Everything you need to know about composting

Embracing change can also be about learning the art of composting. Composting at home, and teaching and encouraging children at local schools to close the loop of their lunchtime waste, can initiate generational change. When we think of the food scraps turning back into rich, viable soil, we’re heading back in the right direction and going some way toward replacing the soil that we’ve collectively lost.

Creating soil is an act of reparation, and something that we all can do. Composting is a huge topic, but we want you to think about it as a way that you can take your organic waste and create soil. That’s the easy definition but it goes a little deeper.

Closing the loop of our own waste is a powerful thing: energetically we’re stopping a leak and retaining a lot of energy that would otherwise be dumped into a roadside bin.

Taking charge of our own personal loops and energy leaks can be empowering.

Turning our own waste into a nutrient-dense growing medium is the perfect inspiration to then plant a seed!

The household waste holds a little of a family’s life force, so the soil we brew from our own rich compost is already like a potion that can’t be replicated. It’s yours, and if you should plant a seed into soil that you’ve added your compost to, the seed will be born into your family to start its journey knowing YOU!


Compost can mean many things to many people. Often, it’s a well-meant black plastic bin placed somewhere close to the back door where food scraps are gathered over a long period of time, creating bad smells and attracting rodents. Sometimes, a swarm of vinegar flies makes the whole process unpalatable for even the keenest, environmentally conscious person wanting to make a difference.

For some, it’s a question of ‘When do I stop?’ – with the end result being a little unclear, so the bin remains full and the contents are never disbursed. Instead, another black bin, a twin of the first, is placed beside it, and on it goes. It doesn’t have to be this way! We want to share some fun tips with you that will have you tending your compost in a way that sees you checking it daily, proud of the rich and useful humus you’re creating. Even experimenting with your own recipes as you add and build. Consider our tips as a guide only and an invitation to experiment; after all, the greatest  teacher of compost is the compost itself!


The most wonderful secret to successful composting is layering the ingredients. If your compost bin is predominantly used for food scraps (yay, full of nitrogen!), it’s important to balance those scraps with carbon: a layer of shredded newspaper, dry straw, autumn leaves, sawdust or cardboard is a great way to balance your brew. We like to think of compost as a little like building a lasagne: thin layers are the best way to encourage decomposition.

Your compost should not be wet, but damp enough to encourage the breakdown process.

This is a brew that takes considerable time to break down but requires minimal input to maintain. It encourages worms into the system that do the bulk of the work, making their way up through the hollow base of the bin to help.

As this system is a slow process, it’s called a ‘cold’ compost. It’s a gradual way to build a nourishing end product that can easily be fed back to your fruit trees, scattered and built into your garden beds or even spread lightly over lawn areas. Full of nutrients, it’s a wonderful way to turn waste into gold. If rodents are already an established pest in your area, wire mesh cut to the shape of your bin’s base will help. The mesh should be fine enough to exclude the rodent pests but a wide enough gauge to allow your worm helpers easy access.

Scraps you can happily add to a kitchen compost include 

(but are not limited to):

  • Coffee grounds
  • Eggshells
  • Cardboard
  • Autumn leaves
  • Wood chip
  • Tea bags and tea-leaves
  • Newspaper
  • Vegie scraps
  • Grass and plant clippings
  • Rabbit or guinea pig bedding, straw or shredded paper
  • Animal manure (rabbits, chickens or grazing animals)

There are a few scraps to avoid adding when composting:

  • Avoid citrus. Our worm friends really don’t like citrus including orange peels, lemons and grapefruit. If citrus does make its way into the compost bin, make sure that it’s only in small amounts.
  • Avoid meat. Meat is notorious for attracting rodents and other unwanted creatures and requires long periods of time to decompose. It also has a greater chance of making your compost smell nasty.
  • Avoid adding garlic and onion.
  • Cat or dog poo is an absolute no.
  • Avoid any unwanted plants that are in fruit, bloom or seed, as they could reproduce within your compost. Pumpkins are notorious as what we call ‘compost specials’. The seeds are often hidden in the pumpkin scraps you throw into the compost and when you eventually add the compost to your garden, you may be ‘blessed’ with an unexpected triffid-like pumpkin vine.


Put on your patience pants because composting is a process. It isn’t instant! Traditional compost bins once filled are best left to break down for 8–12 months before spreading among growing spaces and below fruit trees. Two bins are advisable so you can rotate them.

While composting is encouraged to close suburban waste loops and reduce landfill, the broader concept of composting is employed in large-scale farming landscapes by simply adding layers to topsoil. This is a great way to store carbon and build topsoil, imitating the rich layers of plant material in old growth forests that gather fallen leaf material and dead wood, layer upon layer. In an open-air environment this process can be sped up by building a ‘hot’ compost, though this system requires a little more input and greater amounts of ingredients to start the heat.


Healthy, quick hot compost becomes a reality with a combination of five ingredients: greens, browns, air, moisture – and you.

You’ll need a large amount of gathered ingredients to start your pile, as heat will only begin if the mass of ingredients is at least 1.2 metres wide and 1 metre high. The centre of your pile will generate heat, which will radiate out. For a general rule of thumb, brown ingredients are carbon, such as straw, sawdust, shredded cardboard and dried autumn leaves.

Green ingredients are the nitrogen element, such as lucerne hay, grass clippings, green prunings and even grazing-animal manure. (Manure is an exception to the rule of brown versus green as it’s high in nitrogen.) For best results, keep the ratio of carbon to nitrogen at 25:1.

Create a structure to keep your ingredients contained. We keep it simple and use chicken wire constructed in a large, round cage. Other people use rectangular or square bays made from old timber cladding.

Your compost pile should start with a nitrogen-rich green layer, then 25 parts carbon, then another layer of greens, and so on. Keep a hose close by to water down each layer as you go, and a pitchfork to intermittently fork and compress the ingredients to make sure that all of the mixture has good contact.

This building of a hot compost pile can be labour-intensive. Why not throw a compost party and invite a few friends around to help you build your compost cake? When the compost pile has reached completion, we always lift someone on to the top of the mound to stamp and dance – after all, a celebration should always end with a dance! Cover your pile with something that will keep the rain off, like a tarpaulin, and allow it to do its magic.

The reason for turning a compost is to aerate it. Your pile will be ready to turn when the heat has reached its peak: a temperature of between 50–60° Celsius. You can employ a thermometer, although a simple, careful hand straight down the middle will soon tell you if your pile is hot! This should take about a week. The inside of the compost pile will break down the fastest, so the outside should be turned into the middle and the middle to the outside, adding more moisture if you find it has dried out.
 Our rough schedule looks like this:

Leave 1 week – Flip and repeat.

If you stay true to this weekly turning, you’ll find yourself with rich loamy compost ready to spread in six to eight weeks. Magic!

Edited extract from Plants of Power: Cultivate your garden apothecary and transform your life by Stacey Demarco & Miranda Mueller (Rockpool Publishing, $39.99)


Peninsula Essence, Your Garden & Home Feature – September 2021