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• What is compost?
Compost is the residue of organic wastes, such as vegetable parings or plant clippings, used as garden fertiliser. You can pay significant amounts to buy it in bags, ready-made, or you can make your own at no cost at all.
While some people put a huge amount of time and effort into their compost heaps, my approach is more laid-back and relaxed.
• Why use compost?
If you have a garden, and particularly if you grow fruit and vegetables, it's important to fertilise the soil to provide the nutrients needed by the plants. There are various ways of doing this; in the past I've used Phostrogen or Miracle-Gro, which come in packs and have to be dissolved in water. However in recent years I've become more aware of the importance of organic gardening. While artificial fertilsiers are less damaging than most pesticides, they're not as good for the soil or the plants as real compost.
I'm also fairly keen on recycling, and whereas it's possible to have glass or paper recycled, depending on where you live, I don't know of anywhere that takes old grass clippings, apple cores or vegetable parings! So it made sense for me to build a compost heap, thus recycling as much waste as I could, and providing free fertiliser for the garden.
• Where to compost
This depends on the size of your garden. A well-made compost heap shouldn't smell much, but inevitably it will attract some flies and other insects, so you probably don't want it too near the house. On the other hand, if it's too far away it may feel like too much effort to take the kitchen waste there every day. It should be in an open position in the garden, preferably near a wall or fence, where it gets the sun and also plenty of rain.
• How to compost
The 'correct' method is to alternate kitchen waste with weeds and grass cuttings. This allows air to circulate, and provides the ideal mix of nutrients once the compost is made. However I've never yet come across anyone efficient enough to build up their heaps in this way! Certainly it's important to have a mixture of items added to the heap, but my own method is fairly random. I simply add whatever comes to hand as and when it's available.
• How does it work?
All vegetable matter breaks down eventually due to bacteria, helped by worms and other useful soil insects. Some compost heaps become very hot; this is an indication of bacteria doing their job efficiently, and means that compost will be produced fairly rapidly. It also means that any disease in leaves will be destroyed, and any weed seeds will be unable to germinate. However a compost heap doesn't have to become hot; material will still decompose at cool temperatures, although it will take longer. The more organised you are in building and turning the pile, the more likely it is to become hot.
• What can be added?
Potato peel and other parings, any rotten fruit or fruit cores and skins (including citrus fruit), coffee grounds and tea bags, grass clippings, leaves, weeds, eggshell, and even newspaper or other low-quality paper (such as egg-boxes). A few twigs can help air to circulate. Urine is excellent too - so don't discourage the local cats from using your compost heap as a toilet. Also, without wishing to be too sexist, it can be a useful place for small boys playing in your garden to use if 'caught short'.
• What should not be added?
Meat and fish should never be added to a compost heap, since these can attract vermin, and take much longer to break down than vegetable matter. Some people also avoid adding cooked vegetables, but I tend to throw these on anyway and have no problem with them. Large branches must be chopped or shredded before adding, since they take considerably longer to decompose than most other waste. There's some controversy about whether or not to add perennial weeds and seeds. If your heap is going to get hot, or will be left for a year or more before using, then they're probably fine. If you want quick compost, or if the heap doesn't get at all hot, then it may be best to avoid them.
• How to build the heap itself
There are several ways of going about building a compost heap. If you have a small garden, and no room for a large heap, then there are compost bins which can be bought for the purpose, some of which work efficiently and well, and most of which look reasonably unintrusive. It's worth reading plenty of reviews about these, since some are better than others. We had a fairly basic one some years ago, and it was really very awkward getting the compost out of the bottom when it was ready.
The official method of creating an ordinary heap is to mark out a metre square in the garden, and build a wooden fence around it using horizontal planks. I'm sure this is ideal, since so many people recommend it, but it seems like a lot of effort to me. Moreoever, you generally need at least two heaps: one that's current, and one that's maturing. I know someone who's built brick walls around his heaps, and that works quite well, but that's a long-term project for a large garden.
My approach is more basic. I have an area about 4.5m by 1.5m wide, and I have it roughly divided into three in my mind, each area being about 1.5m square. I have one square to which I'm currently adding more material, one which is decomposing, and one which is almost ready to use (or being used). The front is roughly marked with large stones, to separate it from the grass. When the last of the current compost is spread around the garden, the resultant space becomes my pile for new material and I stop adding anything to my previous new pile. Inevitably there's some overlap as there's nothing separating the three squares, but it doesn't seem to matter.
The heap needs to be kept reasonably moist, so in hot weather you probably need to add some water. Living in Cyprus, we have a long dry season in the summer, and I try to remember to turn the hose onto my compost heaps at least once a fortnight. It should probably be more often, but as the atmosphere is humid I doubt if the centre ever dries out completely.
For the fastest composting, a heap needs to be turned over with a fork every few days; again this is something I don't usually do. I'm in no hurry, so I tend to leave it alone to decompose on its own, only forking it lightly once it's beginning to look like compost.
• How long it takes
If you manage to add everything in correct layers, and turn it frequently, then apparently compost can appear in as little as six weeks. I find it takes between six months and a year. The resultant compost looks a bit like garden soil, but richer and more crumbly. There shouldn't be anything recognisable in the compost, although a few twigs or pieces of eggshell don't matter. But if you can still see leaves or orange rinds, it needs to be turned and left a while longer.
• What to do with it
I fill my wheelbarrow, then distribute the compost around the various trees and other plants in the garden. There's no need to dig it in, since worms will do that, and a fork is likely to disturb the tree roots.
• Does it work?
Since using my own compost, I've had much better crops, and less insect damage. This could be coincidence, of course, but it certainly hasn't done any harm! I'm glad to have done my tiny bit towards recycling, and to know that my home-grown produce is entirely organic without having to spend a fortune on buying organic fertiliser.
• Where to find out more
There are many useful web-sites describing methods of composting and giving general advice; the most helpful one I've found is http://www.stopwaste.org/fscompost.html - this is well laid-out with plenty of clear, brief explanations and diagrams where necessary. It's an American site, so the information about commercially available bins and classes aren't relevant in the UK.
A useful British site is at http://www.hdra.org.uk/schools_organic_network/lz_comp.htm - although intended for use in classrooms, it's appropriate for anyone interested in composting. There are answers to frequently asked questions, and some factsheets in printable format.
very helpful. I bought a compost bin a while ago but being cold newcastle weather it's not that keen on decomposing! Bought another one as that was full and wanted to leave it to rot in peace without adding any more to it and for same price £5 from newcastle council intitiative I got one with a hatch. Much better. They say not to add cooked veg as it attracts rats etc. i stick to raw stuff. lawn mowings, weeds, peelings, egg shells, egg boxes, cardboard, hoover contents etc. Great stuff. I love to recycle. I love worms too : /
Story_Weaver 30.05.2004 02:14
Very informative. I believe a lot of 'new' gardener go for the easy option - buy something off the shelf at the their local B & Q. Mark
CherryBlossom 30.04.2004 02:33
We've got one of the dalek shaped composters standing next to the shed. We also have a little plastic bin with a lid on standing in the kitchen that we use for vegetable waste, etc. It's easier to collect in that and then go down the garden when it's full than to keep going every time there's a bit of waste. Compost really is as wonderful soil improver, there's no doubt about that, and every garden should have a heap of some sort. ~Sharon