The How and Why of Compost, Essay Two
Making compost is so simple and yet it takes most gardeners a long time before they can make good compost effortlessly. It took me quite a few years before I got the process right so I hope I can help other gardeners to get there faster.
Let us start with the composting container. Any of the commercially-available compost boxes are pretty useless. They are designed for city people who want to keep their gardens neat as a pin and not make an unsightly heap that might offend the eyes of their neighbours.
The reason these boxes are useless is that they shut the compost off from the rest of nature and hope something miraculous will happen inside a sealed plastic box. It won’t work because the first rule of making good compost is that the compost must, really must, touch the earth.
The compost needs the rest of nature to happen. It needs fungal mycelia, bacteria, small animals such as worms and the rest of the complex soil biology to turn it into compost. “Soil biology is not only more complex than we understand, it is more complex than we can understand,” I forget the scientist who said that but it is a very humbling thought. So, I make my compost in a large, unsightly heap, right on the ground. Result, perfect compost every time.
I do use a container. We favour a system of four wooden pallets, wired together at the corners. The reason for this is that we need to take the pallets apart to harvest the compost. I just started a new box of compost. It has three sides. Once it begins to fill up, I will put the front gate on it to contain the compost. The autumn is the perfect time to start compost because we have a lot of rain at this time of the year and a big, hot box of compost needs a lot of water to function.
If you don’t like the idea of pallets there is always the option of making a circle of chicken wire and filling that with your compost. Just remember to make the circle easy to open again. Compost can also be made in a pile on the ground with no container but it is not as neat and easy to work with this way.
The first thing in my new compost box, right on top of the soil was a couple of wheelbarrow loads of chopped hollyhock stocks and the chopped tops of my dahlia and zinnia plants. This tough, woody substrate ensures good oxygenation of the pile. On top of this coarse chopped material will go wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of waste bedding from the stables.
We use hay for bedding because we can’t get straw here at a reasonable price and because hay makes better compost. Each wheelbarrow load will either be put on and left for a day in the rain, or in dry periods watered in before the next wheelbarrow load goes on top.
I do this quickly and in a few days, the compost is hot and steaming. A lot of people try to make compost without making sure there is enough moisture in the pile and wonder why it never rots down. Well, bacteria need water to do their work just as much as any other animal does.
When we first started gardening here, I could not convince my husband the compost needed to be watered as each layer was built up. It seemed obvious to him that it would get well soaked in the winter rains. He would give each layer a token sprinkle.
We kept opening box after box of compost that was completely dry and uncomposted in the middle despite having been out all winter in the rain. The compost in the centre of the box was dry enough to start fires with.
After the fifth or sixth box of powder-dry, uncomposted material was opened up, he protested that he was a convert and would in future ensure all compost would be properly moistened. Divorce averted, we have gone on to make batch after batch of splendid compost.
Once the 4′ by 4′ box is filled up and starts to steam away, we leave it uncovered for the winter rains to replenish the water lost to steam. When the compost pile is good and hot, it is possible to take a garden fork and dig down a foot or so and throw the kitchen scraps in and cover it up. This oxygenates the pile somewhat and ensures the kitchen scraps will be speedily digested before they can become attractive to rats.
We have had rats in the compost piles when the piles had cooled down and were stuffed full of red wriggler worms. The rats were burrowing in the compost to eat the high fat, high protein worms. My husband was furious because they were making a mess. He tried to trap the rats with no success. One day, we went out and found all the rats gone. A mink had come and eaten them all. In the country, you can always expect backup from nature.
Speaking of worms, I do seed new boxes with clumps of red wriggler worms from established boxes but I probably don’t need to. You see, we never bought any red wrigglers. We built the compost boxes and they came. The whole thing is a bit mysterious but that is how it happened.
About turning the compost, we used to do this and then got old and tired. We now just make the compost piles up quickly and then leave them for a year. When we dig out the compost, it is excellent. Anyone who has ever staggered under the weight of my cauliflowers will attest to its power. It is also perfect for making your own potting soil by mixing it with a bit of sand. Try this and you will never buy commercial potting soil again.
Now, for those of you who do not keep animals, I can only say you will never have such good compost as we do. Compost needs carbon from hay, wood chips or fallen leaves and it needs nitrogen and other nutrients found in animal urine and manure. You can try buying the carbon you need and the nitrogen in the form of some sort of fertilizer but wouldn’t it just be easier to keep a few pretty hens or some nice rabbits?