Compost Mini FAQ

There are lots of people who have various concerns about compost heaps. Most of these concerns and fears can be allayed by having the composting process explained and some urban myths dispelled.

Here is a mini FAQ about compost heaps to help you to understand them better:

1. What is compost?

Compost is the end result of naturally biodegraded or broken down organic matter. This happens when organic matter such as plant cuttings, grass mowings vegetable peelings and discarded leaves, in fact anything that is vegetative matter is mixed together and piled up in a heap.

As long as the air can freely circulate throughout the pile, sufficient moisture is present and natural bacterium are present, the heap will start to rot, or degrade. As this happens the heap will heat up as the bacteria in the heap increase in numbers and break down the organic material speeding up the rotting process.

After several weeks, the material changes from it's original appearance into a brown, odourless, crumbly material that is packed full of nutrients and minerals which will enrich any soil that it is added to.

2. Do compost heaps smell bad?

A correctly built and managed compost heap will not smell of anything except a sweetish smell not dissimilar to freshly cut grass. Badly built heaps that do not allow air to circulate or are built exclusively of one material, for instance grass mowings, will not break down correctly and will smell bad.

It is important when building your compost heap that you include many different types of plant material mixed well together and aerated. A compost activator should be added and mixed into the heap.

Propriety activator pellets can be bought from garden centres and DIY stores, but a natural activator can be made by adding fresh stinging nettles throughout the pile or adding fresh horse manure. This will not make the heap smell bad, but actually make it smell good!

3. Do compost heaps attract rats and other vermin?

Firstly, it is possible that vermin will be attracted to a compost heap only if fresh vegetable kitchen waste is dumped on top and not covered. The best way to stop vermin being interested in your heap is to use a tight wire mesh cage inside the outer walls of the compost bun and to cover the heap with a heavy well fitting square of old Hessian backed carpet or, completely cover the whole bin with a square of ply or chipboard.

As long as there are air holes in the sides of the compost bin's walls to allow the air to freely circulate, the inner wire mesh will keep rats out.

Secondly, many people don't realize that wherever they live, no matter how sterile you believe your habitat to be, you are never further than six feet away from a rat. Fact! So a compost heap should be least of your concerns.

4. Can I put paper on a compost heap?

Of course you can! Remember, paper is made from pulped wood which is an organic material. So paper and cardboard roughly torn up into smallish strips can and should be added to a compost heap to aid with the variety of the mixture of organic material.

5. Can I put rotten meat or leftover bones on a compost heap?

technically, anything that once lived can be composted, but meat and bones can contain certain bacteria that might not be beneficial to the heap, so these are best disposed of. Better still, if you have a dog, you can give any leftover food to him! Don't give a dog chicken bones though, as they have a tendency to splinter.

6. What about my cat or dog's poop?

That's a definite no-no, as cat and dog faeces contains harmful bacteria. One last "however" is that as long as you're healthy, human urine is actually a good compost activator!

Just don't let your neighbours catch you "activating" your compost bin the way nature intended!

And it goes on...

Here's a continuation of my mini FAQ on the benefits and concerns and all things to do with compost.

7. Can I put leaves on a compost heap?

Of course, as long as you mix them up with other plant matter to form a good mixture of different types of organic debris. Leaves on their own will rot down but take a long time.

Alternatively, if you wanted to produce leaf mould, which is a type of compost that can be used in many different situations, the easist way is gather all the leaves you sweep up and place them all together in a large black plastic bag and tie it shut. Poke some holes in the sides with a garden fork and then leave the bag in a corner of the garden for a full year.

In that time it should have rotted down nicely into a good pile of humous-rich leaf mould.

8. Should I dig compost into the soil or leave it on top?

You can and should do both, especially if your soil is in poor condition and in need of some TLC. Digging compost into the soil a few weeks before planting starts is a great way of enriching and feeding the soil.

The amount you dig in really depends on how much compost you have and the general condition of the soil. A rule of thumb is that the poorer the soil the more compost you should dig in.

Once you have planted out your crops, mulch them with a layer of compost. This will help the soil retain moisture and protect the plants from the worst infestations of pests and diseases as it naturally strengthens plants boosting their own natural defences against these.

9. Can I use compost for pot plants?

Yes, absolutely! You should mix compost with equal amounts of sterile soil and sharp sand to make a great potting mixture. To sterilise soil, place some on a baking tray about an inch or two thick but no more and place it in a hot oven for twenty minutes or so to kill weed seeds and soil-bound diseases.

Make sure the cook of the house doesn't find out though!

That's it for this part of the mini FAQ. I'll post more at a later date, or if anyone has any questions not covered, leave me a comment and I'll respond and even put your question with my answer in the next part of the mini-FAQ.

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