Which composter is best for me?

If you’re new to composting it can be difficult to know which bin (or system, if you like to think in systems rather than bins) is best for your home and lifestyle. Our handy guide can help.

Food waste composter/digester

The Green Johanna Hot Composter and Green Cone Food Waste Digester are both designed to accept foods that regular garden composters don’t, such as cooked food, meat, fish and dairy, so all your food waste can go in together. Compare them to see which one best suits your needs.

Green Johanna Hot Composter

  • Produces compost.
  • Also accepts garden waste.
  • Added waste should be a balance of nitrogen-rich content, commonly called Greens, (food waste/fresh grass cuttings/fresh green leaves) and carbon-rich content, commonly called Browns (chopped branches and twigs/wood chips/dead leaves/shredded paper and cardboard).
  • Comes with aerator stick provided to aerate the contents regularly.
  •  Ideally placed on soil or grass
  • One Johanna accepts the average food waste of a household of five and the garden waste from an average-sized garden.
  • With hot composting techniques, higher temperatures are reached than with regular composting.

Green Cone Food Waste Digester

  • Must be dug into a hole in free-draining soil (not clay or chalk).
  • Accepts all food waste, even bones.
  • Doesn’t accept garden waste or paper waste.
  • Doesn’t produce compost – instead it produces nutritious water which drains from its underground basket and feeds surrounding soil.
  • No turning or stirring required.
  • Uses solar energy so requires a sunny spot.
  • Comes with kitchen caddy provided.

Compost Tumbler (by Maze) 180 litre/245 litre

  • Takes kitchen waste and garden waste. Accepts cooked waste if chopped up into small pieces and mixed in well with other waste.
  • Cylindrical rotation design makes turning compost easy. Instead of manually stirring you turn the ratchet handle. The geared ratchet automatically locks rotation in any position.
  • Two compartments mean non-stop composting – when the first compartment is full you start on the second.
  • Can be hardstanding.
  • A cart is available so that finished compost can be removed and wheeled where you want it in the garden.

Traditional Garden Compost Bins

  • Usually used for cold composting at low temperatures.
  • Only take raw fruit and veg scraps, garden waste and paper/cardboard.
  • Require a 50/50 mix of nitrogen-rich Greens and carbon-rich Browns.
  • Available in plastic or wood. Plastic bins tend to be more robust but wood may be preferred for a natural look. 

Lack of space?

Worm farms

Worm farms, also called wormeries, are ideal for small-scale composting and for introducing children to the fascinating world of worms, which is an education in itself.

  • Require a sheltered spot.
  • Worms will digest many kinds of foods cut up into small pieces and other kitchen waste such as shredded paper, egg cartons, scrunched up newspaper.
  • A little management is needed to maintain the ideal environment for your worms, so be sure to read the instruction booklet.
  • Produce excellent worm-made compost – vermicompost – for your garden.
  • Learning fascinating facts about these tiny eco-heroes is sure to turn children into composters of the future.

Bokashi Bins

14 litre Maze Bokashi Bin
  • Kitchen food waste bins that can sit on a worktop or under a sink and accept all chopped-up food waste.
  • Food waste is fermented, resulting in a pre-compost mixture which can be added to a compost bin or wormery, buried in soil in the garden or in large planters in order to break down into compost.
  • Requires the addition of friendly bacteria in a bran or spray to accelerate fermentation.
  • When full of food waste, the container is left sealed for two to three weeks for fermentation to take place anaerobically (without air).
  • Nutritious liquid is drained from a tap at the bottom of the bin and can be used diluted as plant fertiliser or concentrated as organic drain cleaner.
  • Bokashi comes from the Japanese term for ‘fermented organic matter’.

Choosing a compost bin – by the experts

This advice – taken from a webinar by master composters from Garden Organic – provides extra help.

Wooden bins – a sustainable material – cheaper – allows the pile to breathe – looks natural and attractive in the garden – don’t add meat, fish, dairy or cooked food due to lower temperatures – a few bins can be placed together, with one or two left to mature while one keeps working.  

Blackwall compost converter – the most common bin – affordable – long-lasting – made from recycled plastic – useful for getting compost out (the bin can be lifted up and removed like a jelly mould) – a base plate is available but an added deterrent to rodents can also be achieved by digging the composter slightly into the ground and putting a  wire mesh under the base – channels of air can be created by plunging a broom handle into the contents.

Green Johanna – reaches higher temperatures – as an enclosed unit it offers greater rodent protection – the twistable top controls ventilation – the solid perforated base means liquid can drain out and micro-organisms can enter – if adding meat, add small amounts, mixed with lots of greens and browns – aerate the top layer every time you add materials – for speedier composting an insulating jacket is available. An alternative way of taking compost out, rather than accessing through the hatches, is to loosen the screws and lift off one or two sections.  Composting slows down in winter but the Johanna continues well and does better than other composters.

HOTBIN – versatile, takes all food waste and also perennial weeds – produces compost quickly – useful in school gardens – contains air channels – needs woodchips as a bulking agent – has a hard surface to discourage rats nesting underneath – requires more attention – more expensive but versatile.  

Wormery – small and self-contained – ideal for small amounts of waste – year-round composting – can be indoors – worms eat the bacteria on the organic matter – no spicy foods or citrus, only small amounts of meat – food scraps are placed on the top section, casts fall to the bottom. Use the worm-made compost on pot plants or round trees and shrubs. NOTE: If the liquid that is produced smells bad it has gone anaerobic and should be flushed away.

Also:

  • Wormery compost is a great improver to shop-bought compost; you can buy the cheapest of composts but turn it into black gold with the addition of your vermicompost.
  • Sheds are not a good place to house a wormery due to temperature fluctuations – a garage or indoors is better.
  • If you need your worms to move out of way as you harvest casts, add melon or banana – worms love these and will obligingly wriggle over to them.  
  • Don’t forget that with a wormery you are responsible for living creatures.

Bokashi bin – ferments waste instead of composting so the contents need to be transferred to a composter after a couple of weeks – this pre-compost  acts as an activator in your compost bin – Bokashi bran is needed – fermented contents of the bin will still be recognisable (some people expect compost) – produces liquid which can be used as a drain cleaner or diluted as fertiliser – good to use two bins to keep the process going – ongoing bran purchase required.

Tumblers – compost is kept off the ground so rodents are deterred.   

Electric kitchen composters – these grind waste as opposed to composting it.

Ridan – giant tumblers with a cog and gear system that makes the handle easier to turn – popular in schools and businesses.

Waking your compost bin in Spring

This is the time compost fans have been waiting for.  At Great Green Systems we leave our compost ‘cooking’ for two grand occasions a year – April and October – for the Spring and Autumn retrieval of mature compost from the Green Johanna.

If you’re a first-time user of a Johanna, we recommend waiting 6-8 months before taking your compost out. After that, depending on conditions, 4-6 months should be fine.  

You can take compost from the bottom of the Johanna by unscrewing the hatches and removing compost using the aerator stick or a garden hoe.

To remove larger amounts of compost that have been left longer to mature, you can unscrew the Johanna’s modular sections, then remove materials from the top that are still decomposing and place them on a tarpaulin to enable you to get to the mature compost. Then put the decomposing materials back into the reassembled compost bin to continue breaking down.

Taking a Green Johanna apart to take out compost

Compost is ready when it looks like soil – dark and crumbly – and also smells like fresh soil. There may be some items that have not fully broken down, such as sticks, bits of eggshell and tea bags. These can be taken out and put back into the composter to go through the breakdown process again.  If there are other recognisable waste items and an unpleasant smell, the compost is not ready and should be left to continue breaking down.

This is also a good time to take leaf mould out of composters that are used only for leaves for use in your compost mixes.

Leaf mould taken from a Graf Thermo King 900 litre composter after two years breaking down

Use your compost for:  

Planting – Compost acts like a natural fertiliser enriching the soil and helping plants to thrive. As it is taken into the soil by worms and other organisms, the compost feeds plants and micro-organisms in the soil. For different compost recipes, check out the Garden Organic website – www.gardenorganic.org.uk.  

Mulching – At the beginning of the growing season mulches warm the soil, helping it to retain heat which would be lost at night.

  • Mulch also creates a haven for insects and worms which in turn attract birds and other wildlife, creating a mini eco-system in your garden.
  • Gardeners appreciate the neat weed-free appearance that mulch creates.
  •  If you have a dry garden, you’ll be glad of the protection that mulch offers plants in retaining water and cutting down on evaporation. This means you don’t have to water as frequently. Apply mature compost on soil after a spell of rain to retain moisture. Lay the layers at least 5cms thick after first removing weeds.

Planning your planting

  • Choose plants that peak at different times from June through to September.
  • Check the eventual height and spread of each plant before you plant it.
  • Water in each new planting and keep them watered regularly during their first summer.
  • Tackle weeds – the best approach is little and often. Hoe once a week to dislodge annuals. Perennials can be pulled out by hand if they’re still small, or if larger they can be dug out with a trowel.  
  • If you want to embrace No Mow May, allowing wildflowers to flourish and creating a habitat for insects, but you’re worried your lawn will look too wild, compromise by mowing a path through the grass and neatening edges.
  • Support Peat-free April – although the UK government has banned the sale of bagged peat for home gardeners, peat is still used for growing plants to sell. Support peat-free nurseries and suppliers by going to the Peat-free April website (www.peatfree.org.uk)

Tips from the experts

Sarah Raven is surely the Queen of Pots – she has 382 pots in her garden. In her book A Year Full of Pots (Bloomsbury) she advises:

  • Keep your eyes peeled for pests as the weather warms – deal with aphids with a jet of water from the hose.
  • Label everything because it’s easy to forget what’s what. Always start writing at the blunt end of your label.
  • If you don’t have a polytunnel, greenhouse or cold frame, it might be easier to buy seedlings online rather than sowing everything into trays and filling your windowsills. Perhaps select one or two to sow, ones that you know are easy, and buy the rest as young plants.
  • The commonest method she and her team use is the seed tray method – using peat-free potting compost, they place everything on a heated propagator mat. Warmth helps to speed up germination, so keep bags of compost inside if you can. Water the compost in the trays with watering cans that have sat on the hot bench.
  • Storing seed – if you have any leftover seed, secure the packet and put it in an airtight box. Store somewhere cool until next year.

Poppy’s plants

There may now be enough light for tender plants to grow outside but is it still too cold for them?

Poppy Okotcha, writing in her Observer gardening column, uses the rule of thumb that if it’s chilly outside for her and she needs to wear more than a T-shirt, then tender plants are probably feeling the cold too. She advises:

  • A sunny windowsill, warm conservatory or porch will do them well until the frosts pass and day and night temperatures consistently reach 8-10 degrees C.
  • It’s worth finding out the hardiness rating of the crop you’re sowing so you can cater to its needs. After the seeds have germinated, any hardy seedlings can be relocated somewhere with plenty of light that is not too warm. A cool, bright windowsill, conservatory, porch, or cold frame would do, or for those lucky enough to have one, an unheated greenhouse is fine. If seedlings have too much warmth and not enough light they will grow ‘leggy’, which just means spindly and weak.
  • Source seeds that are ethically grown, such as those certified organic by the Soil Association or Biodynamic by Demeter.
  • Keep tender plants safe from slugs and snails through Spring by covering them with cloches, plastic bottles or glass jars to act as physical barriers until the plant is vigorous enough to withstand some nibbling.  Put the containers on in the evening and take them off in the morning.

Let’s not forget wildlife

Remember visiting creatures when you’re out and about in your garden.  

  • Leave natural materials outside for nest-making.
  • Create resting places for bees just waking up.
  • Plant quick-growing flowers for pollinators.
  • Deep clean any bird feeders and baths.

Johannas give hope to South African townships

There can’t be anywhere on earth putting Green Johannas to better use than the townships of South Africa.

The food waste composters are a vital tool there in the work done by local women to sustain their families, communities and the environment.

The women, known locally as Kamammas (‘mothers who carry their child and community’), use the Johannas to recycle food waste into compost to grow their own food.  They then use this produce to cook traditional homemade cuisine for tourists who stay in their guest houses, providing a true taste of the real South Africa.

A Kamamma and Johanna

These ‘Homestay’ experiences are organised through the Dreamcatcher South Africa Foundation, a non-profit social enterprise which gives communities, especially women and youth, the opportunity to raise themselves out of poverty through training and employment.

Township residents are trained as hosts, guides and small business owners, enabling them to introduce tourists to the culture of their country.

Dreamcatcher’s founder Anthea Rossouw remembers the Kamammas’ reactions when she first showed them how they could learn to compost using a Green Johanna (shown in the video below).

‘Their reaction was amazing. Such joy, because they could see what this meant for them – to be able to grow their own food.  They started singing – ‘Give Me Hope Jo’Anna’ and dancing round the compost bin!’

Dreamcatcher’s recycling work is now even more important since the South African government has committed to halving food loss and food waste by 2030.  In recent months Anthea and her team have been running workshops to get more people recycling their food waste with Green Johannas.

A lorry load of Green Johannas destined for South Africa

The idea for Dreamcatcher came to Anthea more than 30 years ago during the apartheid era when she knew she had to do something about the suffering she saw around her.

‘There was so much injustice, inequality and insanity on a human level and an environmental level,’ she says. ‘It was obvious it couldn’t continue.’

Raised in South Africa by parents who championed diversity in defiance of the apartheid system, Anthea believes in turning challenges into opportunities.

Her father, a master builder of English descent, used to tell her, ‘Forget the pie in the sky and get down to earth.’ He could never have imagined how literally his daughter would take that advice, as getting people composting is one of the many strands of her vision for a better world.    

Over the years she has run many composting workshops, both in South Africa and the South of England where she divides her time.  She reckons that 99 per cent of the people she talks to have never composted before, but before long they are as evangelical about it as she is.

‘Composting is all upsides – you’re taking food waste out of landfill, where it’s an environmental disaster, and out of homes, with all the health and hygiene issues that involves. And it creates free, organic compost for people to grow their own food and flowers.’

When starting Dreamcatcher, she felt that an answer to many of the problems faced by townships could be found in a new kind of tourism. The tourism industry at the time was booming but completely bypassed the townships, with tourists being driven straight past the communities as though they didn’t exist. She saw a way for the inhabitants to share a piece of the tourism pie by offering visitors the chance to ‘life-see’ as well as sight-see.

A Kamamma gives tourists an authentic taste of South Africa

Anthea’s first proposals centred on the community of Melkhoutfontein, Western Cape, which at the time was one of the most destitute areas in the country, situated between two rubbish dumps and surrounded by waste.

The response from the authorities was ridicule. ‘The attitude was, “But no one will want to go there, no one will want to eat there!” ‘

 But Anthea connected with the international marketplace, convinced that tourists would relish the chance to meet the people (as well as the elephants!) of South Africa, thereby getting to know the soul of the country, not just its beauty spots. And she was proved right. Since its inception, Dreamcatcher has facilitated trips to South Africa for hundreds of tourists from over 30 countries.

Dreamcatcher developed authentic tourism experiences led by local people. It is based in the region that boasts the earliest known examples of human artistic activity, in the 73,000-year-old drawings discovered in the 1990s at Blombos Cave.

 Homestay with Kamamma

Focusing on struggling areas situated within established tourist routes, Dreamcatcher gives people the skills and knowledge they need to support themselves. Then, armed with these new skills, they develop enterprises such as ‘Homestay With Kamamma’ and ‘Cook-up With Kamamma’ and they go on to mentor others in the community

Educational programmes help to transform children’s lives, breaking the cycle of poverty. A good example of this transformation is one Kamamma who has three children – one is now a trained chef, one is training to become a teacher, the other to become a doctor.

Anthea knew that tackling waste was essential to Dreamcatcher’s tourism aspirations. So she set up a waste education scheme called ‘Waste – it’s Mine, it’s Yours’ in collaboration with the University of Brighton. She describes the waste problem in South Africa as a legacy of apartheid, when the dumping of waste was a way of expressing opposition to the system, as well as a protest against the lack of infrastructure caused by the forced removal of citizens. Moreover, in many communities the inadequate infrastructure led to waste being openly burned in the community or at dumpsites. Over time, waste and litter became a way of life, so training was invaluable in introducing the best ways to manage waste. An environmental ethos soon followed with local people taking pride in their role as custodians of their environment. And what a stunning environment it is!

Rubbish as a resource

Waste is no longer seen as rubbish but a resource. Dreamcatcher has created a thriving crafting industry, with tuition provided by visiting artists, so that young people can intercept waste that might end up on the beautiful beaches and in the ocean and turn it into craft products to sell to visitors. Plastic films are turned into bowls depicting the rich cultural heritage of the area, porcelain pieces incorporated into tiles to embed in walls and old jeans and waste textiles are transformed into bags and backpacks.  

Anthea is understandably proud when describing how mass-produced items that are deemed worthless can be given value thanks to the skill of a local craftsperson.  

The University of Brighton partners with the Dreamcatcher community. With the help of visiting volunteers and artists, local people have transformed the sides of buildings with brightly coloured paintings that tell the stories of their ancestors – bushmen and women with a rich history and many diverse cultures.

A volunteer takes compost from a Johanna

So how did Green Johannas come to play a part in this story?

Anthea first worked with Green Johannas through a community composting project she started when she was living in West Sussex in England in 2008. She took the same method of training back to South Africa, where she knew it would be transformative.

She believes the fact that the Kamammas were already producing their own food meant they were protected from some of the hardship caused by the Covid pandemic.

Inspired by a Nelson Mandela quote – ‘Something is only impossible until it’s done’ – Anthea says she is excited to see what can be achieved over the next few years.

A daily source of inspiration are the Kamammas themselves.

‘When I first met them I was overwhelmed by their warmth and generosity,’ says Anthea. ‘Each woman brought something from the little she had to make me welcome.

‘These are women who were rejected by their own culture, who had to struggle to raise their children but succeeded in sending them to university. They are survivors every day of their lives. They’ve gone from being servants to service providers.’

Great Green Systems couldn’t be prouder to be part of the Kamammas’ inspiring journey.

Locals learn how to use the Johanna with Anthea, right.

Tips to deal with fruit fly nuisance

One summer several years ago our house was besieged by an infestation of fruit flies, the source of which was eventually tracked down to a rotting, black banana under my teenage son’s bed.  It is known in the family as Bananagate and is still referred to even though the son in question is now nearly 30.

If fruit flies happen to you once, you will make sure they never happen again. They are a common nuisance in the UK, affecting more than 60% of households.  Each female may lay as many as 500 eggs and they proliferate quickly.  

They’re most common in summer and autumn because they’re attracted to ripe and rotting food, especially bananas, melon, tomatoes, squash and apples. The smell attracts adult flies, which lay their microscopic eggs in the fruit skins. The eggs might already be present in fruit that you buy or get from the garden. If you then put the rotting fruit or peel into your food waste caddy and then into your garden composter you might be unwittingly transferring fruit fly eggs to the compost to hatch out later when the temperature is right.  

Good composting management usually keeps flies away.   

A few flies can be beneficial since in the compost food web they are considered physical decomposers, helping to break down compost material. Their eggs are also a source of food for other compost creatures. But flies breed fast and if there are a lot of them it’s both a nuisance and a sign that something has gone wrong. 

Their presence is likely due to the following issues in the bin:

  • Lack of oxygen – when there is not enough air, composting is slow and the temperature drops – conditions which attract flies. So add oxygen by aerating with an aerator stick. You can also poke holes in the compost with an iron bar. Deep aeration also disturbs the fly reproductive cycle; some types breed every five days. Raise the temperature by fitting the Insulating Jacket on the Green Johanna and adding bokashi bran, which will introduce more beneficial microbes and speed up decomposition.
  • Too much moisture – the water content should be about 50 per cent. If there is more water than this, it can force air out, which leads to anaerobic conditions (without air) causing slow decomposition and bad smells, which attract flies. You can monitor compost moisture levels by testing with a moisture meter or by squeezing it in your hands. If it feels like a wrung-out sponge, it has the right consistency. There should only be one or two drops of liquid visible. If it’s wetter than this, add some absorbent material such as shredded paper or sawdust and aerate.
  • Imbalance of materials – a mixture of materials high in carbon (Browns) and nitrogen (Greens) is essential for active composting. Aim for roughly half and half of both.  
  • Poorly-covered nitrogen-rich materials (Greens) – bury smelly foods in the compost, wrapped in newspaper if possible. Create a covering layer over the top to capture smells. This can include straw, sawdust, wood chips or mature compost.  A fly-proof mesh over the top of the contents will keep flies out while allowing air in.  

As the compost becomes active, with raised temperature and faster decomposition, the fly infestation should end.

A word about fruit waste

If you add large amounts of fruit waste to your composter be aware that this will be high in water content. To avoid making the compost too wet (which attracts flies) it should be well mixed with equal amounts of dry carbon-rich content, such as woody garden waste, dead leaves, shredded paper/cardboard, wood chips, sawdust. An equal addition of sawdust, for instance, would be an effective way to absorb some of the moisture in fruit waste.

To avoid attracting flies, reduce the smell of fruit by wrapping it in newspaper and burying it in the existing compost, then cover with carbon-rich content and add mature compost or soil over the top. 

 Take these steps to reduce the chance of attracting flies.

In the home

  • Because fruit flies lay eggs on exposed food, take care to keep food stored in a fridge or lidded containers, not out in the open in fruit bowls.
  • Use up ripe fruit and vegetables as soon as possible.
  • Compost organic matter quickly as flies are attracted by the smell of decomposing food.
  • Keep stored waste in a lidded kitchen caddy. Always keep the lid on your caddy, even between new additions of waste as you are preparing food.

In the compost bin

Follow the steps mentioned above regarding composting management and also:

  • Add more carbon-rich materials (woody garden waste/shredded paper/cardboard/wood chips), and mix in well so that any food waste is covered.
  • Top the contents with a layer of fresh soil.
  • Try putting the composter in sunlight – flies like a warm but not hot environment.
  • Make sure that you always lock the lid securely.
  • Take care not to spill any food around the composter.
  • Monitor acidity – if you have added a lot of fermented content from a bokashi bin to your composter, add a handful of crushed baked eggshells to neutralise excessive acidic conditions as flies prefer a low (acidic) pH.
  • Flies don’t like the smell of certain plants – peppermint in particular – so you could add sprigs of peppermint to your waste and wipe round the compost bin with lavender, lemongrass, eucalyptus and peppermint essential oils.
  • Leave the lid off the bin for a while to allow predators such as ground beetles, rove beetles and earwigs easy access to the flies.
  • Use nematodes – microscopic worms that feed on fly larvae in soil.  

In the Green Cone

 In the case of the Green Cone Food Waste Digester, no garden waste can be added as the Cone only accepts food waste, so covering with garden and paper waste is not an option.

Because the Cone’s basket is underground, smells are filtered out by the surrounding soil, meaning there is no obvious attraction for ordinary flies. But if fruit fly eggs are already in fruit skins when added to the Cone, they might hatch inside it. Avoid this by following the advice above on preventing infestations in the home.

Also:

  •  Freeze your fruit and veg scraps in a plastic bag or container overnight to kill any eggs or larvae before adding them to the Cone.
  • Flies don’t like the smell of certain plants – peppermint in particular – so you could add sprigs of peppermint to your waste and wipe round the Cone with lavender, lemongrass, eucalyptus and peppermint essential oils.
  • Add accelerator powder to add more beneficial bacteria to speed up decomposition.
  • Remember food waste should never come higher than the top of the Cone’s underground basket; waste should always be below ground level.

 Get trap happy

You could also try a home-made trap that will act as a magnet.

Add an inch of apple cider vinegar to a glass jar with two drops of washing up liquid. Put a plastic wrap cover over the top of the jar and poke small holes through with a toothpick. Flies are attracted by the smell and can get in but can’t get out. Remember to change the liquid regularly to keep the fly trap working.

If all else fails, consider disposable fly traps which come pre-filled with bait or attractant and can be placed in the bin. Be aware that these may also kill other beneficial decomposers in the compost.                                                            

Keep food covered to discourage fruit flies.

The book that will keep you composting

You might expect anything written about composting to be down to earth (pun intended) but if you read a lot on the subject, as we do, you’ll know that’s not always the case.

Sometimes you come away from an article thinking you must need a PhD to compost. You wonder how Mother Nature manages without the aid of a spreadsheet and calculator for tracking temperatures and working out ratios. If spreadsheets and calculators are your thing, don’t let us stop you (some of the GGS team are guilty as charged).

But most of us just want simple advice we can follow. That’s why at Great Green Systems we often point customers towards Master Composter Rod Weston’s website (carryoncomposting.com) because it offers straight-forward, practical guidance. So we were delighted to learn that Rod has turned his knowledge into a book.

The Great Green team love this book and anyone who is into composting, or could be with a little encouragement, will love it too. It gives the lowdown on just about every compost bin going so it helps you to understand your own bin better or to choose one that will work best for you.

Rod hopes the book will encourage householders to compost their organic waste ‘and most importantly, to continue composting.’ He acknowledges that people new to composting may encounter various problems while trying to master the craft, but by showing different techniques to deal with issues he hopes to help new recruits to persevere.

‘The key message is to keep composting, whatever style you adopt,’ he says. ‘All techniques can be modified to suit your own particular circumstances.’

He also hopes to encourage groups to set up small-scale community composting on allotments, at schools, and on community gardens. He points out that if garden and catering waste can be dealt with on site, the environmental costs of transporting it to a central location for processing can be avoided.

We recently paid Rod a visit at the Stokes Wood Allotment site in Leicester, which includes a demonstration site that is home to every composter you can think of. Rod demonstrates different bins and techniques to the public.  

The site provides a community composting service for allotment plot holders and also takes food waste from the café on site. Plot holders leave their waste for composting in designated spots and can take compost (and liquid feed) for their own use when it’s ready.

Working bays and bins at Stokes Wood Allotments composting demonstration site

Rod’s book also explains the idea behind the Master Composters scheme. In 2004 around 40 per cent of householders who had started home composting gave up because of a lack of knowledge. Almost two decades later, councils and others now produce information and train Master Composters to provide support. This has resulted in a reduction in the dropout rate to between 8 and 14 per cent. In more recent years this has reduced again to 3.9 per cent. Obviously the scheme has been a great success.

Like many of his generation, as a child Rod helped his father on his allotment ‘in the days when allotments were an important piece of ground that played a major role in providing fruit and vegetables for the family’.  

Before becoming interested in the environmental aspects of composting, Rod initially composted on his own allotment in order to dispose of garden waste and to use the compost produced as a soil improver. He says it was his wife who first became interested in becoming a Master Composter ‘but then suggested it to me because she thought it would keep me off the streets!’

On our visit we loved talking to Rod about all aspects of composting. It’s so refreshing in this world of uncompromising opinions to hear his relaxed straight-forward views. Like us he’s pleasantly obsessed but not a purist. Rod’s attitude is that we can all compost – you just have to find a system and bin that works for you.  The more people who compost the better it is for all of us and for the planet.

Anyone living in or around Leicester is lucky to have easy access to his talks and demonstrations.

‘If you are interested and want to get involved with your bin, go for hot composting. If you’re lazy or too busy, just go for a cold system,’ he says.

He goes about the business of promoting composting in a practical, fun way, giving talks to garden clubs, allotment societies and schools.  For school visits, when talking about wormeries he takes along some slugs and snails as well as worms, knowing his audience will approve.

Other props are a soft toy rat and dog poo (spoiler alert – it’s fake) which is used to explain the workings of a wormery used for dog poo.

Sitting pretty – on the dog poo wormery

He thinks composting will become more popular as more local authority food waste collections come into operation, since a lot of people could prefer to compost their food waste in their gardens rather than having it waiting for collection by the council.

Rod is a fan of the Green Johanna and has a couple at home as well as one on the site.

‘It just sits there quietly and gets on with its job, breaking stuff down, with no trouble,’  he says approvingly.

Rod told us that badgers from a nearby wood had recently made a nocturnal visit and tried to get into the site’s Green Johanna, but failed.

We inspected the teeth marks on the Johanna’s lid and Insulating Jacket, proud that the Johanna had stood firm. And this Johanna is 13 years old.

Rod shows Mark evidence of the failed badger attack

The site also demonstrates an old Green Cone, which Rod says has never needed emptying or cleaning.

Apparently the number one problem with Green Cones that people ask him about is caused by the owner not having read the instruction manual properly. The manual states that food waste should never come higher than the top of the Cone’s underground basket, so there should never be food waste inside the Cone itself, which is above ground level.  Rod said he has seen Cones that have been filled right to the top like a composter, which would not be a great problem to have to sort out.

How a Green Cone should work – with food waste only in the underground basket

We appreciated this insight and we intend to make this point much clearer in the next edition of the Green Cone manual so that no one can possibly miss it. Although it’s obviously not much good if people don’t read the manual.

In his book, Rod says: ‘There are almost as many ways of composting as there are composters and, despite what might be read online, there is no single right way of doing anything. If what you are doing works, it must be right for you, although, of course, the method may be open to improvement. The main thing is to enjoy your composting in the knowledge that, while you are improving your soil to produce better crops, you are also, in a small way, helping to save the planet. ‘

Wise words from a Master (Composter).

Can I still hot compost through winter?

The Green Johanna is well equipped for winter – it was designed in Sweden to withstand temperatures of -20 degrees C.  

But even so, what are the best ways to keep hot composting through the coldest months?

 It’s good to remember that hot composting is basically a set of techniques that enables you to achieve higher temperatures and faster decomposition than traditional composting methods, usually referred to as cold composting.

The Johanna’s design helps the compost to achieve those higher temperatures thanks to several features. The adjustable ventilation system includes vents in the base plate to allow air to flow upwards into the container.  The twist lock lid also allows the upper vents to be opened or closed depending on conditions.  In the coldest weather when you want to retain heat, turn the ventilation setting to minimum.

The round shape ensures there are no cold corners so heat is spread evenly through the compost, and the tapered design means that compost sinks towards the centre of the unit and not to its sides, allowing air to circulate and oxygenate the compost.

  The enclosed design also helps to retain heat (most garden composters feature an open or loose-fitting base). The container’s walls are thicker than most other composters and at 10kg the Johanna weighs in at 2-3 times the weight of most bins.

Use of the Johanna’s Insulating Jacket also gives you more control over the compost temperature, providing insulation to keep compost warm but removeable if the compost gets too hot (above 70 degrees C) as the composting micro-organisms will then die off and the process will stall. Compost thermometers, which have a long stem to reach down into the compost, are available from garden centres and online.   

  In winter if external temperatures fall lower than 5 degrees C, we recommend that the jacket should be added, even if you are cold composting, to prevent the composting process stalling.

 The jacket is made from foam polyethylene – a lightweight, water-resistant material that is tough but flexible and designed to fit snugly to prevent cold air from circulating round the Johanna. It also helps to provide added protection against rodents. When fitting the jacket, it’s important to ensure that the bottom section does not cover the vents at the sides of the Johanna’s base as these are necessary for airflow.

Using the jacket is a matter of choice – some Johanna owners never use it and still get good results; others keep it on all year round. Last year the GGS team experimented with leaving the jacket on all year following positive feedback from a number of customers who had done this.  Our main finding was that leaving the jacket on, (and using hot composting techniques) raised compost temperatures into the 30-to-60-degrees C range even in the coldest winter periods, as our photos show.

A Great Green Systems Johanna and jacket in January this year when the ground temperature was at zero, below.

But inside the Johanna the compost kept warm at 40 degrees C.

Don’t worry that using the jacket will make the Johanna too hot for worms, as one customer suggested. This is not a problem because worms can easily enter and leave the composter through the small holes in the base plate. At temperatures approaching 30 degrees Celsius they will move where it is cooler, usually the bottom of the bin where the compost is maturing, or they can leave the bin entirely.

As the micro-organisms break down the waste, they generate heat. As the temperature in the compost fluctuates, the types of micro-organisms present also change.

In winter especially, don’t forget your good composting habits:

  • Feed the bin regularly.
  • Balance carbon/nitrogen levels – a ratio of half nitrogen (food waste) to half carbon (autumn leaves, shredded paper, torn cardboard, twigs, branches). Autumn clippings can be stored to add throughout winter.
  • Aerate regularly – use your aerator stick regularly as normal, but also aerate deeper into the pile on a weekly basis with a garden fork or manure fork, which is lighter.
  • Chop items up to increase surface area. This will also make turning the compost much easier.   Use a chipper-shredder for your garden waste if you have one (or hire one).
  • Check moisture levels – if you squeeze handfuls of compost you should only see one or two drops of liquid.  The ideal consistency is like a wrung-out bath sponge.

There are many factors that affect composting outcomes – these can include location, climate, household diet and the user’s level of involvement. We hear many different stories from all over the country in different situations and locations.   

For many people composting is a fascinating subject that can become a hobby.

Adam Johannes – known to his customers and followers as Compost Guy – says he really enjoys the active hands-on involvement of aerating his Johanna. His children join him in his Saturday morning routine of ripping up cardboard so he has a ready supply of carbon content for when he needs it.

Anthea Rossouw, who has been teaching composting using Johannas for decades, both in this country and her native South Africa, says she loves to see people who started out knowing nothing becoming evangelical about their new interest.

A new customer who took up composting recently on retirement admits cheerfully that she has become ‘obsessed’.

In a Garden Organic webinar, a master composter said that while composting slows down in winter, their experience is that the Johanna keeps going. With a bit of love and attention, that’s our experience too.

The Compost Guy behind Hot Composting Week

The kids in the Johannes household have a ripping time on Saturday mornings – that’s when they join their dad tearing up cardboard for the family’s compost bins.

Their dad Adam Johannes is best known to his customers and Instagram followers as Compost Guy.

Adam had long been a keen gardener and composter when he realised a few years ago that he could help other people by offering advice to newbies starting out on their own composting journey, as well as selling products that he believed in, including the Green Johanna.  People message him with their questions and he aims to respond to 99 per cent of queries on the same day.

Adam – a regular Compost Guy

He finds that most people who contact him have already convinced themselves to start composting but just need a bit of advice.

‘They argue themselves into it, they know they want to send less to landfill, be more sustainable, and get compost,’ he says. ‘If someone is not completely sold on it, I normally list out the practical benefits, then the issues with not doing it!’

In a bid to spread the word, he decided to start an annual Hot Composting Week – the first one begins on Monday (September 18 – 24). He got the idea because he realised there were other weeks dedicated to general composting, but nothing focused on hot composting ‘- and that is the best way!’

He uses hot composters himself – a Green Johanna and Hotbin – and has also used Aerobin, wormeries and Bokashi bins in the past.

 ‘I thought it would be good to highlight the benefits to more people. Everyone is surprised when I tell them how hot it gets! The aim of the week is to show people that hot composting is a good investment for them, and the planet.’

 Concern for the environment

Compost Guy started life in the winter of 2019, a few months before the pandemic hit. Adam found that customers were initially motivated by concern for the environment; then when garden waste collections stopped during lockdown, there was an additional reason for people to get into composting – to get rid of the garden waste they were stuck with.

He stresses that his small team are not scientists or professional gardeners, just enthusiasts who believe in the value of what they’re doing and know there are people out there who would benefit too. Composting started as a natural extension to gardening for Adam but quickly became a hobby. As an allotmenteer he originally wanted to find out how to enrich his soil for best results.

‘Composting is a great hobby for anyone,’ he says. ‘Sad as it sounds, I love getting out there and aerating my compost. I like the hands-on nature of it. Perhaps I love composting far too much!’

Compost Guy’s enthusiasm seems to give people the confidence to reach out and ask him all sorts of questions.  He loves trying to help and points out that everybody’s compost bin will be different, depending on various factors, such as the bin’s contents, position, local climate etc.

The main questions he gets asked are about how to speed up composting and the differences between the various hot composters.

Carbon content

When he first started on Instagram he only expected a few followers but to his astonishment quickly got far more – to date he has an impressive 6,700.
He sorted out a potential problem for his own in-laws recently when they were just starting out with their Green Johanna. On inspecting their Johanna, Adam saw that food waste had not been mixed with much garden waste and was sitting on a large amount of grass clippings which had matted together. So he set about ripping up cardboard boxes, with his children of course, and added this to the bin along with shredded waste paper. They tore up more carbon-content waste than they needed and put the excess in a handy lidded container to store it for when needed later.

 A video on the website shows Adam enthusiastically aerating the Johanna’s contents to bring back ideal conditions in the bin. He also used a garden fork to aerate deeper in the bin to break up the matted grass and added bark chips, which provide valuable air pockets.

Adam is keen that Compost Guy should be a force for good in the world. A good portion of the profits go to sponsoring three children in poverty and each new customer means trees get planted with Just One Tree – up to July 2023 more than 2,073 trees had been planted.

In addition, Adam is a trustee and contributor to the Veg Box Donation Scheme, a charity which accepts surplus produce from gardeners for the benefit of others, and he also supports Transform Trade.

A few people who will surely never need to consult Compost Guy for advice are the Johannes juniors, who are learning valuable lessons every day – in life as well as composting.  

Letting Johanna and Bokashi do their thing

This week we caught up with Adam and Hayley who are first-time users of a Green Johanna.

They set up their Johanna in their back garden back in April. The couple had been keen to compost for years and had tried a couple of times with different composters but been disappointed with the results.

 Their reasons for composting were that they wanted to recycle their food and garden waste as well as produce their own compost to grow their own vegetables.  

Adam said:We have quite a big garden and a lot of garden waste to put to good use, such as branches, leaves etc. We also wanted a good place to put our food waste. We grow potatoes and other vegetables in the garden in large planters.’

They’ve been using the Johanna with an insulating jacket and in combination with a Bokashi bin. Bokashi bins are waste containers that ferment – rather than decompose – food waste thanks to the addition of beneficial anaerobic microbes in a spray or bran. Once full, the bin is sealed and left to ferment for around two weeks to become a pre-compost mixture which is then added to a composter or buried in soil in the garden.

  ‘It’s become a really useful part of our composting process,’ said Adam. ‘We put all our food waste straight into it and give it a few sprays of Bokashi spray, then once it’s full and has been left to ferment we transfer it to the Johanna.’

ABOVE: Contents of the kitchen caddy added to the Johanna.

 ABOVE: The Bokashi bin’s contents added to the Johanna. The contents of a Bokashi bin after two-weeks’ fermentation don’t appear much different; there will usually be a pickled smell. When added to a compost bin the pre-compost mixture acts as an accelerator – heat increases and the composting process speeds up.

Adam and Hayley are a household of two, both vegans, and it takes around one to two weeks for them to fill the Bokashi bin. Their waste is mainly vegetable scraps along with some beans. They then use their  smaller kitchen caddy to take food waste to the Johanna ‘whilst the Bokashi bin is doing its thing.’

They used some Bokashi bran in the Johanna when they were starting out to give the contents an initial boost but haven’t felt the need to use more since. Some people use it throughout the year to keep giving their compost an accelerating boost thanks to the presence of beneficial microbes in the bran.

While they haven’t used a thermometer to check the compost temperature, they’re having a lot more success with the Johanna than with other composters they tried in the past.

 ‘The Johanna is much better built and seems to be working faster at breaking down all the waste,’ said Adam. He added there had been no problems with flies or rodents.

Their garden waste provides them with more than enough carbon content (Browns) but they have also added shredded waste paper.

If you lack garden waste it’s a good idea to store shredded paper or cardboard, wood chips or sawdust in lidded containers nearby so that they can be added at the same time as adding food waste to get a good balance of nitrogen-rich Greens and carbon-rich Browns as compost materials You may be able to find a local tree surgeon who is willing to drop wood chips off for free.

So far, Adam and Hayley are happy composters and are waiting for the big reveal – accessing their first batch of compost! Watch this space…

Can you compost in communities? Anthea shows how

When Anthea Rossouw tried to get people into composting years ago, they thought she was crazy.

‘I just got blank stares,’ she recalls. ‘At the time there weren’t studies that proved what composting could do. People just wanted to throw things in the bin. Composting was a controversial idea.’

But Anthea is passionate about the environment and has a way of bringing people with her. Using workshops to show how to use the Green Johanna, she introduced composting to the housing complex in West Sussex where she was living at the time. This was so successful that it spread to other housing developments and businesses.

Anthea had been a keen recycler for years and pursued her interest by enrolling on the West Sussex County Council Waste Prevention Advisor programme delivered by the University of Brighton. So then when she was living in Walstead Court extra-care housing facility and saw piles of bin bags in the ‘rubbish room’ destined for landfill, she knew something could be done about it.   

With the support of the housing manager, Anthea showed residents and staff how to recycle food, garden and paper waste using three Green Johanna composters.

Her tutor at Brighton, Dr Ryan Woodard, had told her about Green Johannas and she thought they sounded ideal.

‘It was essential to get everyone on board though,’ she says.

 Anthea, front right, with other keen composters and the Green Johanna.

The workshops worked a treat. Waste disposal routines were transformed, as was the rubbish room, now that it was clear of bin bags containing food waste.

 Before long the residents were making their own compost and growing their own food and flowers. ‘We grew the most beautiful tomatoes,’ Anthea remembers.

Anthea approached the task methodically, weighing waste and tracking residual waste.  Waste to landfill was reduced by 55 per cent, black bin bags were reduced from three to one per flat per week. Over a six-month period 280 kg of food waste was diverted from landfill.

The communal gardens were not the only things that blossomed. Residents and staff reported that personal well-being and community spirit also flourished. The projects helped to keep people mentally alert and physically active, through taking waste out to the Johannas, crunching up cardboard containers etc. It also gave neighbours an added reason to chat to each other, acting as a conversational ice-breaker.

Anthea was then asked to introduce similar schemes to other housing associations and businesses. She also ran trials for DEFRA (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and won the Gatwick Diamond Green Champion award for her environmental work.

She then decided to try the same method of community food waste recycling in a very different place – her native South Africa. Here she introduced composting to struggling townships as part of her work with the Dreamcatcher South Africa Foundation that she had set up in 1991 to alleviate poverty by creating employment. In the community, waste was historically burnt at the dumpsite having a devastating impact on the environment and public health.

Anthea, second left next to Sir Trevor McDonald, receiving the Gatwick Diamond Green Champion award.

On a trip back home, she took three Johannas as luggage instead of suitcases, wrapping her clothes around the Johannas’ circular sections. Using the same training methods as in East and West Sussex, she installed three Johannas in a communal garden managed by local women known as Kamammas (a term meaning matriarch, or community leader).

Anthea says the Kamammas quickly took to working with the Johannas.

 ‘They found the composters didn’t attract dogs or vermin and they were delighted when they saw the quality of compost that was produced and the food they could grow with it.’ This trial was then scaled up to introduce another 25 Johannas.

The food that is grown with the Johannas’ compost is used in the women’s work providing tourists with traditional South African cuisine.  

A Kamamma introduces tourists to traditional South African cuisine.

Anthea divides her time between the UK and South Africa, and she is still in contact with the people she got composting back in the South of England. She is delighted – but not surprised – that the schemes she helped to implement are still going strong.

‘Any system must be sustainable, otherwise there’s no point. To bring about real change you have to go truly local. You need the people to make it work.

‘It takes around three months to introduce a composting project. After that people can stand on their own two feet.

‘Once you give people the skills, knowledge and confidence they become compost evangelists!’

After all these years, Anthea is still a big Johanna fan.

‘We used many other composters before settling on the Green Johanna. I underpin everything with baseline research and I knew the Green Johanna was the one.’

She still loves introducing beginners to composting.

 ‘They might know nothing now but you know they soon will. People become fascinated to know about all these little creatures in the composter doing their work.’

She firmly believes that if you pay attention to what’s happening in your composter you will learn  how to ‘speak compost’.

‘You soon learn to tell if you need to do something to bring good conditions back. If you haven’t enough garden waste, you can use paper product waste, such as toilet rolls, cardboard, shredded paper. If the contents look dry sprinkle a little water on top.’

The Johanna may have been designed in Sweden to cope with harsh Scandinavian winters, but it has happily adjusted to the South African climate, often turning ‘psychedelic green’ in the sun.

Whatever the shade, it’s still doing a great green job for the planet, wherever on earth it happens to be.  

Turning to Green Johanna after composting flops

 

One bad experience can put people off composting for life.

Something we hear a lot is – we had a composter for years but it just sat there doing nothing.

This was the experience of Adam and Hayley. After a few attempts, despite their best efforts, they kept encountering the same problem – very slow breakdown of waste materials with hardly any compost produced.  

But they were still keen to have another go, this time using a Green Johanna for the first time.

We’ll follow Adam and Hayley’s progress and answer any questions as they arise.

Setting up

Getting their Green Johanna up and running, Adam and Hayley found:

  • Instructions were easy to follow.
  • They were able to assemble and set up the composter in an hour.
  • The instruction manual was handy for answering questions.
  • They were able to get started without any issues.
  • Assembling the Johanna in sections meant it was easy to move around to choose a spot in the garden compared to the pre-built composters they had tried in the past.

Handily, a tree in their garden had fallen down in the wind so they had a ready store of twigs and branches to use as the foundation base in the bottom of the bin to provide airflow and drainage. This stage only took about 10 minutes to sort out.

Despite their earlier disappointing composting experiences, the couple are keen to try again because of the many benefits home composting brings – both to the environment and to the user.

Adam said: ‘I’m really excited to continue to use the Johanna and get some compost.’

We’ll report back on Adam and Hayley’s progress.

Outside the box: Setting up, helped – or rather watched – by Archie the amazing Shihpoo.

Choosing the spot – base in place.

Getting the sections in line.

Adding twigs to create a foundation for drainage and airflow.

Jacket on and good to go!

Spare Parts