light covering but getting thicker as I get more and more enthusiastic. Worms seem not to be put off but no sign of snails or slugs. Tell me please if there are any plants that don’t like it! "
JB on Saturday 3 December 2022
"That's great to hear you have such good results with coffee grounds. I'm not aware of any plants that wouldn't like it, though I'd caution adding too much at any one time - little and often is preferable."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 5 December 2022
"Hello thanks for the information about compost heaps. I have started getting a lot of tiny flies this year and have tried a few things trying to get rid of them like hanging fly papers near it and spraying with weak greenfly killer but to no avail."
Christopher Sperrin on Friday 9 December 2022
"Hi Christopher. If the tiny flies are in or around your compost heap, they won't be doing any harm and may even be helping break things down a little. If they are on your plants and potentially causing harm, then check out what the offender may be using our pest guides. But generally small flies aren't a 'bad' thing."
Ben Vanheems on Friday 9 December 2022
"Could fish tank water be used as an activator? "
Natalie on Saturday 22 July 2023
"Hi Natalie. I guess it would contain nutrients from the fish waste and fish food, so this may work as an activator, yes. Certainly worth adding to the compost if you are looking for somewhere to discard it."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 25 July 2023
"As far as I can see, I do everything you suggest, on my compost Heap. But cant see wood ash on your list. Have I missed this or do you Not recommend using this. Thank You for a great Article . "
Barry victor Brown on Saturday 16 September 2023
"Hi Barry. You could certainly add wood ash - in thin layers, along with other composting ingredients. Wood ash isn't essential to a compost heap by any means, but if you produce it and are looking for a way to be rid of it while contributing something useful to the garden, then adding it to the compost heap is a great way to go."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 18 September 2023
"Wouldn't an even "speedier" way of composting be Bokashi Buckets? I've recently learned about them and am experimenting with trying to do them without paying for expensive "Bokashi Bran" or starter."
Nancy S on Thursday 21 March 2024
"Yes indeed, that's a great method. But it probably isn't up to processing the amounts coming off a typical garden."
Ben Vanheems on Friday 22 March 2024
"If our wood fire was started with firestarters, would the ash be unsuitable to add to the compost pile?"
Jennifer M on Wednesday 5 June 2024
"I'd have thought most of the ingredients in the fire starter would have burned off, rendering them safe to use within the wood ash. "
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 5 June 2024

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