Browns and greens – what does it mean?

According to WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), one of the main things that stops people from composting is the belief that it’s the preserve of experts or keen gardeners. Fear of getting it wrong, especially when faced with information overload and conflicting advice, holds people back.

One of the ‘rules’ that many people ask about is the Browns/Greens balance. This is a basic guide to help people remember the balance needed between carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials to keep composting microbes happy.

Composting creatures have basic requirements for food just like the rest of us. If the ratio is wrong the composting creatures won’t be as happy and won’t decompose the organic material as fast but it will still happen. Nobody is going to come round giving your finished compost marks out of 10 (unless that’s the way you roll) and it’s unlikely you’ll get a mob of angry worms waving placards at your door. (If you do, be sure to upload the footage on YouTube.)

 The Browns/Greens guide can be useful because it’s easier to remember that twigs are Browns and grass mowings are Greens rather than that twigs provide carbon and fresh grass provides nitrogen.  

Everything breaks down eventually, even an untended heap in the garden. The main reason people want to get the balance right is to produce usable compost quickly and to avoid a smelly mess. Keep in mind that the right moisture level for composting is like a squeezed damp bath sponge, so that if a handful of compost is squeezed it should produce just one or two drops of liquid. This balance is best achieved through a 50:50 mix of dry carbon-rich Brown materials and wetter nitrogen-rich Greens.

What’s the problem?

Your composter will tell you if the balance isn’t quite right. For instance, if you encounter the following:

  Smells – the problem is usually lack of aeration. Remedy this by stirring and adding shredded newspaper.

  Ants – the problem is too much dry content. Remedy by watering gently with a small watering can and mixing in well.

  Flies – the problem is too much poorly-covered nitrogen/Greens content.  Remedy by stirring the surface, then covering with a layer of soil.

Here’s a quick guide to common organic waste materials you may want to compost:

GREENS: NITROGEN

  • Food waste
  • Fresh grass clippings
  • Fresh weeds
  • Flowers
  • Soft prunings
  • Plant debris (chop up stems)
  • Seaweed/kelp
  • Coffee grounds/filters
  • Tealeaves
  • Hair and fur (very slow to compost but add useful nutrients)

BROWNS: CARBON

  • Dry leaves
  • Straw and hay
  • Shrub prunings
  • Pine needles/ cones
  • Newspaper and junk mail (scrunched up to keep air circulating) 

(Paper in large amounts is best recycled to make more paper but can also be added to the compost heap, providing a good counterbalance to kitchen waste and grass mowings.)

  • Brown paper bags, scrunched up
  • Sawdust (balance with nitrogen-rich materials if using in large quantities)
  • Straw (If adding in large quantities, mix with wetter ingredients)
  • Pet bedding from herbivores
  • Cardboard egg boxes
  • Eggshells (may still be visible in tiny pieces in rotted compost so crush them first)
  • Wood chips

Mulch ado about mowing

 Grass mowings (Greens) are a good compost activator but too many can make compost too wet so are best balanced with carbon (Browns) such as dry leaves or cardboard.

You can cut down on the volume of mowings to be composted by leaving them on the lawn, where they will rot quickly and disappear.  A mulching mower is useful because it chops the mowings into smaller pieces. Mowings can also be used as a soil mulch around shrubs and plants.

Check out the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on our website for individual composters.

Life with a Green Cone

Get the basics right and life with a Cone at home is simple and convenient.

The Green Cone’s basic needs are:

  • A sunny spot
  • Well-draining soil (not clay or chalk)
  • Accelerator powder to boost digestion

Where shall I put my Green Cone?

All the instructions you need are included in the instruction manual, but here are a few pointers worth remembering.

When thinking about where to place the Cone, as well as finding a sunny spot it’s a good idea to think about how easy it will be to get to in winter months to empty your kitchen caddy.   

More than 90% of the waste added to the Cone will be turned into water, which must be able to drain freely away for the unit to work properly.

How do I know if I have good drainage?

If you’re not sure whether your soil has good drainage or not, you can check by doing the following: dig the hole required for the Cone (about 70cm wide by 54cm deep) and pour a bucket of water into it. If the water remains for more than 15 minutes you have poor drainage and will need to enlarge the hole to 90cm wide by 70cm deep. Provide extra drainage by mixing soil from the hole with gravel, stones, or small pieces of broken bricks and pots and placing some of this mix in the base of the hole so that when the assembled Green Cone is added the basket sits 3cm below ground level. Then use the gravel/soil mix to backfill gaps around the Cone until the bottom rim of the green outer cone is fully covered.

How do I look after my Green Cone?

Basic maintenance involves ensuring that the Cone’s green rim always remains below ground level.

In the first few weeks after installation check that soil has not settled and left the green rim exposed. This could also happen after heavy rain. If this is the case, make sure to add additional soil and compact it around the Cone to keep the rim securely underground.

How much waste is too much for the Green Cone?

Remember that food waste should only ever be in the underground basket: never allow waste to build up so that it is above ground level inside the Cone itself.

The Cone is expected to cope with the food waste produced by the average family of four, but this can vary greatly. If you find you regularly have more waste than the Cone can cope with you may need another Cone to cope with all your leftovers.

If you find that in autumn and winter the digestion process has started to slow down and the waste in the basket doesn’t appear to be reducing, simply add a little more accelerator powder.

Why the Green Cone is a bear necessity

The Green Cone was designed by an engineer in Canada to solve the problem of bears pushing over rubbish bins to get to food waste. While bear-proofing may not be on your list of requirements, the Cone is sure to deter local foxes.

If vermin are a problem locally, you can add additional deterrents by hardening the area close to the Cone with bricks or rocks and by positioning the Cone away from fences, woodpiles and bushes.

If pet waste is to be added to the Cone, the unit should not be placed in soil where vegetables are grown or close to any water source. Pet waste should only be added  in small amounts and never in bags.

No bags of any kind should ever be added to the Cone as this will hamper the digestion process.

Keep carbon in the garden – compost!

When I was a child anything we’d finished with went in the dustbin:  food waste got chucked in there along with newspapers, jam jars, tin cans, broken toys, cigarette butts, whatever. Some of the rubbish may still be there, in a landfill site somewhere in West Yorkshire, rotting away having been dumped in 1972.  

Back then we didn’t give a second’s thought to what happened to rubbish. All we knew was that the binmen came on a Monday morning to take it Away. We didn’t know where Away was; as long as it was Away from us we didn’t really care.

 Now we know – and we care.  ‘Away’ was to landfill, where it rotted, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. We didn’t know it then, but we were contributing to global warming and the climate crisis we know today.  Once you know, you can’t un-know…suddenly it’s not so easy to just chuck your apple core in any old bin.

What about compost?

But while everyone now knows about the negative impact of landfill waste on the environment, not as much is widely known about the positive solutions offered by compost.

 To many people the word compost conjures up images of old men in wellies pottering about on allotments like characters from Last of the Summer Wine. Or eccentric city types escaping the rat race, like Tom and Barbara in The Good Life. It sounds cosy, quaint, grandadish, nowhere near as important as it really is. Perhaps it needs a marketing rebrand and new name – soil medicine, perhaps, or earth regeneration booster. Anything to bring it in off the allotment and into the mainstream.

Why is compost – sorry, soil medicine – so great?

 Around a third of the average UK household’s waste is biodegradable and could be composted. It’s a no-brainer when you consider the many benefits.

Compost:

  • boosts soil quality
  • prevents soil erosion
  • improves soil drainage
  • absorbs water (slowly releasing it to grass and plants)
  • improves plant productivity and quality
  • captures carbon from the air and pulls it back into the ground.

That last point is particularly impressive – compost actually captures carbon from the air and pulls it back into the ground, right where we want it, mitigating climate change.

So if you have one of the UK’s 15 million gardens you have access to a small patch of the earth that makes up this planet.  Nurture it and you nurture the planet.

There is now such a wide variety of composters to suit every home and lifestyle (see Blog – At a Glance – Which Composter?) it’s never been easier to get the composting habit.

But whatever form of composter you choose – hot composter, food waste digester, compost tumbler or traditional garden compost bin – you are doing your bit.  If you have no space for a garden composter you could try small-scale composting with a Bokashi bin or wormery (fascinating educational projects for children, the next generation of composters). Even if you don’t compost you could consider donating your food waste to people who do,  via the ShareWaste app.

As the saying goes:  It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can do only a little.

If the little that you can do is change which bin you throw your leftovers in, that’s actually a lot.  

As Jen Gale says in her book The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide: ‘There are ways to fit sustainable living into the life you lead. To change your impact without radically changing your life.’

Basically, composting is about changing the bin you throw your waste in. Depending on the bin you choose (or even making your own heap) it can be as small or as a big a change as you want it to be, as simple or as complex depending on your level of interest. Who knows, one day you might even be out there in wellies on an allotment!

A win-win solution to climate change

Your composting efforts, no matter how small, are part of a global crusade. An alliance was formed in 2021 to spread the composting message on the world stage. On December 5th – World Soil Day – the International Compost Alliance was launched, uniting composting associations from the UK, Ireland, Europe, North America and Australasia.

The Alliance’s aim is to ensure that compost and its role in soil health and food security is central to global efforts in tackling climate change. It plans to raise awareness of the essential role that compost plays in boosting soil health, improving crop productivity and water quality as well as supporting biodiversity and preserving natural resources.

In a joint statement the Alliance said: ‘Despite organics recycling being an affordable and proven solution to the climate mitigation and methane emission reduction goals, it remains an underutilised and undervalued technology. … Compost is a win-win solution to climate change – not only does recycling organic wastes reduce emissions, compost also brings many benefits when used on soils too.’

According to the charity Garden Organic, the health of the earth’s soils is fundamental to life as we know it, yet half the planet’s topsoil has been lost in the last 150 years. The charity urges people to take simple steps to redress this in their own gardens by regularly topping up beds with compost and ensuring soils are not left bare without vegetation cover.

This is one fight we’re all in together.

 So, change the bin you throw your scraps in – and start saving the earth today.

Julie Halford

 

And then there was ‘George’

Before buying their Green Cone in 2009, Jack and Joan Milner, from Leicestershire, thought the prospect of being able to safely dispose of leftovers that included cooked food, meat and dairy sounded almost too good to be true.

‘We were a bit sceptical at first,’ admits Jack. ‘We had already tried having a compost bin but we were not systematic enough to make it work.’

But at the time Leicestershire County Council was offering residents subsidised Cones to encourage them to recycle food waste at home instead of sending it to landfill. So the couple decided to give it a try.

A place in the sun

 Under the scheme at the time, the council arranged for Green Cones to be installed on their residents’ behalf since the units must be dug into a hole in the garden.

 Once this was done, and the Cone was in place in a sunny spot near the kitchen door, the Milners began to feed it their leftovers, including bones.

‘It wasn’t long before the Green Cone was called ‘George’ (don’t ask us why!) and we fed him daily,’ says Jack.

 A pleasant surprise

The couple, now in their eighties, were quickly won over by George’s powers of digestion. ‘We have been very pleasantly surprised.’

Jack and Joan sometimes have to deal with the common problem of visiting dogs and cats leaving a little deposit on their lawn, but ‘George’ has even been efficient at dealing with this.

Most of the waste deposited in the Cone breaks down to become nutritious water that drains from the underground basket into surrounding soil. The Milners have noticed the effect of this soil conditioner on their garden.

A very good buy

Their Cone was placed in an arid spot which sported a few Lily of the Valley flowers and these soon began to flourish, becoming ‘a superb patch two metres in diameter.’

Jack adds that their Cone is now becoming a bit brittle but still ‘completely serviceable’, and it is only now after 13 years that it might need emptying.

‘Overall, George has been a very good buy.’

What’s in a name?

Incidentally, the Milners are not the only customers who have found themselves giving a name to their food waste digester. In our reviews section is a family who named their three Green Johanna Hot Composters Bertha, Belinda and Beryl. Whatever you may wish to call your Cone (and names are not obligatory, we don’t check!) we’re sure life with your own George, or Daisy or Engelburt will be just as good as the Milners’ experience.

And remember, Great Green Systems are here to help if you have any queries or problems.   

Life with a Green Johanna

Knowledge of the damage that food waste does to the environment has led to a sea change in most people’s behaviour over the past few years.

These changes are only going to gather momentum in the future as we get to grips with what we need to do, or stop doing, in our individual lives to tackle the climate crisis.

In addressing kitchen waste, the first change is obviously to minimise the amount of food waste we create because of the environmental cost involved in the production and transporting of food before we even buy it. This means planning meals in advance and using or freezing leftovers.

But when it comes to dealing with unavoidable food waste, composting is a no-brainer.

The Green Johanna is designed to help you establish fuss-free hot composting, even if you’re a beginner. The Johanna consistently performs well in comparison guides – in January 2022 it was a recommended Star Buy in Gardeners’ World magazine, commended on the grounds that it accepts all types of food and garden waste, doesn’t need pre-mixing, has a large capacity and is made from recycled plastic.

A Swedish success

The Johanna was designed and originally manufactured in Sweden, which was far ahead of other countries in spotting the need to change attitudes to waste management. Way back in 1995 Gothenburg University compiled a study on home composters, basing comparisons mainly on ventilation, oxygen supply, drainage and ease of handling. Of the 21 Swedish bins being studied the Johanna came out top. Also praised by the research team was the quality of information provided in the instruction booklet, and this is significant. When it comes to composting, a little knowledge goes a long way towards ensuring that people have good outcomes and so continue composting.

There are a few things you need to understand if you want to be a happy composter but once you know, you know. It’s not like you’re going to have to keep unlearning the old ways when some new-fangled thing comes along; the laws of nature aren’t going to change. You learn this stuff once.

Full instructions are included in the user manual, of course, but here are a few extra points to remember:

When siting your Johanna think about how easy it will be to get to, especially in winter in bad weather. For example, you wouldn’t want a slippy walk down an incline to reach it. Full disclosure – that was a rookie error made by one of our team, who shall remain nameless.

Choose a shady spot so the container doesn’t get too hot for the composting micro-organisms in the summer. If there is a rodent problem locally, try to choose a spot away from fence lines, logpiles and bushes.

Essential ingredients for composting include air, heat and moisture.

AIR – The micro-organisms that live and work in the compost need oxygen. Without it, the compost will smell bad and the process will be delayed or stop altogether. So, ensure you add waste materials loosely and stir well every month so that oxygen is always available.

HEAT – 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. This diversity is important to achieve successful composting. The optimum working temperature in the composter will be around 45-65 degrees Celsius.

MOISTURE – Composting can’t begin in the absence of water, so it’s important to make sure that the waste materials in the composter contain some moisture. The compost should be as damp as a squeezed bath sponge. If you take a big handful of compost and squeeze it, only a couple of drops of liquid should come out. A balance in the amount of dry and wet materials added will create the right consistency. Adding two parts food waste to one part garden waste should be enough to ensure this, but if in doubt try the ‘squeeze test’ and add different materials as required.

Design features

As noted decades ago in the Gothenburg study, the Johanna’s design promotes the good ventilation and airflow necessary for happy hot composting.

Vents leading in from the base plate allow air to flow upwards into the container. The round shape ensures there are no cold corners so heat is spread evenly through the compost. 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.

Lid ventilation system

The Johanna’s lid regulates the ventilation system by covering or uncovering the ventilation holes to adjust air circulation and temperature. It can be set to minimum in cold weather to maintain a warmer compost.

What does the Johanna digest?

The Johanna accepts cooked and uncooked food waste, including meat, fish, dairy, bread, fruit, citrus peel, vegetables, soup, cereals, pasta, rice, crushed eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, tea leaves, tea bags.

The only food-related materials that are not efficiently digested by the Johanna are those that require a very long time to break down, namely large amounts of cooking oil/fat and the hard shells of nuts and seafood, such as oysters and crabs.

PLEASE NOTE: While the Green Cone food waste digester will efficiently dispose of bones, it is possible that delaminated bones may be present in the Johanna’s finished compost. These are easily removed. However, if you have dogs and feel this would be a problem, we recommend that you do not add bones to the Green Johanna.

Food waste can be added directly or in compostable or biodegradable bags, never plastic. If you tie the bags, once you have added them to the Johanna break them open using the aerator stick to allow oxygen to reach the waste.

From the garden you can add: wilted flowers, grass clippings, leaves, twigs, branches, weeds, bark. Twigs and branches should be chopped or shredded to provide more surface area for micro-organisms to work on and so speed up the composting process.

How to aerate and layer your waste

Each time you add new waste, mix the top layer of compost using the aerator stick, which comes provided. This helps the micro-organisms to do their job properly and speeds up the composting process. About once a month, aerate the whole pile more thoroughly by moving the stick up and down in the compost to prevent it compacting.

It’s important to layer properly. Cover each addition of food waste with a layer of garden waste. Garden waste helps to maintain air gaps in the waste material. If you have the space, you could save summer and autumn garden waste for when you need it during the winter months.

Layering ensures a good mix of carbon and nitrogen, which speeds up the composting process.

 Carbon-rich substances include woody garden waste, wood chips, sawdust, and paper products, such as cardboard and newspaper. Eggshells also provide carbon – crush them first. Your food waste provides nitrogen, as do fresh grass clippings and fresh green leaves.

Can I compost without garden waste?

If you lack garden waste, you can use the other sources of carbon mentioned. Cardboard or paper should be scrunched up, toilet roll tubes and egg cartons torn up and newspaper shredded. Wood chips are useful as they hold structure and create pathways for air.

In winter, in order to boost the breakdown process you can add bokashi bran (available separately), fermented waste from a Bokashi bin, or a bucketful of mature compost. A Winter Jacket is also available separately to provide insulation during cold months, but this must be removed in warmer weather or the temperature inside the unit will become too hot for the composting creatures to survive.

And finally…

To access your finished compost simply unscrew the hatches at the bottom of the Johanna and remove the compost using the aerator stick or a garden hoe. Alternatively, because the Johanna is a modular unit you can unscrew the upper sections to access larger amounts of compost.

If you are a newbie in the world of composting, please don’t hesitate to contact Great Green Systems for advice.

At a glance – 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 and Green Cone are specialist units designed to accept foods that traditional garden composters don’t, such as cooked food, meat, fish, dairy and bread, so all your food waste can go in together. They use natural processes to break food down without producing methane.

Green Johanna (also called a hot composter)

  • Produces compost.
  • Also accepts garden waste.
  • Prefers a sheltered spot.
  • Comes with aerator stick provided.
  • Modular design means large amounts of compost can be removed.

Green Cone Food Waste Digester

  • Must be dug into a hole in free-draining soil.
  • Doesn’t accept garden 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.

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

  • Only take raw fruit and veg scraps (no cooked food), garden waste and household paper, cardboard etc.
  • Require a 50/50 mix of nitrogen-rich waste (fruit and veg waste, grass clippings) to carbon-rich waste (straw, paper, cardboard, wood chippings).
  • Available in plastic or wood. Plastic bins tend to be more robust but wood may be preferred for a natural look. 
  • Contents require turning to aerate the mix.

Lack of space?

Wormeries

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. To take their interest further, there are many excellent books on the subject, such as Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof and Composting With Worms by George Pilkington.

Bokashi Bins

  • Kitchen compost bins that 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.
  • 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’.
  • Bokashi enthusiasts often keep several bins on the go to ferment all their food waste.

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Spare Parts