I truly cannot help it. I gather anything and everything that will go into my allotment compost bins. This includes not only our vegetable waste, but other people’s. My neighbours along Sheinton Street may indeed wonder how it is that the garden mowings and clippings that they throw over their back hedges can disappear so fast. I don’t really want to go round to their front doors and discuss it with them on the basis that my perceived eccentricity quotient in the town is already quite high enough. But they clearly don’t want the stuff, and they leave it in such handy piles beside the field path. I simply scoop them up on my way to the vegetable plot.
Compost foraging, however, does have its small hazards. It can, for instance, involve a close encounter with a slow worm – a copper and black snakish looking reptile that is actually a limbless lizard. They are quite harmless, but I still leap back in alarm when I touch one unexpectedly. I ought to know by now. They love warm piles of things to bask in during the day. They are to be treasured too, since they eat slugs. And yes I know that in the cycle of things slugs have their good points, and probably are useful in compost heaps, but I am utterly prejudiced against them, and admire anything that disposes of them. Toads are thus also heroes, though sadly in rather short supply.
The manner of composting as formerly done by me, and displayed in the first photo is not to be emulated. A dedicated composter, and I am now trying to do this, chops big stems and stalks into short lengths to speed up the rotting down process. It is also good have mixed layers e.g. brown, dry matter such as scrunched up pieces of brown corrugated cardboard, paper, wood shavings, leaves and small twigs. The aim is about 50:50 brown to green matter. This allows air into the mix, and so prevents a sour and smelly squidge.
Grass mowings and animal manure will heat things up, and also aid decomposition. The heat kills any weed seedlings. Other additives in my compost include tea bags, egg shells, vegetable parings, allotment weeds, turves from ground clearing, wood ash, hoover contents, and brown paper carriers. Every now and then I also add a layer of comfrey since it also a good compost activator.
Comfrey is a good compost activator. It also makes an excellent plant food, keeps the bees happy, and helps mend human bones and inflamed tissues. The leaves can be made into tea or added to soup. The flowering tops contain vitamin B12 (source: Herbal Therapy for Women by Elisabeth Brooke MNIMH). Can you spot the bumble bee in the top photo? (Just testing).
Ideally, the contents of the compost bin should be turned over during the growing season to aerate them, but if this is too daunting a task, and if there’s space, then three or four bins are the answer. The rotting down process will be slower, but when full, the first one is simply left for a couple of years while the others are being filled. It’s also common practice to put a piece of old carpet over the top to help things along. My largest bin is made of four wooden pallets tied together. It is easy to open once full, and the contents can be tipped out and turned over.
And why am I so keen on compost? Well, apart from the obvious that it feeds and improves the soil, it is also useful as a mulch, and MULCHING is my current theory on how to deal with our increasingly ERRATIC WEATHER systems. The only problem is you need masses of it.
But applying a good deep layer around plants and between rows of crops, not only nurtures the plants, it gives them some protection in heavy rain, and stops the soil drying out in times of drought. To retain moisture it should thus be applied after watering/rain, and it will then reduce the amount of watering needed in the future. Strong, healthy, UNSTRESSED plants mean less pests and diseases. A sturdy cabbage will even withstand some slug damage. For added protection, cover the lot with enviromesh.
My objectives for composting, however, are small potatoes compared with the goals of The Global Compost Project. Scientists involved with this brilliant initiative believe composting can mend the mess we’ve made of the planet, AND help reduce climate change. Here’s what they have to say:
“It also turns out that one easy, natural human invention is very important to boosting photosynthesis and cleaning up the mess we created. It is Composting!
Fertilizer feeds plants nitrogen and compost feeds soil carbon.
According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Marin Carbon Project, by spreading just 1/2 inch (1 cm) of compost on grazed rangelands, soil naturally starts to sequester more carbon out of the air via renewed photosynthesis at the rate of 1 ton per acre per year for up to 30 years. This study was performed jointly by both organizations over a 7-year period, which clearly demonstrated proof of concept.
The results are delighting water conservationists, microbiologists, and climate change scientists around the world. Compost replenishes the soil carbon to balanced levels. It is as if the eco-systems are rebooted, and within one year native grasses and wildlife rebound. The carbon intake, forage capacity, and water retention all fall into normal rhythms.”
And now excuse me while I go off to do some more compost foraging. Perhaps, after all, I should be enlisting my neighbours’ help. They might chuck me more stuff over their hedges instead of putting it in their recycling bins. But either way, recycling is good. So: Obsessive Compulsive Composting anyone? Just to encourage you, and to show off, here’s some of my last year’s summer and winter produce:
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell