Gardening: Build perfect compost heap

By Meg Liptrot

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Make use of autumn's bounty for a more fertile garden, writes Meg Liptrot

Garden leaves are part of the lifecycle of a garden - use them in your heap. Photo / Getty Images
Garden leaves are part of the lifecycle of a garden - use them in your heap. Photo / Getty Images

In autumn, all the core ingredients for making a decent hot compost are readily available. Autumn leaves are a part of the life cycle of the garden and should be collected and used to enhance the fertility of your soil. Lawns are growing strong now the rain has come. Mow on a dry day, and use the clippings for the ultimate compost heap.

The key to making a compost that is hot in the middle and breaks down faster, is to get all the materials ready at once. Ensure your green ingredients, such as lawn clippings, are fresh.

The ingredients

• You'll need plenty of brown, carbonous stuff: autumn leaves, shredded uncoated office paper, ripped up newspaper (after you've read it), ripped up brown cardboard.

• Lots of chopped up green garden prunings, hedge trimmings (these are carbon and nitrogen mixed).

• Some juicy, nitrogenous stuff: fresh grass clippings, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, vegetable garden remains, green weeds.

• A few "activators" and mineral-rich ingredients to make your compost extra-beneficial as a fertiliser: seaweed, comfrey, untreated wood ash, old homemade compost or garden soil to introduce composting bugs and act like a starter, garden lime or dolomite, animal manure (avoid cat or dog droppings). Biodynamic compost activators include chamomile, comfrey, yarrow, dandelion, nettle, horsetail and valerian.

Composting tips

• The more finely chopped the materials added to your heap are, the faster they'll break down.

• The warm spot you create your compost in should be at least 1m square and 1m high so you have enough mass to generate heat.

• If you don't have a bin, stake and tie timber pallets together.

• Ensure your grass clippings are free of broadleaf weed herbicide, which will make tomato and potato leaves shrivel if you use the compost on your vege plot the following year.

The elements at play

Earth, air, fire and water - a good hot compost involves all these elements.

Air: Create a base on bare ground. Collect twiggy branches and create a 30cm loose layer. Alternate carbon/nitrogen layers. The carbon and coarse green materials should be in thicker layers (around 20cm), the wetter nitrogen layers should be around 10cm or less. Some materials, such as hedge clippings, have carbonous stalks and nitrogenous leaves, whereas kitchen scraps are usually very nitrogenous. Just mix them all up. If your nitrogen layer consists only of kitchen scraps, you'll end up with a very slimy, stinky compost. Kitchen scraps can also be seen as an activator, so less is more.

Fire: Repeat the layering process, sprinkling different activators in thin layers every 30cm or so. Activators fire up decomposition.

Water: Apply rainwater every couple of layers as the heap is being made. Rainwater is best, as chlorinated water impairs the biological activity of the compost.

Earth: Put a layer of soil on top to insulate it and prevent flies, then cover with a damp sack.

You can turn your heap - the cooler outside can be turned into the middle to heat up and break down evenly. Keep it damp. By spring, you should have perfect crumbly compost.


Enjoy the elements and rebalance

Fire & Water
Collect rainwater in an assortment of interesting bowls and float tea light candles and flowers or colourful autumn leaves on top when you have guests over. Put a drop of citronella oil on the surface to discourage mozzies.

Air
Collect seaweed for your compost from the beach after a storm and get out and enjoy your garden or parks. Stand on your doorstep and breathe in the cool night air as it rains. Negative ions are found in natural areas such as beaches and forests and are concentrated after rain. They increase the flow of oxygen to the brain. We feel refreshed and energised because of them.

Earth
Regularly walk barefoot on the ground to "earth" yourself. Walk on the beach, on grass or soil. Get your hands in the soil. The earth's natural energy is negatively charged and better for our health.

- Herald on Sunday

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