Compost contemplations

by | Mar 25, 2020

Like many organic gardeners, I am fascinated by compost. I know – it’s a bit weird, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. I love to witness the alchemy as my kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, cardboard and other unwanted items are transformed into a rich, chocolate-brown growing medium. It’s extraordinary.

On the right is the compost bin which has just been closed off, and on the left the one which has rested over the winter. A delivery company gave us the wooden frames, which stack on top of each other.

But it does take time to get decent compost. My first attempts, several years ago, resulted in a soggy green mess. I suspect the microorganisms have to build up. So I try to pass on the connection from an old bin to the next one, by layering the base of the new bin with twigs that didn’t break down in the last one.

Into the new bin I put kitchen scraps (potato peelings, tops of leeks and any other vegetable matter), coffee grounds, eggshells, cardboard (with any plastic tape removed), wood ash, weeds and trimmings from the garden. And lawn clippings. I try to spread each layer over the whole of the bin so that it doesn’t form a lump – and that’s it. I leave it to work its wonders.

This bin has been resting over the winter. Yesterday, I took off the two top layers of the wooden frame, and with my Libra shovel, started to dig the compost out. It was a bit soggy, which was either because of the very wet winter or because the frames did not allow enough air in. Previously I have made the bins out of pallets, which look less tidy but let more air through. It was beautiful compost, though – rich, dark and crumbly.

Then I barrowed it to the raised bed, tipped it into the frame, then raked it out and firmed it down with my Perseus Rake. I’ll transplant seedlings into this bed, so I don’t mind the odd twig or lump. If it was for seeds I would use a riddle to get the soil to a finer tilth.

What magic!

The two frames I lifted off the old compost bin are already in position for the next one. Here it is, with a base layer of twigs and the first set of lawn clippings (which will be spread out over the whole bin).

Things I don’t put into the compost bin: teabags (they have nylon and don’t break down), cooked food or meat. Chicken poo or other animal manure is brilliant if you keep hens – but we have none. I tried to persuade my partner to wee on the heap (urine is a good compost activator) but he felt that was a request too far.

There are many variations to compost making. Some use the quick return method, developed by Maye Bruce. Others make hot bins, which heat up and also work fast. Biodynamic gardeners add preparations to aid the development of the compost. Then there is the question of whether or not to turn your compost. I confess that I don’t. I leave those microrganisms to get on with it. For a thorough overview of compost making, Charles Dowding’s website is a good place to start.

A bonus (for me, anyway) with my home-made compost is the weeds. Because I throw seed heads into the bin, aquilegia, Jacob’s Ladder and other garden flowers appear in my vegetable beds where the compost has been spread. When I see them, I transplant them to the flower beds. And American Land Cress pops up regularly, which pleases me a great deal, because it provides winter salad leaves when there is not much else around.

A final contemplation. One of the aspects of compost-making that appeals to me is the containment. The leek tops and other bits of vegetables discarded before cooking, the cuttings and clippings from the garden all go back into the cycle. Biodynamic gardeners have a concept of the garden (or piece of land you are working) as a single entity, an organism. That concept resonates with me. If it is right, then could it be that the return of organic matter helps the garden to know itself? Although the seasons come round every year, each time they are different. Everything moves on. After all, our home planet moves in a spiral, not a circle. Does this continuity add to the story your garden tells itself?