A composter’s dream heap
We’re coming to the end of International Compost Awareness Week, an annual event designed to promote composting on all scales, due to the important environmental benefits it brings. Removing biodegradable waste from landfill, and returning it to the soil, solves pollution problems and increases soil fertility in one fell swoop. As a newly reinstated Master Composter (now that I’m home from university), I am fully qualified to tell you about the benefits of composting ;)
But what the press releases won’t tell you is that making your own compost can become a bit of an obsession. The problem, for a gardener, is that you just can’t get enough of the stuff. There are pots to fill, and plants to feed, and although you’ve got the space for another heap, you’re just not sure how you’re going to fill it….
You’ve rifled through the bins and removed anything remotely compostable. You’ve begged your neighbours to give you their lawn clippings, and even their used tea bags. You drive out of your way to visit that coffee shop that will happily load you up with their waste coffee grounds, and you’re travelling around with a bucket and spade in the boot in case you happen on an untended pile of horse manure.
And now you’re eyeing up any other potential sources of organic matter with which you can feed your heap. You know all about the importance of balancing our your ‘greens’ and ‘browns’, and have been keeping your cardboard to one side to add to the heap as necessary. So I don’t need to warn you about that, but there are other potential hazards you need to bear in mind as you wander the streets in search of fuel for the compost bins:
- Firstly, you should never remove material from wild spaces. It might look out-of-control, and as though you’re doing the environment a favour, but other beings live there and you’re disturbing their home. Humans produce plenty of waste products, so look for those instead.
- Avoid material that is likely to be contaminated – those piles of autumn leaves by the roadside may look appealing (you have plans for a special leaf mould bin) but they are likely to be polluted and won’t add anything good to your garden.
- Anything spiny can cause problems – the prickles seem to take much longer to rot down than anything else, making it hazardous to handle your compost without thick gloves.
- Plant material from unknown sources could be diseased, or contaminated with herbicides.
- Perennial weeds, and seeding weeds, are only killed by very hot heaps. If in doubt, leave them out, or at least compost them separately and for a very long time.
- Cooked food, meat and dairy attract vermin. If you really, really, want to compost them yourself instead of sending them off in your municipal food waste collection, then invest in a pair of Bokashi bins to treat the waste before you compost it.
- Pet waste from carnivorous animals (e.g. cats and dogs) is another no-no unless you can provide a separate system (a wormery can work) and keep the finished compost separate and away from your food crops.
So, those caveats aside, what else can you use to feed your soil and compost
heaps? I have collected litter from pet bunnies (who lived on a houseboat, no less) that consisted of sawdust and bunny poo. I’ve investigated collecting hop waste from local breweries (another reason to celebrate the return of microbreweries!). And when I worked I brought home the coffee grounds from the coffee machines in the office, although that got me funny looks.
Gardeners tend to jealously guard sources of organic matter once they have found them, but have you got any generalised tips you can share with avid composters?
Posted in Blog on May 10, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on May 12, 2013
Earlier in the month I received a press release from Carbon Gold, whose biochar compost products have been through the first commercial trials in the UK with professional horticulturalists. Apparently, biochar “helps to boost root growth, reduces the need to water, improves germination rates and results in stronger, healthier plants which are more resilient to disease and changing weather conditions” (you can read more in the trial highlights PDF available from the Carbon Gold website; a more detailed report on the trials will be available at the end of the month).
Carbon Gold is a UK-based company, producing peat-free biochar growing products that are approved by the Soil Association. It’s great news that their composts perform well, but to me it’s more interesting that in the trial they performed as well as, or better than, peat-based composts. Comments from the trialists included:
“Excellent peat substitute, better than green waste. Would not hesitate to use as part of a John Innes mix.”
Fergus Garrett, Head Gardener & CEO of Great Dixter
“Switching from our usual compost brand to Carbon Gold has cut water usage by a third. The GroChar compost is less prone to drying out.
Jez Taylor, Market Gardener at Daylesford Organic Farm
“Despite a rather sketchy year, due to the weather and erratic temperatures, I’ve seen excellent root growth in the seedlings I’ve grown with Carbon Gold Soil Improver, I’ve had to water less and it also works well in my own compost mix.”
Mark Diacono, author, smallholder and garden designer at Otter Farm
Although biochar works well in the Amazon (where it’s known as Terra preta and is a traditional soil management technique), we need more trials examining whether it has a role to play elsewhere – there are too many variables involved in environmental problems to assume we can find a one-size-fits-all solution.
In the meantime, it’s good to know that there’s some more high quality, peat-free products on the market for gardeners, so that we can leave peat where it belongs, in the ground.
If you’re pondering the change to peat-free gardening, then have a look at The Peat-Free Diet
, my latest book. It’s available to read free here on the website, or to purchase as an audio book.
Posted in Blog on Nov 20, 2012 · ∞
Tags: peat-free & compost.
This blog post has been very kindly sponsored by Linda from Linda’s gardening journey. It’s not commercial content – click for more information on my sponsored blog post policy.
Zombie Plant – by Phil Jones
I recently read an entertaining blog post on Claire’s Crops about the easiest way to get plants to self-seed in your garden that gave me the idea for this blog post. So today, in honour of the year’s creepiest day, I bring you Zombie Plants – plants that rise from the dead.
Not literally, of course. I can’t give you a spell that will resurrect that house plant you forgot to water for 6 months and which your Auntie Mavis gave you and will expect to see alive and kicking in a prominent place when she next comes to visit. You’re on your own there.
When I decide a plant is dead, and give up on it, it goes on the compost heap. The plant may not have the same idea. I had a lovely fern once, which I planted out in the garden. It promptly died, as my garden is pretty sunny and dry and it didn’t like the conditions. After a suitable mourning period (I love ferns) I tossed it onto the compost heap. When I next emptied the compost heap, the fern was alive and kicking. A little pale from lack of sunshine, but then you’d expect that from a zombie plant. I planted it out in a shadier spot and… it died. Sadly the magic of the compost heap was not enough to resurrect it a second time.
One of the creepy things that happens quite often with wormeries is that potatoes start to grow in them. The first you know is when those giant, white and fleshy tendrils start poking out all over. There’s a triffid in there, growing from a tiny scrap of potato peeling that had an eye on it. It’s tempting to hack at the thing with a machete until it dies, but there’s no need – it will run out of energy and decompose in due course.
As Claire mentions in her blog post, plenty of plants come back from the dead by distributing their seeds in the compost heap. Some of them are weeds, and that’s unfortunate. But unless you have a hot heap you can use your compost heap as a way to distribute self-seeding plants in the garden. It’s what happened with opium poppies in mine – I tried sowing them the recommended way, by scattering the seed myself, and it didn’t work. When I nurtured seeds inside I managed one or two plants; it was their composted seeds that helped to bring an army of zombie poppies into my garden. Other zombie armies that have arisen include parsley (in paving cracks!), Welsh onions and tree spinach.
The middle of winter can be a pretty desolate time in the garden, unless you’ve been super-organised and planted a lot of winter crops. Frosted, bare soil and stark branches make everything look dead. But, come spring, lots of things will be rising from the dead. Again, some are weeds, but the more impressive growth comes from tubers that have survived the winter underground. These zombies send out shoot towards the light, all the while decomposing as they sacrifice themselves to new growth. Volunteer potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and Chinese artichokes can all rise from their wintry graves with no warning. Garlic is also great at this, as you can plant cloves in late autumn and see nothing poking above ground until early spring.
What rises from the dead in your garden?
You can find more spooky goings-on in The Zombie Garden
and Fantastic Fantasy Flora
. I also have a Squidoo lens on Scary Plants
And if you’re worried about vampires, you’ve got until midnight to take advantage of a 10% discount at The Garlic Farm. See the offers and coupons page for more details.
Posted in Blog on Oct 31, 2012 · ∞
With the house now up for sale, it was time to smarten up the window boxes at the front – I have left them planted with low-maintenance succulents for the last few seasons as they survive everything (including me forgetting to water them). But they’re not very eye-catching and so I bought some patriotic (red, white and blue) petunias instead. It seemed like the perfect time to test out a product I’ve been sent for review – the ‘UK’s first fair trade coir compost block’, sold by Traidcraft online and also in Oxfam shops for £2.50 per block. The timing is very appropriate, as it’s World Fair Trade Day tomorrow.
They also sent me a pair of their fair trade gardening gloves, which I have included in the picture because of their great slogan – “I’m weeding out unfair trade” :)
Coir blocks are lightweight and easy to store and transport. They’re made from a waste product – the hairy bits on coconuts – and make a great peat-free compost, or bedding for worms in your wormery. They’re not very photogenic, however.
This one is the size of a large brick. The instructions are to soak it in water for up to 24 hours, until the block crumbles and the water is absorbed. I left mine overnight; if you’re in a hurry you can speed up the process a bit with warm water.
Once you’ve forked it over to break up any small lumps or dry patches, you’re left with 9 litres of compost – just enough for me to freshen up my four long troughs for the window boxes. It’s lovely clean stuff to handle, too.
I’m sure the petunias will love it. They’re sitting in the sun room at the moment, as some cold nights are forecast. But they will soon be making the front of my house look pretty.
There aren’t many composts you can just pop into your shopping bag when you’re walking home from town, but coir blocks do give you that option. You can read more about coir in The Peat-Free Diet.
Posted in Blog on May 11, 2012 · ∞
Tags: peat-free & compost.
A few days ago I received an email, asking me the following question:
“It recently occured to me that the high potassium and phosphorus content of bananas/peels would make them an ideal candidate as an organic fertiliser of peppers, tomatos, tomatillo, cougette, achocha etc. My question is do you have any experience or insight reguarding this ? if so any advice on how best to employ the nanas.”
Now I have heard about using banana peels to fertilize roses, but it’s not something I have tried myself – ours just go on the compost. And although it’s a well-repeated idea on the internet, I have yet to find any scientific evidence that suggests it would work or well-respected gardeners who suggest it.
And there are different opinions on the best way to use banana peel as fertilizer. Green (Living) Review suggests baking them first; My Little Garden in Japan turns them into a plant smoothie with eggshells, and Real Simple simply buries them under the rose bush.
What do you think? Do you use your banana skins as fertilizers, and if so, how? Have you read something more erudite on the subject that would shed some light? Are you now wishing you’d brought along a banana for lunch?
While I was going bananas this morning, I came across a lovely blog post on Benvironment
about the perils of leaving ‘biodegradable’ banana waste behind when you’re having some time off. But you don’t do that, do you? :)
Posted in Blog on Apr 12, 2012 · ∞
Tags: Basics & compost.
If you think looking at compost heaps is an interesting way to spend the day, then you can share that love with others by volunteering for the Master Composter scheme. My local Oxfordshire scheme is recruiting new members this spring:
Oxfordshire residents are invited to become volunteer Master Composters
Would you like to find out more about composting and help pass on the message to others? We will train you to encourage your friends and neighbours to compost at home by attending events, writing articles and talking to local groups and schools. Volunteers are asked to give 30 hours of their time in order to qualify as a Master Composter.
You will join our existing volunteer group, who have been working in the community since 2008 to help keep biodegradable waste out of landfill.
The scheme is run by the Oxfordshire Waste Partnership (representing the county’s local authorities) and Garden Organic, who provide the training and technical support. Oxfordshire is part of a nationwide ‘Home Composting’ campaign, which offers subsidised compost bins to all householders in the county. The Master Composter programme runs alongside and strengthens this campaign.
Training is free, and covers the basic elements of home composting and related environmental issues. It takes place over two consecutive days, in Oxford city centre and the Garden Organic site at Ryton (near Coventry). Refreshments and transport to Ryton from Oxford city are provided. The training will take place on Friday 20th and Saturday 21st April 2012, and attendance at both days is required.
The Master Composter scheme is open to everyone – you don’t have to be a composting expert. All we ask is that you are willing to contribute your time and enthusiasm as a volunteer.
There are a limited number of spaces available on the 2012 programme, and applications are invited by 28th March. For an application form or more information, please contact:
The Household Waste Reduction Officer
Oxfordshire County Council
Oxford OX1 1NE
Tel: 01865 815908
Mob: 07920 580464
Posted in Blog on Feb 28, 2012 · ∞
Tags: compost & events.
Yesterday I wrote a piece about The Peat-Free Diet for the Oxfordshire Master Composter’s newsletter, and a quick case study about why I got involved with the project for the handbook. (If you’re curious, I talked about that in episode 67 of the Alternative Kitchen Garden Show.)
On New Year’s Eve I went out in the garden for a low effort potter and discovered that some serious worm bin maintenance was in order – the worms were evacuating the WasteJuggler (which is like a mini wheelie bin with a tap), which is a sign that conditions inside are unacceptable. It was my fault; I’d known for weeks that the tap had become blocked and liquid wasn’t draining, but hadn’t got around to doing anything about it.
After a quick wardrobe change, I got stuck in. I emerged about an hour later covered head to toe in brown goo and smelling like I’d been rolling around in a pig sty. The worms had been rescued, the finished compost harvested and the worm bin set up again; but it was one of those occasions when I had to get undressed in the Futility Room as I was too dirty to be allowed into the house.
I was reminded of an anecdote from WWII where a Land Girl who was assigned to work with the pigs wore her dungarees until they were stiff with muck. Then she sent them home to her mother for washing; the mother, short on supplies for her own garden, soaked them in water to loosen the dirt, then used that water as a liquid feed for her veggies…. :)
There’s no doubt that gardening can be dirty work, and that there’s money (and inspiration) in muck:
- Manure, particularly the elusive “well-rotted horse manure”, is a perennial topic in garden writing. But anyone who has a guaranteed source of the stuff is unlikely to share that information!
- You can also branch off into manure tea and other liquid manure preparations, or go the vegan route and talk about green manures.
- Humanure is a still an almost taboo topic, but composting toilets are becoming a little more acceptable.
- My garden has been fuelled by chicken manure for six years now. I haven’t thought about the effects that rehoming the chickens will have, but a shortage of material for composting could well be one of them.
- There’s also the ongoing concern of manure contaminated by aminopyralid, a herbicide that is supposed to break down but clearly doesn’t do so quickly enough to prevent damage to vegetable crops.
Magic is something else entirely. Magic is things happening in a nice clean, effortless way. Magic is about seeing the end result but not how it came about. You know, the way that nature does things ;)
Posted in Blog on Jan 6, 2012 · ∞
Tags: scribbling & compost.
As a Master Composter and organic gardener I am a friend of decomposers and detritivores – the organisms and microorganisms that process dead matter and waste products into new life. They’re part of the natural circle of life, and the cornerstone of the food web.
Inside the house, it’s a different matter – we’re still very keen on preventing our food from decomposing, and on removing it from the house once it does. So it has been fascinating to watch the BBC Four documentary ‘After Life: The Strange Science of Decay’. In it scientists created a model house, filled it with all kinds of food, sealed it up and left it to see what happened. They released a few insects to seed the populations, but assumed that the rest of the decomposing organisms would already be in position. For eight weeks they tracked every stage of decomposition.
Fortunately, no one has yet invented SmelloVision, so viewers are spared what Pete refers to as ‘bin juice’ – a smell guaranteed to make him hurl. The presenter, Dr George McGavin, is not so lucky, although as a biologist he says he is used to horrid smells. He’s generally fine with the stenches the house produces; it’s on one of his field trips he encounters one that makes him gag.
We watch as bacteria, fungi and insects devour vegetables and meat and leave almost nothing behind (and the remains would, eventually, be eaten by later waves of decomposers). We investigate our deep-seated feelings of revulsion (programmed into us to keep us alive) and look at the important work being done by forensic scientists on the nature of decay.
If you’re squeamish, but interested in composting, then fast-forward to week 8 (about an hour and 20 minutes in), when everything has pretty much decomposed and we get to see inside the compost heap. Not only do you get a good look at some of the microscopic beasties that do such good work for us, but you’ll be able to see the nutrients being recycled into fresh plants.
I would thoroughly recommend watching the show while it’s still available on iPlayer (until 16th December), although perhaps not with a tv dinner.
And if there are any experts out there who can explain why a lack of atmospheric carbon in the Carboniferous period led to GIANT insects, I would be intrigued to know ;)
Posted in Blog on Dec 9, 2011 · ∞
Last modified on Dec 10, 2011
Tags: science & compost.
This is my second ‘challenge’ blog post on a topic suggested by a reader – Myfriendscallme Kath on Facebook wrote “virgin, grow-space prep for next season ??”.
If you want to grow your own food on a new plot next year then now is an excellent time to start thinking about getting it ready. Having a space fit for planting will save you a lot of angst in spring, when there’s so much to do already with sowing seeds and planting out seedlings.
The traditional answer to ground preparation is digging. The vegetable plot would have been thoroughly dug over during the winter, leaving frosts and winter weather to break down any big clods to leave you with a ‘fine tilth’ by the spring time that’s perfect for sowing seeds. It’s slow and demanding work, as if you have a weedy plot you must remove all traces of perennial weed roots while you’re digging. The short cut of using a rotovator (or rototiller, a mechanical digger essentially) may well just chop weed roots into tiny pieces and give you an even bigger weed problem next year.
Digging does allow you to incorporate well-rotted manure (or compost) into the soil, and many people find it very rewarding. But although the winter dig may be of benefit to heavy clay soils, it’s not so good for lighter, sandy soils – their structure is more likely to be damaged by winter weather and light soils benefit greatly from being covered over.
In fact, digging does disturb the structure of all soils – if you’d like to take the natural, No Dig, approach then you can encourage the soil organisms to do the hard work for you. Even if you just want to avoid the hard work of digging, No Dig is a viable option for the preparation of new and existing plots.
Sheet mulching is a method of soil preparation that involves no digging (it’s also called Lasagne gardening, for reasons that will become apparent). It’s great for community plots where you can count on a great influx of man power at the beginning when people are enthusiastic; later on when people have drifted away you have lovely low-maintenance soil :D
With sheet mulching you cover the ground with a thick layer of cardboard or newspaper to block out light and discourage weed growth. This bottom layer is then covered with compost or manure or anything that will eventually rot down. You can have as many layers as you like – you’re building up the soil rather than digging down. The pile is then usually left to settle and start to rot over the winter. In spring you can plant right into the layers; you may need to start your seeds elsewhere in the first year, but you’ll have suitable soil for seed sowing soon.
Of course, you can build raised beds and fill them with compost and soil ready for planting – that’s a useful option if you have to garden on a hard surface, and if you’re not sure whether the ground might be contaminated. Raised beds can be simple affairs an inch or two above soil level, with heaped sides, or you can build walls with whatever materials you have to hand. Try and avoid treated railway sleepers that might ooze nasties into your compost.
If you’re digging through the winter then you’ve got your work cut out; sheet mulching your site (or sowing a green manure like Hungarian grazing rye, although it’s getting a bit late of that this year) will leave you plenty of time to peruse the new seed catalogues. Either way, there is one more essential task for a new gardener – start a compost heap. Gradually fill it with kitchen and garden waste through the winter and you’ll have home-grown compost to feed your veggies next year.
Posted in Blog on Nov 2, 2011 · ∞
Tags: general & compost.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while then you’ll have read about my experiments with using large cardboard boxes as temporary compost heaps. I wrote up my experiences for the Master Composters last year, and they appeared as part of a larger piece in the Summer 2010 issue of Organic Way, the quarterly magazine sent to Garden Organic members.
This is the article as I sent it in (it may have been edited for publication in Organic Way, I haven’t checked) – I thought you might like to see it.
At the end of 2008 I bought a new chair for my office, which came in an enormous cardboard box. Disposing of cardboard can be an issue in many households – some places have recycling facilities and others don’t, and although cardboard makes a great addition to the compost heap to balance out kitchen and garden waste, most families amass far too much packaging for a small bin to deal with.
I decided to see whether I could compost a pile of cardboard on its own (much like having a long term heap to rot down woody material), and also whether a large cardboard box would make a good temporary compost bin.
I opened up the flaps of the box and used them as a base to help keep it stable, which also meant that the contents would be in contact with the ground so that worms and other composting organisms could make their way in. Initially I used the base of the box as a lid – but although the box itself stood up very well to bad weather over the winter, the flat lid got soggy very quickly and I added it to the contents to compost down.
Initially as I added waste cardboard I also added a liquid compost activator to add some nitrogen; later on I let the cardboard composter take care of itself. I rapidly filled one giant box and started another – a shortage of cardboard was never going to be an issue!
By April the cardboard was starting to rot down, although it was hard for rain to penetrate beyond the top layers and so the cardboard composter was quite dry. As space opened up in my regular compost bins I started transferring the half-rotted cardboard to those, mixed with garden and kitchen waste, and it quickly rotted down under those conditions.
Eventually I dismantled the cardboard composters because they were taking up too much space (I don’t have a large garden and I already have three compost bins and two wormeries!), but the outer cardboard box remained remarkably intact. I had been sharing my experiences with the readers of my blog and listeners to my Alternative Kitchen Garden podcast and some of them tried making cardboard composters themselves.
Between us we came to the following conclusions:
- It is possible to compost cardboard on its own, although it’s much easier if the cardboard is wet when added to the heap – if you have a rain water barrel then try soaking large pieces in there for a few minutes.
- A large cardboard box makes a surprisingly good temporary compost bin, and would be ideal for an allotment or a large garden where it can be hidden away.
- If the cardboard composter is left for many months then the bottom layers can become quite compacted (but that’s true for any compost heap).
- Shiny food packaging takes much longer to break down than corrugated cardboard, and some packaging has a thin layer of plastic that has to be removed from the finished compost.
- A cardboard composter makes a great repository for carbon-rich material that can be used to balance out an excess of grass clippings in the summer to avoid a slimy mess.
So if you’re keen to reduce your waste or to turn as much of it as possible into a resource for your garden, have a go at composting more cardboard.
I attended the first ever Oxfordshire Master Composter training course in April 2008, because I am a keen organic gardener and I wanted to share my love of compost with the world! In my first year as an MC I went out and about and encouraged people in my local area to get stuck into composting; since then I have been promoting composting through my blog and podcast and in my book – ‘The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z‘, which has a special entry under M about Master Composters.
Posted in Blog on Mar 24, 2011 · ∞
Last modified on Sep 10, 2011
Tags: compost & articles.