Great composting tips from the first workshop

Andrew and Teresa Widd revealing the secrets of composting
Andrew and Teresa Widd revealing the secrets of composting (Photo by David Vallis)

PLANT’s series of free gardening workshops began on Sunday when 15 people met together to discuss the fine art of composting.

Workshop leaders Teresa and Andrew introduced themselves and aren’t we lucky to have such knowledgeable and kindly mentors, with an obvious passion for growing and helping others to grow.

Behind them was an array of seemingly random objects, bits of leaf, hair, a skull (not human I might add) but more of that later.

It seems that this was indeed a rather timely start to the workshops as Teresa told us that this is the ideal time to start on a new garden and the perfect time to start making compost. The “compost” we are dealing with here is what is formed when micro organisms break down dead plants, and is not the same “compost” that you may buy in a bag from the garden centre.

Andrew showing how to build a compost bin
Andrew showing how to build a compost bin (Photo by David Vallis)

There are many different types of container used for composting. You can buy custom-made compost bins; some have a little door at the bottom for getting out the compost when it is ready. Some can be rotated to mix the materials. You can use straw bales, or breezeblocks to make your own.

Andrew made one from 3 recycled pallets and it took him under 2 minutes.
The back one goes against a wall. The sides are pinned in with wooden stakes and 2 small pieces of wood are screwed onto the 2 back corners. Done! It is important that the good sides of the pallets face in the way to contain the compost. A nice idea given by Andrew was to fill in the gaps on the outside with scrap wood and fill with soil. You could plant nasturtiums or even carrots in the walls of your compost heap. Add a “front” later to contain the compost. This needs to be removable, maybe chicken wire, or another pallet. Here is a Hackaweek video with an example of a similar construction (including some good tips for the front panel) – good stuff starts at 3min mark.

Making the heap directly on top of the garden soil is best. Starting with a bottom layer of course twigs for about 6 inches will allow air and worms to circulate. After that it’s all about layers, brown (paper, hedge shredding etc i.e. dry stuff) and green (veg peelings, wet stuff).

Then it was time for the yes, no, with caution game. We split ourselves into teams and the job was to decide if the previously mentioned random objects were suitable for composting. This was not always as straightforward as it may seem and there was intense discussion and debate. Paper: good if shredded or crumpled, not if glossy. Orange peel, not too much at a time or you’ll upset the worms. Feathers, hair, all good. Veg peelings, beware of potato eyes which will sprout and grow. Nettles and comfrey are very good for the compost, but avoid roots and seeds or they’ll end up all over your garden. Absolutely no carnivore excrement but rabbit and guinea pig bedding is good. No cooked food, as this will encourage rats, as will meat and dairy products. Cotton clothing and woollen jumpers are compostable. Seaweed is good but wash it first. Tree leaves can be composted but it’s better to do this separately, making leaf mould. Some evergreen leaves are ok but avoid laurel, holly, and rhododendron, as they’re too slow.

In optimum conditions your compost will be ready in 16 weeks, or maybe more realistically 12-18 months.

The heap should be turned twice in its lifetime, usually done by emptying it then putting it all back in again. If it’s smelly and slimy, add cardboard or shreddings. If it seems dry, add some water. Grass cuttings will help to heat it up and you should cover the top with an old carpet to conserve heat.

Plates full of cake
Yummy refreshments (Photo by David Vallis)

Cups of tea were then on offer with some fabulous home baking including chocolate and courgette cake with courgettes from Jessie’s garden and frangipani pies with red gooseberries from PLANT’s very own fruit tree walk.

There was then some further discussion about slugs, snails and ants all helping to break down the compost, making comfrey and nettle tea to feed the plants and future workshops.

The summary sheet for the workshop will be available here. Our Community Gardens library also has The Garden Organic Book of Compost by Pauline Pears if you want a more in depth treatment.


  1. This was an excellent workshop – many thanks to Andrew and Teresa for getting the Tayport Community Garden workshop garden off to such a good start. And special thanks for the secret ingredient – Teresa confided that Andrew’s beard trimmings were good for the heap mix too!

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