Making Your Own Compost

by Louise Steenkamp

Compost using the “hot composting” method

Compost plays a vital role in any garden. It helps to build the soil and creates a fertile and healthy environment where plants will thrive. Healthy plants are more resistant to insect and disease attack due to their higher protein content. Insects are more prone to attack ailing plants, given their higher carbohydrate content. The lesson here is: healthy soil = healthy plants.


Making compost is a lot like baking bread or brewing beer. With all the correct ingredients added at the right time and given the ideal conditions, you simply put it all together, stand back and watch the magic happen. And just like anything homemade, it is in a league of its own. I was taught by a master, and have made tons of the very best compost this way. This method is called “hot composting” and should be done in a day. Cold composting on the other hand is done over a period of time, never reaching hot enough temperatures, and therefore a much slower process.


What to use

This compost pile contains 2 essential components. These are nitrogen and carbon. The nitrogen supplies the heat necessary for the breakdown of all the elements and the carbon component provides structure. Below is a list of suitable materials divided into the two categories.


Fresh lawn clippingsDry leaves
Kitchen waste Straw
Green vegetationSawdust
Weeds – providing they have not gone to seedWood shavings
Fruit and vegetable scrapsNewspaper and cardboard torn into strips
Chicken, cow or horse manureBark


You want large amounts of the above material. This means you have to get creative in sourcing it. The carbon elements can be collected over time and stored, but the elements rich in nitrogen need to be sourced a day or two in advance. Don’t attempt to store kitchen waste for long periods of time, rather try to get the waste from your local grocer or even a boarding house or hotel. Convince all your pals to mow their lawns on the same day, and use it on the same day. Get a couple of straw bales from the pet shop. Wood shavings from a local sawmill. Collect leaves during autumn and winter, and keep them in bags.


What NOT to use

Plastic, cat and dog feces, baby diapers, weeds with a strong vegetative root system, diseased plant material and obviously anything not biodegradable.



The ideal location for the compost pile is under a tree. Legend has it that a deciduous oak tree is number one, but failing this, any tree will do. If you don’t have a tree, promise me you will plant one over the weekend. In the meantime you can cover the completed compost pile with an old piece of canvas in extreme weather conditions.



With all the material assembled and the location established, we can start the big build.

  1. Measure a space 1 meter wide and at least 1.5 meters long. The width of a compost pile should never exceed 1 meter, but the length can be determined by the volume of material available.
  2. Loosen the soil with a garden fork to a depth of 30cm. This is just for aeration and to create a proper exchange of microbes between the compost pile and the soil.
  3. The first layer, directly on top of the loosened, soil should be a 15-20cm layer of the coarsest material available. This can be sticks, stalks, twigs, small branches or any general garden refuse with a diameter of 2-8cm thick. These should overlap to create an environment which will allow “breathing” between the soil and the compost pile.
  4. Now  for the layering process. The idea is to alternate layers of nitrogen and carbon of approximately 10cm thick. The ratio of these two components are vital for a good breakdown rate. Materials with a high carbon content will take very long to decompose on their own, if not combined with the elements rich in nitrogen.
  5. On top of the first coarse layer of twigs and sticks, you will add a layer rich in nitrogen chosen from the table above. Followed by a layer chosen from the carbon category. These and all the subsequent layers should all be approximately 10cm thick. Pay attention to the texture of the layers as well. You want to alternate fine and coarse materials. For instance, don’t add sawdust on top of lawn clippings. Both of these tend to compact, and will hinder airflow, which is critical for decomposition.
  6. Another critical ingredient is water. After adding a new layer you want to give it a good watering. It is not necessary to soak it, but you do want the layer to glisten. Doing this part right, will mean you don’t have to add any water afterwards and no need to turn the compost pile at any stage.
  7. Continue with the layering process, until you have worked through all your material. Anything between 1.2m and 1,5m in height is good, but your finished product can be as high as you can reach.
  8. When done with the last layer, stand back and admire your work. You have just finished building a living organism, which will change during the next three months. During the first week it will heat up to temperatures of 50-80 degrees Celsius, and then gradually it will cool down and diminish in size. This is a good thing, because it means the decomposing process is underway. At the end you will be left with about ⅓ of the size of the initial pile. A bit demoralising I know, but once you have worked it into your garden, you will never buy compost ever again.


If this whole ordeal sounds too complicated, you and your pals are always welcome to attend one of our compost workshops. You will be guaranteed a full day of rip roaring fun and return home with a new skill and plenty of stories to tell.


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