Shiny New Compost Heap!
As a 35 year-old woman I’m not sure I should get so excited about composting, but making your own compost is one of the best things you can do for your soil if you’re a gardener like me.
Unlike animals, plants can’t get up and walk to a new patch of soil if they don’t like where you’ve planted them. They’re totally reliant on the quality of your soil, and if you’ve ever been to a garden where the soil has been tended to carefully you will know just how big the plants can grow!
Composting is basically converting green waste into a rich organic matter which is best dug into new borders or used as a mulch on existing borders. Such organic matter actually changes the structure of the soil itself. When added to clay soils it helps to break it up and improve drainage, whilst on sandy soils it helps to give it body and retain moisture. Adding bagged compost from a garden centre doesn’t have the same effect: firstly, it’s expensive because of the added fertilisers; secondly, it’s too fine to really change the soil structure. Organic matter itself contains contains all the slow-release nutrients and bacteria your plants need for healthy growth.
It’s important to get the correct balance of ‘ingredients’ in your compost heap. Half to two-thirds of it should be composed of materials that are rick in carbon: think straw, hay, dried leaves etc. Newspapers and cardboard can go on as well, but I would shred these first to create a bigger surface area for the bacteria to work on. If you just throw a whole newspaper on you might find you can still read last year’s headlines when you come to empty it!
I also compost wood-chip bedding when I clean out my pets. Litter from herbivores like guinea pigs, rabbits and horses is great, as is chicken manure. The contents of my cat’s litter tray also goes on there, minus the kitty poo. Dog and cat poo can technically be composted, but I would rather steer clear.
All this carbon-containing material needs to be balanced with softer green material, including grass clippings, vegetable and fruit peelings, annual weeds, cut flowers etc. Woody stems and thick vegetable stalks need to be chopped up, and I prefer not to put rose prunings in there because their vicious thorns take too long to decompose! Perennial weeds should also be left out because many can regrow from the tiniest piece of root. Otherwise, add them to a bucket of water until they begin to rot and then throw them on. You can also add eggshells and ash from wood fires.
The cycle of decompostion starts with fungi, which break down the carbon-rich material into complex carbohydrates, and bacteria, which use the nitrogen from the softer green material to gerneate heat. This heat should kill most of the weed seeds in the heap. Compost heaps can get quite warm – I had a beautiful free range bunny called Piper who used to make a scrape in the side of our old open compost heap and sit with her butt in it to keep warm on cold days!
Bacteria need oxygen to survive, so every now and then it’s important to turn the heap and thoroughly re-mix the ingredients. The composting process also requires moisture, but too much or too little may cause problems. In the winter a compost heap may become too wet, so it’s advisable to cover it with old carpet or a tarpaulin to keep the heat in and stop nutrients being washed away by the rain. Excess moisture may also be caused by too much soft green waste and your heap will stagnate as the bacteria are deprived of oxygen. The solution is to add more carbon-rich material. The opposite is also true: a dry compost heap will not rot down and will either need to be ‘watered’, or more soft green material added if the ‘ingredients’ are unbalanced.
We are currently creating our own compost heap from scratch. Steve has recycled the wood from a fence we took down to make two bays with wire-mesh sides which will be perfect to improve air-circulation. When one bay is full I’ll turn it into the next bay and start to refill the first, so we should have two on the go at one time. It may be that we add a third bay but we’ll see how things go for now!
Most modern homes don’t have large enough gardens for big open compost heaps, but you can buy compost bins which insulate the contents to raise the inner temperature and are small enough so that air can reach the centre. In general, heaps should be no more than 1m x 1m x 1m for this reason. It’s also a good idea to place your bin or heap near to the kitchen!
After about a year I’m hoping to have some lovely organic ‘black gold’ to use as a mulch on my borders to suppress weeds, reatain moisture, and let the worms pull the rest of it down into the soil to feed the roots of my plants. Looking after your soil is the most important thing you can do for your plants and I think making your own compost is the best way to do it!