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Start with the Basics
Your garden needs soil that is rich in nutrients in order to thrive. The best way to provide those nutrients is to use compost as the basis of your soil. Compost is organic material that can be added to soil. It enriches the soil and improves it, providing a strong basis for plants to grow. Compost can be purchased from landscape suppliers, but the best compost is one that you make at home.
The Benefits of Composting
In addition to improving your soil, composting has other benefits as well:
- Reducing waste – composting reduces the amount of household waste that goes to landfill. Composting reduces the methane emissions from landfills and lowers your carbon footprint.
- Growing your own food with compost gives you the ability to grow organic, healthy food without fertilisers
- Your plants are healthier and can withstand pest infestations and disease easier
- You will need less water because the soil is healthier. The soil where I live is very sandy and poor quality. Adding compost to it gives it the nutrients and texture needed to retain moisture, enrich the soil and improve the health of the plants we grow.
Ingredients for a Compost
Your compost needs three main ingredients:
- Brown: Twigs, branches and dead leaves. Cardboard and newspaper
- Green: Grass clippings, food scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves, vegetable scraps
What you can and can’t compost
You can compost:
- All vegetable and fruit scraps
- Egg shells
- Coffee grounds and tea bags, used coffee filters
- Nut shells
- Newspaper, shredded office paper
- Grass clippings
- Dead plants
- Hay and straw
- Pet fur and hair clippings
- Vacuum dust
- Cloths and rags
- Ash from fireplaces
- Wood chips and sawdust
- Plant trimmings
- Egg containers and similar containers made out of recycled paper
You can’t compost:
- Eucalyptus and gum leaves, black walnut leaves, branches
- Glossy paper and cardboard
- Cooked food especially meat and fish
- Diseased plants and weeds
- Pet faeces and litter tray contents
- Dairy products
- Fat, oil
- Plants treated with pesticides
Making your Compost
The easiest way to make a compost is to buy a bin from a garden supplies store such as Bunnings or you can buy one online here. There are a few different types available commercially, for example the traditional plastic bin or a compost tumbler. Alternatively, you could build one from scratch using wood for the frame and sacks or a tarpaulin to cover it. The bin should be situated in a shady part of your yard. We use two commercial bins made of plastic with lids. We use one continually until it is full, then the other one.
It takes time for the compost to break down the material into suitable matter for your garden. Our climate is hot and humid so it takes less time to break down than in a cold climate.
Add green and brown material to the compost in equal amounts, and add water each time. Use a compost stirrer or hay pitching fork to rotate the material regularly – this add oxygen to it and helps it to break down. You can also add lime or a commercial compost conditioner to aid in breaking the material down. When the material in the compost bin is dark and rich in colour it is ready to use on the garden.
Alternatives to Composting – Worm Farms and Bokashis
If you don’t have a garden or produce much green waste, there are alternatives to composting: worm farms and bokashis. We have a worm farm, which takes up a small amount of room on our verandah. Bokashis can fit on your kitchen bench and ferment the food waste into decompostable form that can be buried in the garden or used to enrich the garden. I have never used a Bokashi so I can’t vouch for it, but I love our worm farm – the worm juice that it produces makes the plants in our garden thrive. You can buy one online here.
We set up our worm farm over a year ago with the basic kit and a starter kit of 1000 worms. The worms were tiny when we bought them and now are the size of earthworms and are thriving. I feed them once or twice a week with kitchen scraps – you can give them any vegetable or fruit scraps apart from onions, garlic and citrus. Once a week we water them with a watering can full of water. There is a tap at the bottom of the worm farm that you turn on, and out flows worm juice – the byproduct of the worms’ digestive process. This is then diluted and used on the garden and pot plants. The plants visibly thrive with this fertiliser, which is natural and non toxic.
I really enjoy looking after my worm farm and recommend using one when you don’t have space for other types of composting. It feels great to be able to use food scraps in this way to improve our plants – a complete recycling of our waste, and economical as well because the only costs are the initial set-up. It’s much cheaper than buying commercial fertiliser and isn’t harmful to use in any way.
Even in the heat of our Australian summer my worms survived. We put a worm blanket on top of the worms and water them more often. You can also add frozen blocks of water if it’s particularly hot, but we’ve had temperatures in the high 30’s (Celsius) and they survived. They’re more active in cooler, damp weather of course.
How to Care for Your Worm Farm
Feed your worms with enough food scraps from your kitchen to cover 1/3 of the surface of the worm farm. Use vegetable and fruit scraps, cut up or mashed when the worms are small. I use a combination of large and small pieces of food so that the worms can eat the smaller pieces first and still have larger pieces for later in the week. Some take quite a while to break down like potato peels and cabbage leaves.
This photo shows a close-up of the worms with some of the more fibrous food – corn husks and egg shells. The worms need this grittier material to aid in digestion.
Take a handful of commercial compost (if you have some of your own garden compost you can use that as well), and sprinkle it over the food.
Lay a worm farm mat over the top.(purchase at a garden supplies store such as Bunnings, or online where-ever you buy your worm farm from). Once a week water with approximately 5 liters water, preferably rain water. After an hour or so open the tap at the bottom of the worm farm.
After the worm juice is drained out, close the tap again. Dilute the worm juice 1 part worm juice to 10 parts water. This creates a nutritious tonic that can be added directly to your garden and pot plants. Use on any plants over two weeks old, and as a fertiliser at any time. The benefits are that it improves your garden without chemicals, and is non-toxic to your pets, children or yourselves.
Our worm farm is a Tumbleweed product – their website is a great resource for starting and maintaining your worm farm and compost. There are some great video tutorials as well.
I recommend learning about the different types of composting in Compost Revolution’s Compost Tutorial. There is a guide to help you select which composting method suits you, and if you live in Australia, you can buy their products at a discount. Some city councils also give you a discount for composting because it helps them to reduce the waste going to landfills.