Thursday, February 02, 2012

Making compost

If you're about to start a new season garden, your time will be best served by enriching your soil.  This will do more for the health of your garden and the abundance of your crops than any fertiliser you apply later in the season.  If you plant your seeds and seedlings into fertile, living soil, you give them the best chance of success.
Our garden in full production with the compost heap and bin sitting quietly at the back.
Compost is a gentle fertilizer that adds organic matter to the soil.  Organic matter will bring the worms in, and they will bring in all manner of microbes that will help creature the soil you need for good crops.  Another great thing about compost is that it will help you manage your kitchen and garden waste, you end up throwing less in the rubbish bin and recycle bin, and you will make, at home, the best fertilizer possible for your garden.

Many things that were once alive, like paper, cardboard, cotton and linen fabric, hair, tea leaves etc, can be used to make compost.  Instead of being waste, they'll now be a resource to make the best fertilizer around.  So start your search today.  You can use all those old papers, magazines and worn out skirts in your compost heap.  Set up a little compost collection bucket in your kitchen for the kitchen waste you want to put into the compost.  It's best if this has a lid if you want to empty it once a day.

There are two categories of materials you need for making compost, and for the sake of simplicity, we'll call them greens (which supply nitrogen) and browns (which supply carbon).  Greens are the wet nitrogen filled materials like grass clippings, kitchen waste and fresh manures. Browns are dry things like paper, cardboard and straw.  You will need 30 browns (carbon) to one green (nitrogen).  Now that might sound complicated but all it means is that you need much more dry material like paper and straw than you need greens. Everything you add to the heap should be small.  Chop up the scraps, cardboard etc with your garden spade before adding.  The smaller it is, the faster it will decompose.  BTW, if you don't have enough kitchen scraps to make a compost heap, chop up your kitchen waste and bury it in the garden.  It will decompose and add to the fertility of the soil.

BROWNS - carbon
  • shredded newspaper and magazines - but nothing glossy and coloured 
  • shredded computer paper 
  • cardboard - cut up in small pieces
  • crushed egg shells  
  • ash  
  • straw and hay   
  • hair  
  • the contents of your vacuum cleaner - check to make sure there's no plastic  
  • wool and cotton clothing 

GREENS - nitrogen
  • grass clippings
  • leaves
  • green garden waste - but nothing that is diseased and no woody branches, they take too long to break down
  • anything high in nitrogen like cow, goat, sheep, chicken and horse manures, chicken manure pellets
  • fruit and vegetable peelings - not onion or citrus, which are best in a separate pile because they take a long time to decompose
  • kitchen waste - but not meat or dairy products
  • seaweed 
  •  meat
  • dairy products
  • diseased plants
  • anything plastic or acrylic

Build your compost heap on bare ground, not on bricks or pavers.  You want the worms and microbes to find and colonise the compost, so it needs to be on the soil.  Site the heap close to the garden where it will be used and if you have dogs or chickens, it will need to be fenced off or else they will eat what you put in there.  If you live in an extreme climate, it might be best if you shelter the heap up against a wall.  This will also provide a solid border to one side of the heap.

  • Start on bare earth by placing a thick layer of shredded newspaper or straw as your base.
  • Add whatever other ingredients you have, alternating browns and greens if you can (sometimes you can't).  
  • Always remember the 30 brown to one green ratio.  If your compost is too dry with browns ,it won't decompose, if it is too wet with greens, it will smell.  When the heap has been going for a while, if it is too dry, add greens, if it's too wet, add browns.
  • On the first day, if you've built a reasonable heap, get the hose and moisten it.  Don't wet it, just a slight spray to moisten things and to start the heap off.  
  • If you have heavy rain or snow, or if you're in a cold climate, you will need to protect the heap with a heavy tarpaulin.  If you can, tie a brick to each corner with cord to keep it in place over the heap.
  • If you don't have any animal or poultry manure, see if you can buy or barter a bag, or, alternatively, buy a bag of chicken manure pellets from the produce store and lightly scatter them through the layers as you add to the heap.  Animal manure should also be added every so often to the heap.  The manure will heat up the compost and activate the compost a great deal.  Comfrey leaves will also help speed up decomposition.
 Comfrey will help activate and speed up the composting process.
Making compost is not rocket science but you do need to watch your green to brown ratio.  The truth is, if you threw all the above into a heap in your backyard, it would eventually rot down, no matter what you did and you'd have compost.  But we are actively working to increase the fertility of our gardens, so we want compost and we want it NOW.  What ever you can do to speed up the process, do it.  Turning the compost helps speed it up, so turn it over with a fork about once a week.

If you build your heap well, you'll feel it heat up and sometimes you'll see steam coming off it.  If the heap doesn't heat up, add more manure and mix it in.  But even if it doesn't heat up, if you're in a warm climate and you turn it regularly, you'll have compost in about eight weeks.  It will take longer in cold climates.  But  use your gardener's common sense and help it along however you can.  Protection up against a brick wall, covering the heap and adding manure will help heat up the heap even in cold climates.

Eventually, all the pieces of paper, hair, manure and kitchen waste will evolve into beautiful dark brown, sweet smelling compost. Planting your seeds and seedlings into soil enriched with compost will give them the best chance of survival, but compost making is an ongoing garden task.  If you can make a lot of it in summer, and you live in a snowy climate, store it in your shed over winter for the coming season.  If you're in a milder climate, it's fine to just having it sitting in the garden waiting to be used.  Making compost might seem like a chore in the beginning, but it will become second nature to you, and when that happens, you'll reduce the amount of  household waste you give to other people to dispose of for you and you'll have a continuous supply of the best soil conditioner and fertilizer.