Break it on down…

Here’s 900 words from us at Weeds for “a forthcoming project”. When it comes to composting, in the words of the Desperate Bicyclesit was easy, it was cheap. GO AND DO IT! 

One of the best things you can do as a gardener – especially one on a budget – is to make your own compost and, contrary to popular belief, it’s easy to do. It’s an inexpensive way of putting goodness back into your garden, especially if you don’t regularly feed your soil.

It is one of the finest soil improvers there is; it can be forked in, left on top of the earth for the worms to work in or even made into a tea and applied as a liquid. Adding compost provides a slow-release supply of nutrients and elements, feeding plants over a long period of time. It adds structure to the soil, helps to retain its moisture and feeds the worms and micro-organisms, keeping the ground in good shape. A great exchange for recycling some home waste.

Some gardeners seem to be put off making compost, thinking it will smell to high heaven, attract all sort of vermin or fear they will be left with a pile of garden waste that will never rot. I was one of those people but have been converted to compost production after learning the hard way; I’ve opened the lid of the bin to receive a faceful of fruit flies (always open the lid away from you!), came face to face with a rather large roadent happily napping on top of the heap and have only recently disposed of my first attempt that had been sitting around for years consisting of sticks and prunings wider than the thickness of my finger.

When you compost, fungi and aerobic bacteria initially eat the waste matter in the pile – the carbon and nitrogen content a source of their energy and protein – creating carbon dioxide and heat. When the pile cools, worms – alongside varying insects – reduce it further by eating what is left and pass it through their guts. Soil organisms then break it down again and ripen the material turning it into compost.

There are lots of structures on the market for composting but many are not an option for a gardener doing it on the cheap, though local councils supply plastic Dalek-shaped bins free as part of their recycling campaigns. These keep the rotting waste in and unwanted vermin out but because of their size can be difficult to mix (something you should do regularly to add air, a component needed in the process).

A composting container can be made out of wood – the classic square-shaped enclosure with a top to shield off the rain – or although not aesthetically pleasing, the waste can be just left to rot in a pile (which will probably not please the neighbours). Whatever method you use, it should be placed somewhere easy to get to, possibly screened from view and preferably in a position where it will get some sunlight which will add heat to the pile helping it to rot. In an ideal situation you would have two (or more) bins on the go, one started the year previously now yielding compost and the other for putting recent waste in.

The ingredients used in composting are “greens” (ones containing nitrogen) and “browns” (carbon) combined with water and air. Examples of “greens” include: grass clippings (applied sparingly as they turn to a smelly mush if used too thickly), plant waste (no flowering weeds or diseased material) and kitchen waste (vegetable peelings, ripped-open teabags and over-ripe fruit). The “browns”: cardboard, ripped or scrunched-up newspaper and small twigs (nothing larger than 1/4” unless put through a shredder). Cooked foods, fats and meats should be avoided at all costs unless you want to attract vermin and be very wary of putting salad leaves from left-over meals if meat has been on the same plate too. This is possibly where I went wrong which attracted the sleeping visitor to my pile thus giving me a fright in the process so be extra careful with what you add. No matter how prudent I am though when filling the bin I still manage to find when the compost has matured some strange stuff: the odd ballpoint pen, elastic band and on one ocassion a plastic Dr Who sonic screwdriver, usually prompting me to say “How did THAT get in there?”

Most important is to get the balance of ingredients right. It does vary depending on what gardening books you read or which gardening guru you follow but a 50/50 ratio of “greens” and “browns” will suffice. You simply add layers of material – ideally alternating “greens” and “browns” – one to two inches deep, interspersed with a light layer of soil every so often. Turning the pile regularly using a garden fork makes sure that it doesn’t get compacted and that air can circulate freely. If the compost looks too wet, smells foul or attracts fruit flies this indicates there’s too much “green” material, so more “browns” should be added. If the pile has dried out – especially during the summer – more “green” material and a little water will correct it. Worms should come naturally to your heap – especially the red brandling ones – but if you want to add more, lay down some wet cardboard in your garden and in a week you should have a few on the underside to put in the pile. Don’t worry they will multiply!

Depending on how much heat is generated in the heap and how balanced the materials are, you should be the proud owner of home-made compost in around a year. If you want to speed up the process there are compost activators – basically extra nitrogen – on sale at garden centres, but this can be done for free by adding nettle, comfrey and borage leaves which will in turn add more varied nutrients to the finished product. Another activator is human urine, best applied out of a plastic bottle for obvious reasons.

You will know when your compost has fully matured when it has a crumbly texture, an earthy smell and looks as described in an old gardening book,“rich like a Christmas fruit cake”. This pile of gardening goodness is now ready to be applied to your soil.

There’ll be times when things won’t seem to go right with your compost heap but once you get it correct and see the results you get from using it, you won’t want to look back. Your garden will thank you for it in kind and you will soon be growing the healthiest looking flowers, fruit and vegetables and will never yearn for pay-through-the-nose-farmers-market-produce ever again. You will then realise why home-made compost is known in the gardening world as “black gold”.

#Composting #Blackgold #Compostheap #weedsupto  #compostingtheeasyway

Southern freeez

It’s been too cold this week to do any gardening but the Sunday before last I cleared out one of the compost bins (supplied free from Lewisham Council) and got three barrows worth of rich looking humus. Over the last year I’ve tried to be very careful what I put in the bin but I still found a blue biro, gardening wire, green plastic plant tags, chocolate wrappers and a couple of crisp packets! I have now a old plant pot down there as a rubbish container for those “I can’t see a bin so I’ll hoof it in with the compost when no one’s looking” moments!
bare veg patch in feb

long bedI spread the muck over a couple of beds where this year I’ll be be sticking in vegetables that’ll benefit from the richness of the soil like potatoes and courgettes. I also have to consider what’s been in the beds previously as you can’t have the same (or related) plants growing in the same area year after year. If so the plants would will drain nutrients making the soil unbalanced, and also leave it open to pests and diseases which in turn would infect the plants. You use something called crop rotation to counteract this, which is in it’s simplest form is putting vegetables into specific groups and rotating these groups one season after another in your plot/beds. More on crop rotation to come.

Also this week while bringing one of our cats to the vets in New Cross I passed a woman struggling with two very large plastic plant pots (nearly 4 foot wide and probably the same height) on a crossbar of a pushbike. It turns out the pots were being thrown out on a building site. She told me she was going to use them for spuds, but if you saw the size of them a couple of small fruit trees would fit in them!

Do remember those free seed tokens in the Daily Mirror this week. I’ll be bribing roadsweepers, newsagents and train cleaners to try and get some extra tokens. Keep em peeled!

Let it rot

compost in a 2013 style I opened the compost bin I started just over a year ago this morning and it is looking mighty fine! The kitchen/plant waste has near enough rotted except for a few eggshells and the odd large potato. I’ve made a mental note to cut up the kitchen waste finer and to crush the eggshells even more from now on. If you look closely at the contents you’ll also see a nice blue biro. How the hell did that get in there? How long will that take to rot do you think?

Rereading Jane Perrone’s book this week I could really relate to the section about making compost where she writes “I’ve been known to secrete used tea bags in my pocket to take back for my own ever-hungry compost pile.” Tea bags never get wasted in our house, after a brew they either get chucked on the compost heap or the worms have them.

it's the worm!Talking about worms here’s how the wormery is progressing in the garage. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought (I started it early last summer) but I’ve got a big jar of liquid plant feed out of it and there’s also a good bit of compost underneath the rotting veg, sprouting onions, killer sized slugs and mouldy bread.

Also this week I started off some seeds on the kitchen windowsill, Cabbages (goldenacre) and Foxgloves (pam’s choice) and sometime soon will get those tomatoes seeds out of the packet. That’s good for me as I sowed them just after xmas last year. Patience dear boy!

Oi! Get orfa me barra!

Old Bob Flowerdew was right, as soon as you produce some decent compost you can’t get enough of the blooming stuff! I’ve been helping myself to my second attempt of a compost heap for a good while now but today I filled up two barrow’s worth to mix in with some soil which I put in the second raised bed made with the scaffolding boards obtained free from our “Portuguese man with a van”. Owt for nowt for definite! If you can be bothered to collect up all your kitchen waste, turn it every now and again and wait a few months, it’s well worth doing for some top quality compost!

Great weather today so did a couple of hours, weeded around the salad bed and as it was root day, sowed some Carrots, Beetroot and Parsnip. If the weather keeps up I’ll do more tidying up and “tipping around with a hoe” tomorrow.

I’ve moved the portable cold frame (aka the old window frame I found in the street which stands on some old bricks from a skip) over a couple of Courgette and Squash seedlings to give them some protection and a bit of a head start.

I’m taking a risk with the Potatoes I moved the cold frame from as there’s still a good risk of frost, but I’ve covered them tonight with some horticultural fleece I’ve had kicking around since last year. Fingers crossed it won’t get too cold.

And I tell you what, I’m missing that “gloves in a bottle” stuff too!

This week’s post was written while listening to Friday’s Echo Beach on WLUW-FM Chicago with a great Pressure Sounds mix.

Book of the week

Bob’s Basic’s: Composting by Bob Flowerdew
(Kyle Cathie Limited) 2010

This a good little book about the art of composting from the great Bob Flowerdew, he of the Rob Da Bank ponytail and recycler of old fridges as mini-greenhouses fame. This was obtained from the local library but I reckon it’s well worth shelling out the nine pounds ninety nine for (probably cheaper as it’s a couple of years old now).

It’s easy to read and stuffed full of hints and tips with humour making it a great reference book. The main themes running throughout the book are that even the worst heap can be corrected and once you start making compost and use it, you won’t be able to get enough of it!

It covers the whole range of garden composting from the history of it, different designs of bin, what you can and can’t use, how to correct a bad heap and even covers wormeries, snaileries and chickens! There’s lots of things that I didn’t realise that you could do like using ditchwater to boost the heap and soaking weeds in dirty water for a few weeks to start them rotting down plus a great tip of always adding a thin layer of soil over the layer of new waste you put in to help it on it’s way.

And finally, my favourite quote in the book is “sadly, composting human dung currently puts you in the ‘too eccentric to be a nice neighbour’ camp”. And I thought adding urine from a bottle was considered a bit bonkers!

There is such a thing as a free lunch!

Yesterday I attended the “worm composting in the city” course at Walworth garden farm in SE17 as part of their introduction to gardening classes. They are free but if you have attended one before in the same year you have to pay a small charge. It was a tenner for this one, a small price to pay for a great day.

In the morning we went through making garden compost something that has been occupying me for the last few weeks, looking at how the process works and the best ways to do it and a visit to a couple of heaps they have on site (one which was “how not to do a heap” which reminded me of my first attempt!) After lunch we looked more into worm composting, something I hadn’t a clue about before going on the course. You can buy a wormery on the internet for about £65 but we looked at ways you could do it for much much cheaper! At the end of the process you get excellent worm compost and a liquid you can feed to your plants, brilliant! Give it a few weeks and I’ll be making one.

Like the last one I attended, it was very friendly, fun, informative to say the least and well enjoyable. We all should make more of what’s on offer at places like the Walworth garden farm. Tap in “free gardening courses” into google and see if there’s a course near you.

Thanks to Scarlett for the great day!

For more info about the courses on offer at Walworth garden farm:

Ain’t bin to no music school

There was a frost this morning and mighty cold out, but I still managed to have a look at my third attempt of a compost bin. A fortnight ago it was filled to about three quarters of a way up with alternate layers of “green” and “brown” material but today when I lifted the lid, it’s gone down to about a third. It looks like things are happening even in this temperature. Today I threw in some veg peelings, ripped up sunday papers, a couple of cardboard middles of loo roll and some leaves, the same sort of material as usual. The neighbours must have thought I was mad taking snaps of it all.

The other attempt of a heap is going great guns too, after throwing in more “browns” and giving it a good turn with a garden fork a fortnight ago after it went slushy and smelly. I lifted off the top and it looked a rich brown colour and the number of writhing worms which were there have lessened, a sign that the thing is finally on it’s way!

I heard last week citrus peelings are a bit of a “no, no” to stick on the heap. I’ve looked for info and found conflicting reports. Any ideas as I throw in a few lemons over a week and really would like to get it right this time. Rot on!

Vinnie Riley’s musical project before he went a bit more “jokey”.