Are you a composter or a non-composter? Are you quick to leap back from a steaming pile of organic material, or are you more likely to start poking it with a pitchfork while you quiz the compost’s maker about their recipe?
The reason I ask is to point out that I think all gardeners can be divided into two types based on their response to compost. And I’ll be up front here. What follows is my effort to demystify and simplify the composting process. Why? Because I’d like to convert the not-so-keen composters. As for all you existing composting nutters, read on, because you may pick up on something you don’t already know…
Before we begin, let me assure you that the benefits of composting are far and above the effort involved. It begins with a one-off weekend project to set yourself up. Once you’ve begun, and you get into the routine, you’ll feel great satisfaction transforming what was once garden trimmings and kitchen peelings into something incredibly valuable. You’ll actually get excited watching your compost mature. And finally, once you’ve spread it around, you’ll be astonished by the miracle it performs in your garden.
You think I’m overstating the results? (If only I could rock up to your place with a trailer-load of my compost. Two months later you’d know what I’m talking about…)
Or maybe you think making your own is too hard? Trust me – what follows shows that it’s not. Think of it a little like the first time you tried to cook something you’d mentally flagged as being ‘a bit tricky’. By the time you’d made this same meal for the third time, it’d become familiar and routine. And it’s the same deal with making your own compost. Oh, and like home cooking, you know what’s gone into your compost so that when you spread it around your vegetable garden, you’ll know what’s going into your home-grown food.
Composting is all about gathering together green waste and kitchen scraps so that they can break down naturally to become a wonderful addition to your soil. It makes sense to contain this pile so that it doesn’t take up too much space and there are a few options to pick from: the classic black plastic bin-style heap is probably the best known. A tumbler is faster, but my favourite is the classic home-made wooden bay approach because it lets you build a fresh heap while a cooked-and-ready pile is in use. Building one of these (see the Michigan State University diagram, below) is an easy afternoon project for someone who enjoys using tools and there are plenty of instructions to be found online. To buy and set up the ready-made options would take an hour at the most.
Start putting stuff into your pile. I like to begin with a little shovel-full of some of my old compost to help kick start things, but it’s not vital. I try not to get too technical about what to add, and in what proportions, because my life doesn’t seem to generate exactly what the text books describe. Instead I add everything I collect after a day working in the garden as well as the kitchen scraps bucket. I should probably point out the obvious – your compost heap is not a place for food scraps unless you want to breed disease and rodents. I stick to peelings, left over salad and the odd vase of dead flowers. And take my advice, there are some things that never seem to break down – corn cobs, citrus peel, serious weeds and branches thicker than a man’s thumb – so don’t bother putting them in.
At this point I’ll share with you the only tips I’ve ever thought worth anything. Tip One: the smaller the pieces of material you add to the pile the faster it will break down. Some people hand cut their garden trimmings, others put them through a garden shredder (which is a lot of fun). Tip Two: Every now and then, throw on a loose bit of garden soil to help spread the microbes around. Tip Three: if you’ve access to chicken manure add that to the mix. Nitrogen rich manures speed up the process and they boost the nutrient value of the mix. Tip Four: Keep a hose or a watering can nearby so you can damp down the pile when it starts to look a little dry. Tip Five: if you have a pitchfork and like to use it, give the pile a little toss each week. If your pile is in a tumbler, give it a crank each time you walk by.
If you’re keen to build your own tumbler-style composter instead of buying it, plans are available online.
If you’ve bonded with your compost, you’ll be keeping an eye on things. You’ll know that it’s ready to use when you no longer easily recognise all those bits you added over the weeks. How long the process takes will depend on a range of factors – what went into the mix, what the weather’s been like, how much rain has fallen, and whether you’ve been mixing it all around by pitchfork or by using a tumbler. When that moment of completion arrives your compost will be a dark rich brown and it’s time to start spreading it around the garden. As you pop it in and around your plants, try to tuck it under the mulch – (of course your beds are mulched!) – as that will help it to condition your soil instead of forming a dry crust of the surface.
It’s easy to get hooked by composting. Luckily there is a heap (excuse the pun) of advice out there to feed your interest, whether it’s via your neighbour, local gardening club or simply by typing three words into your search engine – how to compost.