Tuesday 26 January 2016

Conquering Compost

They say composting is easy. They say you just chuck your garden and kitchen waste in a big box and leave it a year. Then they talk about greens and browns, and layering, and mixing, and activating it if it's not going well. They talk about insulating it, ventilating it, aerating it, covering it, making sure it's not too wet, making sure it's not too dry. Then they talk about formulae; two thirds brown and one third green, or maybe it's 90% brown and 10% green (and what kind of waste do we create more of? Green!), or maybe it's half and half. Then some guy says you've gotta add ash or clay, and another says you've gotta buy worms, and another says you need a bokashi bin, and another says a hotbin is the only way, and another says you only get really good compost if your heap is three cubic yards. One guy says you have to turn it regularly and another guy says never turn it. Then there are the big questions: how hot does your heap get? Is that really properly-formed humus, or is it just decomposed organic matter? Let me tell you, compost is THE number one most hotly debated subject at our community veg-growing plot at FoodSmiles.

Me, I find life's too busy to worry about it very much. On our allotment, we have a two-cell bin made of pallets. We fill it up, it sinks a bit, we keep filling it up until we can't fill it any more, and then when we have to - usually every two years or so - we dig it all out and use the good stuff at the bottom and in the middle. There's always a lot of uncomposted stuff, on the top and round the edges where it's exposed to the air, so we just return it to the bottoms of the bins to keep going. It's slow going, and the compost isn't going to win any prizes and is usually still full of fibrous bits of root and twigs that didn't quite break down enough, and a few bright white bindweed roots to pick out, but it makes a satisfactory mulch, must contain plenty of nutrients, and disappears into the soil soon enough - and I certainly can't complain about the quality of my soil.

Last autumn, though, we were despairing about the size of our compost heap, which just didn't seem to be breaking down at all. It may be because we moved it into the part-shade of a tree, or because of the big piece of cardboard we threw in without tearing it up, or maybe we just produced more waste than usual for some reason. But we couldn't add any more to the mountain - we even had to start a new heap in another corner temporarily.

In November we started forking all the uncomposted matter off the top onto an empty bed. We didn't have time to finish the job and it just sat there all through December, but yesterday, at last, we got back to it. We forked out the rest of the uncomposted stuff, piled the good stuff into the right-hand bin (plus three plastic dustbins) ready for use, and piled the uncomposted stuff back into the left-hand bin.

We also wrapped black plastic sheeting round the bins and stapled it in place. Despite the popularity of compost bins constructed from old pallets and a lingering notion that bins should be well-ventilated, I've noticed lately that bins without ventilation seem to be much more effective, and by enclosing the waste you don't get a layer round the outside that dries out and doesn't break down. We'll have to find a lid as well, I think...

Somehow, almost everything fitted back into the bins (we did also fill three 80 litre plastic dustbins with good stuff), and despite mostly ignoring the bins for two years, one of them was 80% or more good compost and the other about 50%. The mountain is no more - hurrah!

I guess composting is easy...
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