Compost is natural organic fertiliser which adds nutrient to the soil and improves its structure. Recently, news items have focussed on the lack of nutrients in modern soils which can lead to our commercial fruit and veg being significantly less nutritious now than in the past.
Organic farmers can experience a pretty tough time managing their land, especially because they avoid chemical fertilisers. It is more labour intensive to use crop rotation and to make their own compost, but the resultant organic vegetables are usually more nutritious as a result. Compost heaps are always a great talking point and, done properly, can be something you will want to show off to visitors. Don’t hide your heap, be proud of it!
Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London has opened its composting yard to the public and it is now one of their most popular attractions. They make 3,500 tonnes of mulch a year which is used across the Gardens. A very important ingredient used is stable bedding (which includes lots of plant-friendly horse poo) from the Royal Horse Artillery Barracks – 50 cubic metres per week – that’s a lot of poo!
So, why make compost for your own garden? Once you understand the basics, you can easily make compost. It is good for the edible garden but also for improving soils generally and makes a great mulch. Beneficial organisms are introduced to the soil, increasing fertility and giving better produce. Compost material reduces landfill waste by up to a third annually as it recycles garden and kitchen waste.
First and foremost, you need to understand the composition of compost. It primarily consists of two major components: carbon and nitrogen.
Nitrogen comes from the green material and should be used in a lesser quantity for faster decomposition. This includes table scraps, tea leaves, seaweed and kelp, grass clippings, leaves and garden weeds, flowers, cuttings, fruits and vegetable scraps, chicken manure, and coffee grounds. They add moisture as you make compost. Too much of these materials may cause your manure to be smelly, dense, and decompose slower than usual.
The two-thirds of carbon come from brown material, which allows aeration, nourishing the organisms in the compost. This quickens decomposition. The brown material includes shredded paper, straw or hay, shrub pruning, wood ash, old newspaper, dry leaves, clothes dryer lint, stalks, cardboard, and pine needles. Finely shredded material will always decompose quicker.
Never add cooked food containing meat, fats or oil and never add the excrement of dogs and cats.
To make compost, it is best to keep things simple, especially as a beginner. Perhaps you could start with a compost bin, which makes your work tidier and easier. Don’t make compost with too little material in the bin; it should be enough to provide a worthwhile result. Start by covering the smelly nitrogen material with the sweet brown material.
A proper compost bin should retain the heat generated by the process. A closed container will retain moisture – essential in a hot dry climate. If you are working with heaps then consider covering the material with damp newspaper, cardboard or old carpet to prevent moisture loss and, equally important, to prevent it becoming waterlogged in the winter rains.
Also important is contact with the soil, for drainage and for beneficial soil organisms. The addition of wood ash to your heap will help prevent the larvae of the rose chafer beetle invading the material.
Remember to turn and mix the contents periodically – say weekly – this combines decaying material and allows oxygen to circulate freely. The result, after approximately three months, should be a nice earthy-smelling dark-chocolate manure.
Some things to note as you make compost. Keep it moist, add green material and water if necessary and, if it starts to smell, add the brown. Use a combination of different components for best results, avoiding animal products that attract pests and pets. Remember, there is a great deal of satisfaction in learning to make your own compost, it really is all muck and a fair amount of magic.