Okay, it’s a girlie night out and you’ve all been to see the latest film and ended up in the nearest pub. It’s busy and you stick closely together while shouldering your way through numerous layers of men discussing the football match. Breathless, you join the crush at the bar and order your drinks. Your friends want to talk about Tom Cruise and the film and – more importantly – a mutual friend’s split with her swine of an adulterous husband. But there’s an even earthier, more basic, subject on your mind. Today, after weeks of agonising, you finally decided to do it! You’re going to make your own compost, and as a keen gardener, hot with enthusiasm for the project, you want to tell the others.
Beware! Try having a conversation about compost in the pub and you’ll probably be solo in seconds. While your companions give you funny looks, order more drinks and retire to a table from where their giggles are clearly aimed at you – you order another WKD and sulk.
Come on, be honest, what did you expect? Compost is hardly an exciting word, is it? The ‘wow’ factor is definitely missing and it doesn’t have the sparkling merit of words like Cruise, Becks or, the magic of Gandalf ! Instead, it conjours dull mental images of straw chewing rustics wearing Wellingtons and woolly hats; avidly reading seed catalogues at bedtime in preference to Tolkien.
Take heart, and don’t be put off by the sniggering even if you bought a new pair of wellies yesterday, and posted your seed potato order this morning. The most famous gardeners in the land, including, pop stars and celebrities, regularly pull on the aforesaid footwear and swagger down the garden to see how the compost is doing. Yes, Roddy Llewellyn and Kim Wilde – even HRH Prince Charles, have a keen interest in organic compost and a favourite recipe.
Recipe? But isn’t this about compost? It sounds more like Ready Steady Cook!
Maybe, but most gardeners have a favourite which possibly developed over sixty years and more, or only six. Some are handed down through the family like Grandma¹s apple pie or aunt Rosie¹s flapjacks. Some are happy accidents but we all swear by our own method.
So why do our gardens need compost, and is it worth the bother of producing our own? Gardening organically is better for our environment and growing our own fruit and vegetables means that it’s important to know what’s going into the soil. Making your own compost ensures that it’s source is as near to pure as possible and therefore nothing will go into the soil to cause future problems.
Plants regularly need to replenish nutrients and if they cannot replace them they will become weaker, less productive and more prone to disease. Think of it this way: if you care about your body and want to make sure it’s fit to withstand the demands made on it and strong enough to resist infections, you will give it the best possible chance of meeting those demands. You will eat healthy, nutritious food, drink adequate water, and get out in the fresh air as much as possible.
Basically, your plants need these things too and if you wouldn’t fill your own body with junk food day after day and keep it short of moisture though still expecting peak performance, you can be sure that your plants thrive on a good diet, too.
Organic compost is easy to make and you don’t necessarily need a garden in order to produce it. A disabled friend of ours lives on the second floor of a block of flats in Manchester. Her colourful and imaginative balcony plants are an inspiration to the neighbourhood and she makes her own compost in sturdy plastic bags which are stacked to one side of her sunny balcony and screened off by a large clipped box topiary hen and garden seat.
Visitors often bring her ‘presents’ of grass clippings, sawdust, and leaves to add to her kitchen peelings. Disability does not prevent her from trying all kinds of different plants in her numerous pots and baskets and the home-made compost is rich and sweet smelling and looks just like any you could make in a garden.
Treat it like cooking and start with a recipe
Like any recipe, start with a list of ingredients to put into the mixture. Choose a suitable container and just keep adding and mixing and turning the whole lot over until the ideal consistency is achieved. It needs heat, air and moisture – just like baking a cake – and the end result will be rich, dark and crumbly like a Christmas pudding. It may take a swift six months or even as much as a year to mature, but the guests to the banquet of this rich fayre, i.e your plants, vegetables and shrubs, will reward your efforts with increased production and better health. Better health means that they will be less prone to disease. Plants are like humans in that the better quality nutrients they absorb the more energy and resistance to illness they will have.
Recipes needs a preparation area, the right ingredients, a proper container and a little attention to detail. Let¹s consider the preparation area first. Compost bins work best in a well drained, airy position. Too dark and shady will mean that the ingredients will take longer to simmer into that valuable feast for your plants. Some sunlight is essential so don¹t go for that dark, forgotten corner of your garden where nothing flourishes. If you are concerned that a compost heap will look ugly when viewed from the house there are ways to camouflage it, such as dense, evergreen shrubs, winter jasmine, pyracantha ( which will also provide food for the birds in winter ) or an ornamental trellis with which to support attractive climbing plants.
Choosing a container
Here you can improvise to your heart’s content. The container, or containers, that you select for your compost can be huge or tiny, depending on the needs of your garden. With ever-growing awareness of environmental concerns many local authorities now provide free compost bins.
These bins are perfectly adequate for small gardens or for people who wish to provide valuable matter for container plants, and shrubs.
Catering for the appetites of larger plots obviously requires more, and you can build compost heaps very quickly using re-cycled materials from around the house and garden. If your search for suitable materials uncovers piles of unwanted rubbish, then winter is the perfect time to make a huge cleansing bonfire to de-clutter your life The ashes can go into your compost ( providing they contain nothing poisonous ) so nothing need be wasted.
If you prefer to make compost without a container, then simply make a heap of organic waste on your chosen site, or dig a pit, pile the soil around it, add your waste materials and gradually mix the soil from the edges to the contents of the pit. Some organic gardeners dig trenches next to their vegetables and keep adding kitchen waste and digging it in. The waste will break down fairly quickly and the valuable nutrients then trickle into the soil to provide food for the crops.
If you have the space, two timber compost bins separated by a timber partition are ideal. This method is called the New Zealand bin. It’s easy to assemble using spare wood, planks, rustic poles or dismantled pallets. The same design could be made from concrete blocks, hay bales, old doors and whole pallets stuffed with insulation.
The bins should be between 1 to 1.5m square or 3 to 4ft square Keep the front side low to enable you to turn the contents over and remove them when needed. A double bin is good because it allows for the contents to be aerated by moving them from one to the other, and to start a new heap when one is full. Given enough space, many people continue adding to the double bin until they have four or five all in various stages of decomposition. It’s also useful when you want to segregate various types of material such as grass cuttings, wood shavings, or leaves which can be added to the other heaps by degrees and this means that your compost will be varied and not just a soggy mass of rotting grass cuttings or slimy leaves. A popular and cheap container is a simple cage design made from four wooden posts driven into the ground with chicken wire wrapped around the construction and nailed to the posts. It will keep your compost safe and tidy but not warm, and as your materials will need heat in order to break down swiftly, it’s a good idea to insulate the cage with a layer of old carpet or turf.
If you prefer to buy a ready-made compost bin there are many options available through garden centres and mail order catalogues. Some resemble large plastic dustbins and are very effective where small quantities of mainly kitchen waste are to be composted. They are rodent proof, eliminate bad odours, and prevent flies from contaminating the contents. Lids keep out rain, and some have an opening flap at the base so the compost can be removed when ready. Others are made of timber. There are also rotating drum type composters which make the process of turning your mixture easy.
If airing the advantages of home composting to your friends in the pub sinks like an unsuccessful soufflé, mention worm composting and the squeamish will probably never speak to you again! However, no article about compost can ignore the sterling service provided by an army of worms living in a specially designed bin and daily deployed to turn your kitchen waste into superb feed for your plants. This method comes in kit form with bin, brandling worms and worm bedding provided, along with full instructions.
Worms need to be kept within the recommended temperature and mustn’t become too dry or too waterlogged. The compost they produce is fine textured and nutrient rich, ideal for container plants. The turnover of waste is so rapid that a standard size wormery will process 22kg of waste, annually. Last year, a friend of mine collected the liquid from the base of her wormery and fed it to the tomatoes. The crop exceeded her wildest expectations and she gave away bagfuls.
Aim to incorporate a wide variety of organic materials into your heap. Try experimenting until you perfect your own recipe which will depend upon heat (or lack of it) and the type of raw materials regularly added to the mix.
Good compost can be made with just a few ingredients, but try to achieve a fine blend of nitrogen and carbon. A ratio of approximately 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen is desirable less carbon will cause the heap to decompose slowly, but too much nitrogen may result in a foul smelling gloopy mess.
Some plants are called ‘activators’ and the large, fleshy leaved Comfrey is one of them because it is rich in potash. If you have lots of comfrey plants in your garden and can spare some for compost it will speed the decomposition process. Steeping comfrey leaves in a bucket of rain water for a week or two will provide an excellent feed for plants. Nettles, too, are good as activators because of their carbon / nitrogen content. Most weeds, dead plants, or old container plants and the soil still clinging to their roots can be incorporated into your heap but it’s best to burn thistles, ground elder, couch grass and bindweed. Once burnt, the ash can then be added to the heap.
If the contents and site of your compost bin are right, the heat generated within will be enough to kill most weed seeds though, generally speaking, some seeds that lurk in the cooler corners often survive to re-infest the soil wherever you distribute the compost. Don’t panic! Some weeds provide such valuable food for butterflies, bees, moths and other helpful insects that it’s well worth letting a few flourish. Many are attractive but if you fear their invasive habits, just make sure that you eradicate as many oftheir roots as possible in spring or autumn leaving just a few to feed the insects and birds.
Leaves and stems of vegetables like peas, beans, marrows, pumpkins and tomatoes can all be put on the heap. Coarse, twiggy material is best laid at the base of a new heap to provide aeration, or shredded and mixed in in with the general ‘recipe’. Beware of adding anything diseased in case it transfers back into your soil. Diseased material is best consigned to the bonfire. Fruit and vegetable peelings or wastage, including salads and sprouting seeds can all be added but steer clear of incorporating scraps of meat, cheese or fish, cooked or uncooked, which will attract rats and flies in hordes to the new ‘restaurant’ ! Kitchen waste usually contains high levels of nitrogen and is best balanced with high carbon waste.
Other ingredients to include are: leaves, wood shavings (best partially rotted separately first) cardboard, paper and packaging (except for colour printed or glossy type). Approximately 42% of British landfill sites are clogged with paper packaging! Just think what all that could be doing for our garden soil. Worms and woodlice, beetles and slugs will soon turn it into a banquet for your plants. Straw, grass mowings, chicken bedding, wood ash and – If you have access to a seashore – iodine rich seaweed chopped up and added to your heap is wonderful. Nitrogen-rich grass mowings are best segregated and then added layer by layer to avoid a wet, smelly mass. Carbon content comes from the woodier stems of plants, shrubs and soft fruits.
Leaves, too, can be incorporated but if you collect them and leave them to decompose in a heap of their own or in plastic bags, they will rot down quickly. Oak leaves are best segregated as they take a long time to break down. If you intend using straw but don’t know where it originated from it’s best to leave it out in the rain for a while so that any chemicals used during its production wash away.
Never empty unlabelled containers which you suspect may have contained pesticides or weedkillers into your compost. Always dispose of them responsibly. Cardboard and brown paper are fine but citrus elements like lemon and grapefruit are best left out because they are too acidic for the valuable worms that will soon appear and work hard to break down your organic material.Don’t forget that if you do not have all the valuable elements to make good compost to hand, you can always ask friends and neighbours for a contribution of mowings, pet housing shavings, leaves, and plant waste. You may want to check that they, too, garden organically before adding them to your heap.
- TURN AND TURN AGAIN
The nutritious ingredients that go into your compost bins will need air in order to decompose into the rich balance of nutrients that will energise your garden year after year. If you bake a cake or Yorkshire pudding its rising depends upon air so you beat it vigorously by hand or in a processor.Likewise, regularly take a fork and turn the contents of your heap to allow air to permeate it. A solid mass of grass mowings left in a heap will become yellowed and foetid like a pack of past sell-by-date salad greens lurking in the back of the fridge. But if you carefully balance your ingredients in layers that are regularly turned you will achieve a good friable mixture. Put on your garden boots or Wellingtons, grab a fork and dig the material over, and over again.
- TURNING UP THE HEAT
Cooking your compost requires heat and oxygen, and the amount of heat generated will depend upon the contents and location. The temperature inside a well balanced heap will reach phenominal degrees; killing weed seeds, sterilising, and swiftly breaking down waste matter. Oxygen will be incorporated by regularly turning the contents of the heap. The sooner you fill your newly installed compost bin, the sooner heat will begin to generate.
- WHEN WILL IT BE READY?
This is something of a matter of individual choice, or the needs of your garden. The longer you leave your material decomposing the more chance it has of breaking down into a rich dark consistency that smells good and is crumbly and tactile to handle. If you urgently need to use the compost before you think it’s quite ready – don’t worry. All the nutrients are there and if it’s still chunky and contains a certain amount of recognisable matter you can still use it to feed your garden borders. Dig it into the soil as deep as you can and decomposition will continue in the ground.