What is compost?

Man getting compost from a compost bin.

Compost forms as a result of the breakdown of organic material by organisms. Once the organic material has rotted it can be put on the soil to protect roots of young plants and restrict weed growth. It can also be dug in to act as a conditioner which fertilises, provides soil structure and helps retain moisture.

Why compost?

  • Recycles nutrients back into the soil
  • Reduces water consumption, which improves soil structure and helps to retain water
  • Raises the fibre in the soil, helping it bind together
  • Improves plant health growth, increasing yields
  • Increases nutritional quality of home grown foods
  • Reduces reliance on chemical pesticides
  • Converts waste into a valuable resource
  • Reduces reliance on land-filling of waste

How to get a composting bin

The home composting scheme for Cumbria has been launched, which is offering two types of subsidised compost bins. You can also purchase a wide range of food digesters and accessories, as well as water butts, at competitive prices.

To order your compost bin:

Bargain compost bins on the Recycle for Cumbria website gives details of the compost bin sizes and costs.

Order compost bins online on Get Composting website

On average, garden waste accounts for approximately 21% of household rubbish, so home composting is a great way to reduce the amount of waste we send to landfill.

Locating your composter

Your rotting waste must have contact with the soil, as this is where the organisms that make compost will come from. If you can, you should locate your composter in a place where it will get direct sunlight, as the extra warmth will help speed up the composting process.

Cover the top of the compost

You don't have to cover compost, but it keeps in the moisture and warmth, which speeds up the breakdown process. You can make your own; a polythene sheet with a few holes held in place will do.

Filling your composter for the first time

To get your compost process started, you will need to ensure that air circulates properly. Layer the bottom of your compost unit with some twigs, along with some kitchen waste, to encourage worms and other organisms.

  • Next you can use cut flowers, or the remains of houseplants. This layer will stop the gaps in the twigs being filled up and will allow air to penetrate under the rotting waste. When composting gets going, the twigs will rot but, by this time, the composter will have a natural system and they will not be needed.

  • Next you can layer the actual waste you want to compost. There are two types of materials you can compost:

    • Greens are nitrogen-rich materials, high in moisture, and are the activators. Bacteria and fungi break this down rapidly.
    • Browns are carbon-rich materials and are bulkier and tougher, providing more structure to the compost. This waste is broken down more slowly. (A list of Green and Brown items can be found in the table below).
  • Make sure that what you put into the composter the first time is very mixed (Greens and Browns - alternate the layers). Do not, however, fill the composter beyond 80% of its capacity.

As you build up the layers it is an idea to put a few handfuls of ordinary garden soil into the mixture. This will introduce the creatures that will start the rotting process.

Compost ventilation

The moist waste products will start to sink down from the top of the composter, condensing as it sinks. The air pockets gradually fill up and so some regular turning will help put some air back in. Without air, the rotting stops.

Removing the mature compost

After a few weeks the first compost will begin to mature. If you find a dark, rich, earthy substance, you have produced the first compost! Sometimes, you will find some only partially-rotted items. Don't worry, you can put bigger lumps through the composter again.

It is best to let a good layer of soil build up before you start taking compost out for use. However, once you have a regular supply of new compost, you can use it as fast as it is produced.

Topping up the composter with waste

You need to keep regularly adding waste to the composter. It is best to make sure that you get a good mixture of waste materials. If you put a lot of the same material in, you may find that the composting stops.

Put these items into compost bins


  • Egg shells
  • Flowers (dead)
  • Fruit remains
  • Grass cuttings
  • Kitchen waste (uncooked)
  • Tea bags and coffee grounds
  • Weeds (not gone to seed)


  • Cardboard (small amounts)
  • Fish and chip paper
  • Hay/Straw
  • Leaves
  • Newspaper strips
  • Paper towels/napkins
  • Non-woody pruning from bushes
  • Wood ash and shavings


  • Animal and human hair and nail clippings
  • Cigarette ends
  • Cork (small pieces)
  • Cotton wool
  • Feathers

Common composting problems

Common composting problems and possible solutions
Composting problem Possible solutions
Unpleasant odours If there is an ammonia smell, then this usually indicates there is too much green waste. Add some brown material (crushed eggshells, egg boxes, scrunched up newspaper, toilet and kitchen roll tubes, shredded paper) and turn the pile well. If there is a rotten egg smell, the pile is too wet and compacted. Add some brown material and turn the pile well, or remove some of the grass cuttings.
Compost is very dry Simply turn the material with a garden fork, adding water while you do so.
Compost is wet and slimy Perhaps too much green material has been added. Mix in some browns.
Flies Ensure all kitchen scraps are buried in the pile (at least 15cm below the surface).
Vermin Sprinkle cayenne pepper around the composter's base.
Compost takes a long time to break down
  • There may not be enough heat - position in sunlight and keep the lid/cover on.
  • The pile may be too dry - add some water or an activator.
  • There may be a lack of air getting to the pile - usually indicates a poor mix, so fork through. Add new material in loose layers.
Last updated: Wednesday, 24 April, 2024.