I am sure you have all heard it said that you would have to eat ten oranges today in order get the same amount of vitamin C that was in one orange when your grandmother was a little girl.

There is no denying that the fruit and vegetables grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get from the supermarket today. This is mainly because modern agricultural methods have lead to depletion of nutrients from our soils. Sadly, each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant crop is truly less good for us than the one before. That’s not to say we should avoid eating fruit and vegetables all together though. They are still a much healthier alternative than the highly processed packaged foods many tend to rely on for ease and convenience.

Growing some of your own fresh produce organically is a great way to ensure you are getting the maximum nutritional benefit from what you eat. The quality of your soil plays a key role in this. Healthy soil yields healthy plants, which in turn increases their nutritional value and also makes them more resistant to pests and diseases. An easy way to improve soil quality is by adding your own compost. Not only does compost enrich the soil and improve its composition, it is a great way to recycle kitchen and garden waste. Since starting our compost at home we have noticed just how much less rubbish is going out each week. Apparently about half of what we all throw into the garbage bin is garden clippings and food scraps just perfect for a compost heap!

Anything that was once living will compost, but some items are best avoided. Meat, fish, dairy and cooked food attract vermin and should not be added to the compost. Also do not compost weeds, diseased plants or pet manures. Some people say you shouldn’t add citrus to your compost as worms don’t like the acidity. I have not found this to be the case but have made sure to only add small amounts of citrus and cut them up well.

For collecting kitchen scraps to compost, keep a container with a lid and a handle on the kitchen bench or under the sink. We have a stainless steel compost pail with a charcol odour filter. If you don’t mind occasional smells you could use an old ice-cream container or a small plastic bin. Simply toss your food or vegetable scraps in and empty the bin into your compost when it gets full.

All compostable materials are either carbon or nitrogen based to varying degrees. The secret to a healthy compost pile is to maintain a working balance between these two elements.

Carbon or “brown” ingredients include: lucerne hay, pea straw, dried leaves, sugar cane mulch, shredded newspaper, wood shavings, peat moss

Nitrogen or “green” ingredients include: green lawn clippings, garden prunings, green leaves, kitchen scraps, egg shells, tea bags, coffee grindings, citrus peelings

A healthy compost pile should have much more carbon than nitrogen. Different sources give different carbon, nitrogen ratios. The ones I have read vary from from 3:1 to 30:1. It doesn’t really matter though, the main thing is to look at your compost. If it is too wet and sludgy (if this is the case it will often be smelly too – your compost shouldn’t smell nasty!) simply add some dry ingredients such as sugar cane mulch, shredded paper or pea straw. If it is too dry add more green ingredients such as kitchen scraps and lawn clippings. You can add a small amount of water also if you wish.

Most commonly though compost piles will be lacking in carbon. Gardeners are often deterred by rotten, smelly composts which are simply full of abandoned kitchen scraps. Following these guidelines avoids this problem.

Getting enough air into your compost is also important. Air is important because the worms and other little critters in there which are breaking down your organic material into a rich soil, need oxygen to survive. You should aerate your compost by turning it three to four times a week. If you have a contained pile, simply use a fork to do this or even push a crow bar into it. We have a compost tumbler which makes this job a little easier. The barrel tumbles easily for quick and maximal aeration. Furthermore, it keeps a higher internal temperature which means you can compost in the cooler months as well. If my husband can put one together, who proudly boasts that he is the world’s most unhandy man, then truly anyone can assemble one.

If you are using this method, you need a compost ‘starter’ for your first batch though. The easiest is to ask a friend or relative for a few handfuls of their compost. Be sure it has a few worms in it. Once you have your starter you are ready to start adding your compost materials.

Another common problem can be the size of compost materials. If you don’t chop things up small enough they will not rot down and you will have lumpy compost with half rotten kitchen scraps in it. Eggshells are of particular importance here. They are a great source of calcium to your compost but you need to crush them up as fine as possible as they may not rot down. My parents use a mortar and pestle – now thats dedication!

The duration for the compost to turn into rich soil can be anything from 6 weeks to 6 months. I have found it to take about 3 months using our tumbler. The great thing about the one we have is that is has two chambers. This allows you to start a new batch of compost while the first ages. Once ready apply your compost to your soil by either gently digging it in or spreading it over the ground as a surface mulch.

Saskia Harris