Garden Composting Made Easy
Maintaining Plant Fertility without Fertilizers
Rather than provide the plants with their nutrition as ‘junk food’ in the form of soluble, we want the plants, the wildlife and the soil micro-life to make it for us. Whereas in a pot we cannot expect to maintain fertility without adding it as a feed, in the open soil we can create it in situ. The rotation of crops on the vegetable plot leaves root and leaf residues and these are supplemented with grown in between the crops or before a crop is planted. are dug in fresh, or composted first. Regular feeding of the plants, as such, does not take place. Instead, the soil is fed with these plant residues, plus compost or well-rotted mixed in whenever a heavy feeder or perennial is to be planted.
Mulches of organic material break down and are incorporated, while rock dusts (especially potash) can be added to benefit plants at any time, but they taketo act. Ground rock dusts provide additional raw materials of the most needed elements in a finely distributed form, and benefit most soils, especially lighter ones. For poor soils in the first few years some supplementary feeding may be undertaken using organic fertilizers of a faster-acting nature. These should be considered as crutches to an ailing soil to be discarded as the soil becomes richer. Far more important for fertility is to ensure that the life in the soil is active — and keeping the soil moist helps most of all.
Composting Made Easy
Air and moisture are the most important elements of the composting process. You need sufficient but not too much of both, plus enough bulk to heat up, good insulation to keep the heat in and a thorough mixing. Perhaps the biggest problem with composting is how to accumulate sufficient material to make an effective heap, because the bigger the mass, the more heat it retains and the better it composts. Store material until enough is available. I spread mine on the ground for the to rummage through and their feet pack it down; later I can scrape it up and put it in the bins to break down. You could keep it in plastic bags until ready to be combined, but most people just put it on the heap in layers, then dig it out and mix it up and repack when enough has built up. In any case, it will always make better compost if any heap is remade after a week and the inside exchanged with the outside. Doing this again after another week will be of further benefit. Each turning mixes the ingredients and stirs in air which then speeds up the process. Do not pack a heap down as this has the opposite effect. There are commercial rotary composters and these speed up the process, but are more suited to warmer climates — they tend to be too small for the cold UK.
Various compost containers are sold, most are a bit on the small side and so do not heat up enough to make really good compost unless given extra insulation. Simple constructions of wood, wire netting or brick about a yard each way are sufficient and considerably cheaper. I prefer to use four old pallets tied at the corners. Do not paint the wood with creosote as this will slow the composting process. A lid will keep out rain, but an old carpet and a plastic sheet will be better for retaining the heat — I stuff polythene bags with balls of crumpled newspaper. I plunge a crowbar down the centre of my heap — it has little effect, but I love to pull it out and watch it steam, showing me the heap is cooking well. If it fails, I merely remake the heap. Once it has been turned and cooked at least twice it is then left to mature for six months or so, when it is in the best condition for use. If it is left longer, thework it over too much, increasing its richness, but decreasing the quantity. Matured compost makes an excellent potting medium, though it is usually full of weed seeds. Do not believe anyone who claims clean compost, unless they are microwaving it!
Fresh compost, even when immature, can be incorporated into the soil when planting trees and shrubs, but if it is to be used as a top dressing or with small plants, such as when planting out, it is best matured, partly dried and sieved. This takes extra effort, but produces a finer material which also makes a good potting compost. The sieving residues can then be used to inoculate the next heap. In almost every case, compost or well-rotted manure is best applied to growing crops in early spring so that the nutrients are taken up. If applied in autumn, the nutrients simply leach out over winter. The commonest problems are too wet a heap, remedied by remaking with extra straw or dry material, and too dry a heap, remedied by adding water, fresh wet manure or grass clippings. The presence of a white coating on the material in the heap indicates that it is too dry with insufficient nitrogenous material — add water mixed with personal liquid waste.
If your garden is too small for there to be much compostable material available at any time, co-operating with several neighbours can allow each to make a heap in turn or to share in yours. As recycling your own material may not be enough, always be ready to acquire any wastes you can pick up from other gardeners, greengrocers, local stables, zoos and so on. This is good for you and our environment.