Monday, 16 December 2013

Composting Anoraks

Anorak:- 1. type of coat with a hood often lined with fake fur.
Anorak:- 2. British slang:- a person who has a very strong interest, perhaps obsessive,  in a niche subject not understood by the general public.

Never enough

So, OK, I admit it, I'm a composting anorak. After all if you want the soil to feed you then first you must feed the soil and the best and only way as far as I'm concerned, is to add plenty of compost. What you should aim for is the creation of humus, which by the way is not compost but the complex decomposition of organic matter within the soil by living organisms. But composting will speed up the process with a sort of preliminary burn, if you like. This is not new, it has been going on for millennia and has been adopted by man since he stopped roaming around killing mammoths and started growing grass seed for a living.

In Medieval England it went something like this; first the oats/barley/wheat is cut with a sickle leaving a long stalk, then the poor folk come in to glean any ears missed. Next the geese were let into the field to pick up any grain left followed by cows to eat the stalks and field weeds and finally the sheep to close crop what remained. What was left was manure that was then ploughed in for the next crop to feed on. All very 'holistic' (I do hate that word) and as far removed from modern farming as you can get with its reliance on the petro-chemical industry, just think of cereal bowl to dust bowl! Being as we are time rich, and or, cash poor, and not needing to meet the repayments on a tractor than cost as much as our house we can instead return to the 'old ways' and feed the soil and ourselves with goodness.

You can pretty much compost anything, and with anaerobic digestion that means a lot of 'organic' stuff the home composter should not, but garden clippings, mown grass and kitchen peelings are fine. In fact you should try and aim for about half brown woody material (carbon) and half green soft material (nitrogen). Too much of either can really affect the results but if the grass turns to slime then mix in some woody bits or cardboard and if the woody stuff look like its going nowhere add some greenery. Its a bit trial and error and I don't think that there is any right way to go about it but when the heat starts to build in the heap then you know your on the right track. You can of course kick start it into action in a number of ways such as going to the garden centre and actually buying something, but why do that when there is so much that is free. The leaves of comfrey and nettle  are rich in nitrogen as is the liquor from the wormery, if you have one, as well as chicken manure and urea. Now that's a whole subject on its own!

The heat in the heap depends on its size, the time of the year, and the bacteria. In winter your heap will not get 'hot' but it is still working as the psychrophiles tick over at about 13oC. When it gets warmer so will the heap as the next set of bacteria the mesophiles bring it up to 20-30oC, but it is the mesophilic group of bacteria that do most of the decomposing as the temperature continues to rise, at between 40-70oC the thermophiles start their work and things can then get very hot indeed. I tested my heap this summer and it read 78oC and was steaming but I've never got it hot enough to kill the weed seeds unfortunately.

the trusty quiet shredder
So how do I go about it. Firstly you are never going to make enough from your own garden so I get a friendly local gardener to drop off her clippings once a week (thankyou Susan) and I will pursue others who may be clipping a neighbours hedge on the odd occasion - odd as in the look they give me when I ask! This is all gathered together until it is worth while to get the shredder out. My shredder crushes rather than chips and does the job just as well with the added bonus that it is a lot quieter. There are four wooden bins in which the initial composting is done, the first two hold the freshly crushed material. Bin three is slightly larger and takes bins one and two when they heat up and reduce enough to fill it. It is here that it gets hot! and  when it in turn has reduced, gets put into bin four to reduce even further. If you think about it, two heaped bins become one about two thirds full, and in the summer months this can take only six weeks.

the power house
But we are still not finished. In addition to the four wooden bins there are eight plastic 'daleks,' as I like to call then, which are filled in turn as I need the space to continue composting. These too reduce as a whole new bunch of critters get to work on them. Brandling worms suddenly appear from nowhere and go into a reproduction spree until there are so many they form writhing knots on the surface. Woodlice and centipedes help out so that after a year from start to finish I am left with the most fantastic compost and although difficult to measure I estimate the amount at about 2500 litres. It is good enough for potting compost but to make that I will mix with leaf mould.

Any one who dose not gather his leaves in the autumn, or even worse, gathers them and burns them, should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Each autumn I fill five one tonne builders bags with leaves which stay there till the following autumn at which point they are emptied into a large leaf bin for a further year. What's left over gets dug into the soil or laid as a mulch around the shrubs. My two year old leaf mould and one year old compost can then be sieved, through various gauges, and mixed with grit it fills all my needs from seed sowing through to the potato bags and greenhouse tomatoes and more.

I mentioned earlier the wormery which we got years ago at a Chelsea Flower Show and carried home on the tube, now that's a daft thing to do!, and has quietly sat in the garden being filled with peelings from the kitchen and providing an awful lot of liquid but not that much brown stuff, so that too eventually finds its way into the compost bins. Wormeries are one of those good ideas at the time jobs. I once sat through a talk and slide show given by the top honcho from the Bookam Potager that showed one complete side of a large polytunnel  filled with wormeries that their owners had fallen out of love with and donated to the project.

Composting on the allotment is slightly different as there is plenty of stable manure available for the taking and a good lot of leaf mould and wood chips from the communal bins, but I still compost the green 'bits' in wooden bins (which does not come to much) and I do fill four builders bulk bags with alternating layers of stable manure and leaves. Done early enough in the year it is ready use on the plot by winter. So there you have it, everyone should try and compost rather than pay £70 for the councils green waste bin to be taken away; now there is a thought, what if I charged my neighbours..........

composting on the lolltie

Books worth reading:-
Compost by Clare Foster, published by Cassel Illustrated
Composting with Worms by George Pilkington, published by eco-logic books
The way to healthy Garden Soil by Peter Davies, Amazon Kindle
Liquid Gold by Carol Steinfeld, published by Green Books