Looking After Your Compost Heap

Composting takes place all around us, not just in a compost heap. From the moment a piece of fruit or veg is cut open and subjected to the air, bacteria and fungi will begin their work of colonising and digesting it.

In the soil there are many different types of organisms each with their own role to play in turning animal and vegetative waste into humus. Humus is the debris, consisting of the bodily remains of the organisms and bodily waste materials, that is left after the organisms have had a field day digesting the food, the excrement created and each other. Humus is wonderful food for plants, containing minerals and nutrients they need for healthy life and growth. Certain organisms that live in the soil, such as slugs, woodlice and millipedes, will eat and shred materials making it easier and accessible for smaller organisms such as bacteria and fungi to enter. Larger organisms such as worms, nematodes and protozoa, eat the bacteria and fungi digesting and releasing the nutrients tied up within them. Larger animals such as arthropods like centipedes and spiders will prey on the smaller organisms and so the vicious circle of life within the soil processes biodegradable waste into plant food.

The compost heap is really a refined version of what goes on in the soil. By creating the correct environmental and dietary conditions in the compost heap we can speed up the decomposition process and make the heap work efficiently for us. There are four main requirements for the QR heap to work successfully:

Air is required by the beneficial aerobic organisms such as bacteria which need to breathe. Aerobic bacteria can produce antibiotics which kill off bad bacteria. Make sure your bin has good ventilation around the base and sides to allow air to reach the heap.
Moisture is required by bacteria and protozoa to take up food and release waste materials - it also allows them to move around in search of food. Worms love moist conditions, if it is too dry they move away. Most ‘green’ materials, such as grass clippings or waste from the kitchen, usually have sufficient moisture in them. ‘Brown’ materials such as hay or straw will require soaking overnight, as explained in my previous post. Allowing too much moisture into the heap can halt the hot composting process so good rainproof shelter, such as corrugated sheeting over the top of the heap is essential. The shelter will also prevent the heap drying out through evaporation.
Good drainage is necessary to allow excess moisture to drain away otherwise this will build up in the base of the heap and cause airless conditions leading to bad smells and putrefaction. If at all possible, build your heap on well drained soil. If not then incorporate at least a 3” (7.5cm) layer of rubble or rough material under the base.
Retaining the moist warm heat created in the heap will allow the QR activator to permeate through the pile and will also create the right condition for the types of bacteria that work at higher temperatures which can rapidly break down waste materials. A layer of hessian sacking is ideal because it retains the heat but also allows the heap to breathe.

A layer of hessian sacking helps retain the moist warm heat



If you look after your compost heap it will seldom go wrong and you will learn how to make good compost. Failure is usually the result of overlooking one of the four essential requirements listed above. Understanding what goes on in the heap is the key to success and it will all come naturally after building a few heaps.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, April 7, 2010

2 Comments:

Anonymous allotments4you said...

it seems awfully complicated...I have just been chucking my green waste on a heap and letting it rot down....I didn't expect anything quickly and only started the pile last year but it seems to be doing ok. It is quite a spacious heap and it has good drainage, also I put a piece of carpeting over the top...this was really to stop stuff blowing away in the high winds but maybe it has acted as a good insulator and so in this I did something right without really knowing it....Not sure on the bugs that are exsisitng in the heap though..maybe I'll get the kids to check.

April 7, 2010 at 12:44 PM  
Blogger QR said...

Dear allotments4u,

I am glad to hear that your compost heap is doing ok - it sounds like you instinctively know what to do! I'm sure there will be plenty of worms and other helpful creatures residing in your heap. I once found a toad in the bottom of mine - it gave me a bit of a shock when I first saw its bulbous eyes staring at me out of the compost!

April 13, 2010 at 1:53 PM  

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