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Dublin: 4°C Thursday 21 January 2021

From the Garden: How to upgrade your composting system

A delicious courgette salad recipe and some top compost tips.

Michael Kelly Grower

I DECIDED RECENTLY that it was time to pimp up my composting system. For the last five years or so, I’ve been composting in a three-bay composting system down the end of the garden.

This was hastily constructed using some old timber pallets and lots of rope. A decidedly ramshackle affair, but it did the job for me for a few years. However, it has started to fall apart of late.

In the end, I think the pallets were composting quicker than the material I was trying to compost in them.

I considered buying timber and building something sturdier myself, but thankfully common sense prevailed and with a nod to my DIY limitations, I decided to buy a kit instead.

Technically, these three bay systems are known as a New Zealand Box (don’t ask me why), and the benefit of this one over my DIY version is that the timber boards at the side and front can be removed to make it easier to get in and turn the compost.

All plants and animals (including ourselves) will decompose and turn in to compost eventually. A good compost system is simply about making that happen quickly – three to four months ideally.

It’s somewhat counter-intuitive but the key to good composting (on top of all the other golden rules – see below) is to turn the heap regularly.

One might have thought that leaving it alone to rot would be the quickest way, but by turning the heap you introduce oxygen which helps the decomposition process.

In a three-bay system, the idea is that you move the compost from one bay to the next about once a month or so.

When the first bay is filled to the top (in layers of green and brown materials), you tip all the material from it into the second bay.

This allows you to start using the first one again for new material.

When the first bay fills a second time, the compost from bay two is tipped in to bay three, allowing you to tip the material in the first bay into bay two.

By the time the first bay is filled a third time, the compost in bay three should be ready to shovel out and use.

A vegetable garden produces large quantities of green materials at this time of the year. It’s important to balance that with a brown material such as cardboard or newspaper.

I have a bin beside the compost heap where I store these brown materials so they can be added to the heap when I’ve added a new layer of green.

One final point – my old pallet assembly was down the end of the garden beside the ditch and it was a constant battle to stop the hedgerow from encroaching on the compost heaps.

This time around I’ve built the system in a more open area out in the field with enough space all around it that I can mow the grass behind it to keep it clear.

The Basics – Top Tips for Composting

The smaller the materials and the layers you put on the heap, the quicker it will break down.

Think of it like your own digestive system – if you chew your bread it will be easy for your stomach to break down.

If you swallow it whole, it won’t. So as a rule of thumb, chopping the materials with a clippers will help.

If you have bigger items like stalks of cabbages, bash them up with a sledgehammer first.

After that, the key is layering.

Spread the layers out – don’t leave it all in a big mound. Add about a three-inch layer of brown material and then a three-inch layer of green material on top until you get a heap that’s about four or five feet tall, and then leave it alone to rot down.

That means you probably need a minimum of two heaps. In practical terms, I often have far more green materials than I have brown – I usually end up dumping some greens in a pile beside the heap and waiting until I have a brown layer before adding them.

It’s counter intuitive, but regular turning (monthly) will aerate the heap, which will help it to decompose – the more often you turn it the quicker it will rot.

A well-layered heap will heat up quickly, rot down fast and uniformly, won’t smell and should be easy to turn.

The brown layer can consist of straw, wood ash, cardboard, newspaper, small twigs, leaf mould, soil or garden sweepings.

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The green layer could contain seaweed, grass, hedge clippings, veg garden waste and veg kitchen waste.

You can have a completely open heap, or construct sides for it with timber or timber pallets (this makes turning a little easier).

It should be about four foot wide and deep. Start with a brown layer such as straw or twigs of at least 10 inches. Cover the materials with cardboard or old carpet to keep the worst of the weather off them. 

Recipe of the Week – Courgette Salad with Rosemary and Garlic Dressing

This is a deliciously simple little courgette salad from our Head Chef JB.


  • 1 medium sized courgette
  • 100ml olive oil
  • 1 small sprig rosemary
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 small pinch of sea salt
  • 2 tbs raw cider vinegar 


Warm up the olive oil to 70 degrees C in a small pan.

Add the rosemary and the chopped garlic and let it infuse off the heat.

When cool, pass the oil through a sieve in to a bowl, whisk in the salt and cider vinegar to make the dressing.

Wash the courgette.

With a peeler, slice long ribbons of courgette in to a large bowl.

Mix some of the dressing through the courgette, let marinate in the fridge for one hour before serving.

Michael Kelly is an author, broadcaster and founder of GIY.

About the author:

Michael Kelly  / Grower

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