Here’s 900 words from us at Weeds for “a forthcoming project”. When it comes to composting, in the words of the Desperate Bicycles, it 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”.
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