I love compost

I’ve come in from a morning in the garden with dirt under my fingernails, feeling very satisfied with planting and sowing and potting on. The runner beans are in the ground, the melons, courgettes and squashes are in larger pots, there are two big pots of mangetout sown and the garden is looking like it might be quite productive this year.

Whilst potting up the curcurbits (as the squash and marrow family is known) I got to thinking about compost… partly because I had my hands in some lovely homemade stuff that I’m sure the plants are going to do really well in and partly because I have been reading blogs about compost this week. It all started of with a post by Fourth Generation Farm Wife describing a composting experiment which involved in situ composting… something I am very keen on. Her experiment didn’t quite work out they way she expected but was, nevertheless, a success. I make compost in my ‘rubbish beds’ and plant directly into them even though not all the material is broken down (because after all, it wouldn’t be in a natural system). This year I have harvested some of the compost out of these beds to pot up those curcurbits I mentioned earlier and it will be returned to the beds when the weather allows me to transplant them outside.

Many people seem to have problems with compost making, although many are very successful and if you search the internet you’ll find a whole raft of advice on how to make compost, what sort of composter to buy and loads of products (some astonishingly expensive) to help you to make ‘good’ compost. Personally, I’m not convinced. I have a variety of compost bins – a couple of wooden ones, which are good and big and easy to empty; a couple of ‘cones’, one big and one small, the big one really heats up if you put lots of grass clippings in it; one made of an old water butt that split; a wormery; and my good old standby, thick black polythene rubble bags.

My honest opinion is that the compost I make is pretty similar whatever the bin with the exception of the wormery and the black bags, because these use different composting methods. The other containers all make ‘slow compost’. Lots of books tell you that you need a big heap that you construct with specific proportions of different materials and that you need to turn the heap regularly and add water and it will get hot enough to form compost really quickly and kill off all the weed seeds. In my experience this simply doesn’t happen in normal domestic situations, where you ‘trickle feed’ material into your heap and it gets whatever is available in whatever proportions there are at the time. I’m fine with this – I just let it get on with it, close the bin up when it’s full and wait however long it takes to turn into compost (and I never turn my compost or add water). I do put paper, willow shreddings, chicken poo, cardboard and nettles on my compost, as well as shredded cotton occasionally in addition to the usual kitchen scraps and I’m generally happy with the results.

The wormery I keep mainly because I want the ‘worm wee’ (more delicately known as worm tea) which I use as a very handy (but smelly) liquid feed. It’s one of those bins with a reservoir and tap at the bottom and serves its purpose well, but is quite unwieldy when the compost needs emptying out. The black bags, in contrast, are very low-tech. I fill them with perennial weeds, such as dandelions or buttercups, including the roots. I then fasten the tops and put them in a heap out of the way for a few months (it’s important no light gets in). The conditions inside tend to be anaerobic (unless you get a puncture) and you end up with smelly fibrous sludge, ready for direct use on the vegetable beds or to go into the main compost bin for further aerobic composting (my preference is the former). I like this sort of composting because it makes use of material that might otherwise be discarded and so lost from my garden system and also because things like dandelions and docks produce really robust roots that are good and fibrous and rich in nutrients… ideal as a compost ingredient.

I never buy compost activators because nettles and chicken poo do the trick and I have no idea how well things like bokashi work (although maybe it’s a great option if you don’t have a garden and want to compost indoors), but I do know that there is something really satisfying about growing plants in compost made from stuff that most people would just throw away without a second thought… what other way is there for you to eat your old teabags and coffee grounds?

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15 Comments

  1. Very nice post, I just trickle feed a corner of my garden with scraps and cover them with dirt every once in a while and nature does its thing.

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  2. Thanks for this! I’ve been planning out a post about compost myself and you’ve given me more useful information to mull over.

    I’m lazy about compost, just tossing kitchen scraps and paper into bin with the bottom cut out, placed over a hole in a garden bed. It doesn’t tend to smell and gives me usable compost in about a year (the bottom half of the bin – the top half then gets used to start the next pile). Often there will be material that’s not completely broken down, but it goes quickly enough oince dug into the garden and I’ve never had any problems.

    My dad, on the other hand, has a complex system involving multiple bins and specific ingredients. He does make loads of beautiful compost, but he’s retired and thus has time to mess about with his system and conduct his experiments.

    I think however you chose to compost, it’s better than not composting at all, and you’ve given me ideas for what to do with the garden waste, weeds & prunings that can’t go in my little bin, so thanks!

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    • Glad to have provided some inspiration. I totally agree – any composting is good. I’m just trying to decide whether my neighbours will think I’m completely mad if I go and ask if I can have their grass clippings – they put them out for the council to take away and I’m sure that I could make better use of them!

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  3. Thank you for the pingback. I wasn’t around my blog all weekend so I didn’t see the notification that WordPress sends about a pingback. I’m glad I decided to click over.

    I agree with you that most compost heaps that people have do not heat up enough to kill seeds. Most people don’t have the right amount of ingredients at the right times to have an efficient/ working compost pile. We should write a book about how to make the practical compost pile.

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  4. I make compost wherever seems handy. If a part of the garden seems to need a little extra nutrients, I make the pile there. If I have a hole that needs to be filled, it goes there. If I pull weeds out of a bed into a pile and forget to clean it up, after a short time it’s compost that gets brushed back into the bed it came from. Sometimes weeds can be pulled up and used as mulch, where they will decompose in place. I know gardeners who don’t have a compost pile, because they just toss their waste randomly on the ground.

    When it comes down to it, a compost pile is just extra work, because you have to carry to and from it.

    If you have a compost pile, it doesn’t matter how big or small it is. It doesn’t matter if you have a ‘good mix’ of C and N, unless you are in a hurry and want it to go as fast as possible. Pretty much the only thing that can go wrong is you can end up with a ‘stinking rotten mess’, and if you do just stir it and fix whatever the problem is that caused it, and it will carry on composting.

    The only other concerns are if you are trying to be tidy, or make use of vertical space. Then you might want to use a container of some sort.

    I agree, compost is great!

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  5. Maya Panika

     /  May 28, 2012

    I do in-situ composting too and it works so well; it completely transformed one very infertile patch of soil I had that had been stripped of all its nutrients by by ivy. I don’t know why people don’t do it more.

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  6. Wonderful ideas! I haven’t tried in situ, but I will now. I have two large bins made from wooden pallets and when they get full I have to rearrange quite a bit to work in my daily kitchen waste. I’m excited since many of our beds are still in need of soil make-overs. Thank you for such a fantastic viewpoint! and yes, you SHOULD ask your neighbor for the clippings. People who compost–and I agree with your other guest comments that everyone should do it–will do almost anything to feed the compost addiction.
    Question: your black bags are just large trash bags? That’s similar to my kitchen shopping bag post, but I hadn’t thought of doing this on a larger scale. I could have some serious goo ready by the time our fall leaves start coming down!

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    • In fact we asked the neighbour the other day – he’s happy and fascinated about our composting activities! We took our garden cart over yesterday and he filled it up and returned it later – a brilliant arrangement.
      The bags are not standard trash bags – I tried them but they didn’t last very well outdoors, so we use rubble bags, which are much thicker and last for several compost ‘runs’. They come from a DIY store – I guess in the US somewhere like Home Depot would sell them.
      Good luck with your in situ composting… I know it will work.

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  7. I see that you take composing seriously, as will I (hence my blog about bears and compositng) haha… don’t know if I can convince hubs of the need for a worm compost, but I want one of those as well. A nearby neighbor has rabbits, and I’ve told them I would pay them for the rabbit manure which will go into my compost bin as well. Cheers!

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  8. Hi Jan
    Just a quick question, do you use scraps from cooked food in your compost piles? I am vegetarian, so there are no meat scraps, but was unsure if the cooked stuff would be safe? May be silly question, but one I need to ask. Not knowing anything about composting until recently, and after starting to read up on, I gave up with the reading material and just started putting all my surplus peelings, grass clippings, leaves, weeds etc in a large bin with a hole in it. So far it looks like it is breaking down, no smells and I am doing nothing more than throwing everything in as and when I have stuff. I prefer to keep things simple.. so this works for me. The concern about cooked leftovers/scraps was to do with attracting rats, as recently one of my neighbors complained to me that ‘I’ had rats!!! I live next door to a farm, so it wouldn’t be surprising if there are lots of rats around, but I found it amusing that someone thought that the rats were mine, however, it did make me think that I should be careful not to intentionally attract them!!

    Love your post, I like your style ;-))

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    • Thanks!
      Any organic matter can be composted in one way or another (including meat) and you are right that the issue generally is avoiding attracting unwanted pests. Rodents are, indeed attracted to cooked food, so it’s best composted in a rodent-proof bin, which it sounds like yours is. I compost cooked stuff in my wormery because all my other bins are open at the base. I would keep putting your cooked food in the compost bin as it sounds like it’s working; just keep an eye out for any sign of teeth marks because mice and rats can chew their way through plastic.
      Rats are more likely to be attracted to garbage or feed at the farm than to your compost, so it seems very unlikely that the rats are ‘yours’… people always like someone to blame!

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