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How to compost woody waste

Date posted: 8 March 2015

What can I compost?

Ideally, you can compost:

  • woody clippings,
  • small branches,
  • twigs, and
  • stems. 

Tools Needed :

What is not suited for composting are tree trunks, large branches, and stumps. However, you can make log piles with them, and let nature take its course. They will rot down in the garden, eventually. Although this might be a good idea for larger gardens, it can be an issue for smaller gardens that normally cannot have stockpiled woody waste. 

Dealing with woody waste

Depending on the size of the woody waste, there are several ways you can deal with it. Here is a small guide with everything you need to know about the various ways involved. 

1. Slender Growth & Hedge Trimmings

When woody materials come in small quantities, they can be easily cut and placed beneath the hedges or back on borders. You can also send them to the compost bin of your house. You’ll be surprised at how fast they will disappear. 

When dealing with greater quantities, it is always a good idea to use a garden shredder first that will turn them into woody stems of no more than 1 ½ inch in diameter. As for the fragments you might have left (some chippers do not produce fragments as they only mill timbers), they can be either saved and composted at a later time or used to mulch around established beds.  Shredded material will then need to be mixed with materials rich in nitrogen (e.g. lawn mowings), given that they are rich in carbon but low in nitrogen. By doing this, you boost the rotting rate. 

2. Thicker Branches

For thicker branches, you can either hire a heavy-duty garden shredder or engage a contractor with such machines, and reduce woody waste to fragments that you can then dispose of or use composted or as mulch in your garden (ideal for big gardens). 

Alternatively, you can add materials rich in nitrogen (e.g. grass clippings) and increase the rotting rate of thicker branches. However, you may want to cut the heavier timbers into lengths and then stack them to rot in their own time. It might take a while before they do, but they are excellent wildlife refuges in the meantime! Although this option calls for some space in your garden, it is extremely advantageous for biodiversity within your garden. 

Other methods:

You can:

  • Use some timbers as fuel in log-burning stoves or open fires, if you cut them up as kindling or saw them into logs. 
  • Hire garden contractors to remove and then dispose of your woody waste.
  • Slender woody stems make great materials for bonfires.
  • Take your timbers to a green waste disposal site. Bundle or bag them and seek your local authority’s guidance as to how to proceed.

Where can you use composted woody waste

Woody waste, especially freshly shredded material, are great to suppress weeds around plants and shrubs, as well as for spreading on unplanted areas. However, be careful when you have conifer prunigs as they release harmful tannins. So, protect your plants and stack conifer prunings in a big pile for about 3 months first to compost them, before you do anything else.   

Tip: Woody material that has been composting for at least a year and is rotted can be used to improve the structure of the soil. Just dig it into the soil! 

Note: During the rotting phase, bark mulches are usually colonised by white fungal growth. Don’t worry. They just help break down the organic material; hence no action is required on your behalf. 

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