Compost is easy – and invaluable

8 March 2013

Just before I get going, let’s sort out the word “compost”, as it is used for two different things. The bags of “compost” you buy at the garden centre will probably contain some rotted-down material, but have other things added so the product is suited to use, as it is, for the stated purpose: for sowing, for containers, etc.  In this article “compost”  is being used to describe the rotting down of garden debris to make a substance that will improve your soil but which isn’t necessarily suited to be used by itself for sowing, containers etc. When put on the garden, it will add some nutrients, but also enhance the structure of the soil, which is very important for the success of your plants.

Compost is the life blood of a garden, especially an organic garden. You shouldn’t need to add purchased fertilizer if your soil is good: it will have everything your plants need. The magic of a heap of weeds, twigs and kitchen waste turning into something this useful is just incredible, and even more so because it’s free. You have to admit it works (see photo below) – I haven’t added fertilizer to this bed in 13 years !

Garden in September 2012

Garden in September 2012

The flowers are – left to right – aster frikartii ‘monch’ (lavendercolour) which is also on the right at the back; sweet williams (bright pinks at front); phlox paniculata (white) and the spotty pink to the far right is valerian (centranthus rubra). The yellow to the right of the phlox isn’t flowers: it’s the reeds in the pond.

If the word “compost” scares you, just think of it as recycling – but instead of throwing bottles in the bottle bank, you throw weeds and other stuff  in the compost bin and nature does the rest.  There aren’t really any rules: TV gurus and books just invent some because they know people like certainty, and most of the “rules” are to help you produce the finished result as quickly as you can.

Give your compost bins a mixture of stuff. Just like you need various foods to give you vitamins, protein, fat, etc, the compost heap needs a variety of green and brown ingredients. Green comes from the weeds you pull up and the lush top-growth you cut down in the garden, plus your kitchen waste and lawn mowings, brown is the twiggy bits from the garden plus crumpled-up paper and cardboard.

  • Vary the ingredients – too many lawn mowings in a lump are to be avoided because they may go slimy, and too many dry, twiggy bits may take longer than the rest of the heap to rot down, especially if they are on top. In an ideal world you’d stir it all up once in a while, but I never do, and it still rots down, just a little more slowly.
  • Don’t let it be too dry: you’ve got millions of minute insects and bacteria working away to break down the contents, and they need water to survive.
  • Avoid adding difficult perennial weeds. If you’ve got particularly difficult perennial weeds, like bindweed and couch, don’t put their roots in the bin – they’ll probably manage to grow again and you’ll spread them round the garden.

I’ve got four square, wooden, compost heaps, which just about cope with the amount of stuff our big garden produces. Previously, in a smaller garden, I had a couple of the plastic tumbers – these work well if you remember to keep the contents wet.

Compost heaps

Compost heaps

The photo, from last week, shows the right-hand compost bin just emptied, with the wheelbarrow full of the gorgeous compost it produced (sorry for the bits in the way – they are wooden stakes for the raspberries and a metal frame that holds netting over the cabbages – yes, I do keep the white butterflies off a small part of my garden: they’ve got to learn to share nicely!). The other two heaps have got too much dry stuff on top of them, so now we’ve got an empty bin, this will be moved into it, and layered with any moisture-retaining stuff we can find: weeds, old soil from pots where plants have died, crumpled paper/cardboard and kitchen waste. Do be a bit careful when you empty bins, you never know if any wildlife has taken residence: we emptied one once and disturbed one bank vole, then another, then another, until Mum had led her whole family of five away to a safer residence; we felt quite guilty, but the young were nearly fully grown, so hopefully they were OK.

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