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Compost: the Bucket of Shame

  • Compost: the Bucket of Shame
  • Compost: the Bucket of Shame

Compost bins - I love 'em! Except when Clients ignore my very specific instructions on what to put in, and - more importantly - what NOT to put in.

Most of us already know that we don't put perennial weeds such as bindweed, couch grass and ground elder into our compost bins, as they will just continue to grow there: and we know not to put potatoes and tomatoes (or their peel) into the heap, partly for fear of blight, but mostly because if we do, we will have tiny potato and tomato plants popping up wherever we use the compost. And of course we all know that we never put plastic, glass, metal or other non-organic things in there.

But there are other things to avoid, which might surprise you: tea bags, for a start. One of the pictures above is the "bucket of shame" from when I emptied a Client's black plastic "dalek" last week. Quite apart from the mass of tiny slivers of plastic (“As I mentioned last year, please take a little more care when shredding - paper only!”) there was tea bag after tea bag after tea bag... this is just the last half-bucket, by the way, I'd already emptied it three times before I thought to take a photo.

Why do they not rot? Well, if you think about it, they are made of specially treated paper that does not fall apart when put into boiling water, so it shouldn't really surprise you to learn that they don't rot on the compost heap either.

Furthermore, the fabric of the tea-bag contains small amounts of polypropylene which melts when heated, which is how the bags are sealed in the factory. And we don't want plastic on the compost heap. To be honest, I wouldn't really encourage you to tip even loose tea-leaves onto the compost, as they are full of tannin. Likewise coffee grounds – ugh!

Talking of glue, be careful with cardboard as well: corrugated card is stuck together with some noxious stuff which apparently includes heavy metals, so avoid adding it.

And then there is the famous eggshell myth: eggshells contain all sorts of lovely minerals so add them to your compost, say all the books. News flash: they don't rot. Even if you crush them, the bits are still visible in the compost - lovely, when you spread it out on the beds! The second photo shows a nest of eggshells, deep in an otherwise superbly rotted compost heap. As you can see, completely unrotted! And, despite extensive internet research, I have been unable to find any scientific proof that eggshells contain - or, more importantly, release - any nutrients or minerals into the soil. The same goes for the myth that you should water houseplants with the cooled water in which you boiled your eggs so they can have the benefit of all that “goodness”. Who says? There is no proof whatsoever. So don't add eggshells to your compost, unless you like seeing the bits all over the garden later.

I won't bore you all with my views on citrus peel (it doesn't rot!!), ecover packs (they don't rot!), “biodegradable” fabric washing-up cloths (“aargh!”), and finally, my pet hate, corn-starch food waste bags.... but I think you can guess where I stand on those items, too!

Comments (9)

  1. Grower


    I've learnt some of these tips the hard way - have fished many a tea-bag paper out of a bucket of well-rotted compost (or sometimes out of the flower beds!), ditto stickers on fruit skins which always seem to make it in and of course are plastic so don't degrade.

    The main problem, for us at least, is that we don't generate nearly enough compost from all our green waste for it to be particularly useful - if you use it as a general mulch, for example, then an entire year's worth of rotted compost will only cover about half of one flower bed if you're laying it on thick, so to some degree you're left wondering why you bothered trudging those hundred or so times to the compost bin to empty the indoor compost bucket!

  2. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Hi Nick (waves), I didn't mention those dratted plastic fruit stickers, but they are high up there on my list!!

    It's a much under-emphasized issue, that small gardens simply don't generate enough waste to make a compost heap work, so you have my sympathy. Have you tried a wormery? The indoor/kitchen waste can all go into it, and although you don't get much in the way of soil-conditioning compost, you get a lot of liquid concentrate, which can be diluted and applied to the plants - so at least they get the "goodness".

  3. Grower


    Haven't thought of a wormery - it sounds good. On the other hand I suspect our garden is more than large enough to generate far more compost, however I'm just never sure what can go in and what can't so I end up burning much of the garden waste (currently have an 8ft high bonfire pile). Much of this is hedge and tree prunings, ivy, grass cuttings and weeds (I read that some can, some can't go in) and I don't have a chipper to cut everything down to compostable size. I'm sure I'm missing a trick by not sorting through it all, but I don't want to end up with weed-ridden compost or by spending all my available gardening time on the composting!

    I also started trying to make leafmould from the masses of fallen leaves - beech and alder mainly - putting them in bin liners as suggested by RHS, but it's taking forever to rot down as it hasn't been shredded, is there anything that can be added to speed this up?

    I feel like it may all be more effort than the value you get in return!

  4. Grower

    Jeremy Wright

    Hi John/Rachel - I'm with you on the issues of scale and speed. John Walker did a nice post a couple of years back on composting leaf mould:

    Last call for leaf reapers

  5. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Hi Nick,

    I hate to sound like a rampant self-publicist, but I have actually written the book on making compost and leaf mould, which answers all your questions and many more - it's only a couple of quid and if you have Amazon Prime or Amazon Unlimited, it's free!!

  6. Grower

    Helen Fryers

    Maybe I leave my compost too long, but all my teabags disappear! (I even bung full vacuum bags in there and they disappear too!) Eggshells don't whilst they're in the bin/heap, but don't seem to stay around long once spread out on the beds.

  7. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Hi Helen, waves I have sometimes wondered if it is the type of teabag used?

    Maybe - I hardly dare say this - it's either the good quality ones, or the really cheap ones, which don't disintegrate in normal composting? laughs

  8. Grower

    Helen Fryers

    Think this calls for an experiment! Going to spend my weekend burying different types of teabag in the garden! (Have composted a few different brands previously, though they're all Fairtrade.)

  9. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Excellent, well done Helen! I was hoping that someone else would volunteer to do it.... don't forget to take photos and make notes as you go.... and I look forward to hearing the results, about this time next year!

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