Of all the skills that I have learned as a GIYer, being able to make my own compost has been the most useful. The compost corner at the end of the garden, is not a pretty or quaint place, but it is pivotal when it comes to the food producing that occurs in my garden, and without it, very little food would grow at all. Over the years I have learned to see these two parts of my garden (the veg patch and the compost corner) as intrinsically linked and part of a natural cycle of growth, decay and regrowth that is essential to growing.
Composting is the process of turning plant and animal matter in to a rich, highly nutritious, soil-like material. By adding this material to our soil, we make our soil more fertile. Food grows in the veg patch, taking nutrients from the soil; the plants then travel the short distance to the compost corner, where aided by an army of organisms, they rot down and release their nutrients; this composted material is then ferried back to the veg patch to nurture the next season’s crops. It’s the ultimate closed-loop virtuous system and my health, and the health of my family, rely on it functioning properly.
The more compost you can produce in your own garden the better. It’s a frustration to me that I haven’t ‘closed the gate’ on soil fertility in my garden. In other words, I don’t produce enough compost to cover all my veg beds every year. That generally means that I have to go scrambling to find a source of organic matter elsewhere, and that can be somewhat of a lottery, either some cow or horse manure from a local farmer or equestrian centre (usually too fresh) or seaweed from local beaches.
To produce big quantities of compost, you need to start viewing all kitchen and garden waste as potential compost ingredients. Get yourself a small bin or caddy (with a lid) for under your sink and put all uncooked food waste in there. You will be surprised at how much you produce, veg and fruit peelings, egg shells, tea bags etc. and also surprised at how little waste you are sending out to bin collection. One note of caution, I don’t add any cooked food to this bin to avoid attracting rats to the compost corner. The same logic applies in the garden, leaves, grass cuttings, prunings and the like these are all compost gold. If you have a few laying hens or ducks you have a consistent source of dynamite compost material in the form of their soiled bedding.
When it comes to composting, don’t expect magic results in your first attempt. The good news is that eventually, despite mistakes you might make, compost will turn out well in the end. All organic matter will rot down eventually, given enough time. The skill you learn, is how to make this happen quickly.
The Basics Composting
I use 2 different compost systems in my garden, a plastic composter, and homemade open compost bays for garden waste. The plastic composter is the standard unit you get from local authorities or from your garden centre. It’s not terribly easy to get compost out of (even with the hatch in the front), but by alternating layers of food waste and newspaper you can produce quite good compost (albeit slowly).
For garden waste, I have a 3-bay compost system made from old timber pallets it’s my attempt at the “New Zealand Box” compost design and the idea is that it acts like a compost conveyor belt. You fill one bay and when it’s time to turn the compost you tip it in to the next bay. So, if the system is working right you should have compost in each bay in various stages of decomposition.
The main problem I have had over the years is producing compost that is too wet due to an overload of nitrogen in the form of kitchen waste. This can be balanced by adding carbon in the form of newspaper or cardboard. I have found old newspapers to be a lifesaver when it comes to making good compost! Monthly airing of the heap by turning is also vital. It’s amazing how much the process of composting accelerators after turning a heap.
Have you always wanted to grow your own food, but don't know where to start? Do you get confused by all those weird horticultural terms and Latin names for plants? Join Michael Kelly on Saturday the 24th of February for a Beginners Guide to Growing course at GROW HQ. Learn how to make a simple veg patch plan, the most common veg to grow, and how and when to sow a variety of seeds. Full day course starts at 10am, costs €65 and includes a delicious HQ lunch. www.shop.giy.ie