Garden News article on compost from Compost Lover column

This is last weeks Compost Lover article from Garden News – just in time for Compost Awareness Week.

My article this week is wedged in between a brace of celebratory events organised to promote good gardening practice – National Beanpole Week and Compost Awareness Week. As May is also the first month in the year you can start ordering comfrey plants from the Organic Gardening Catalogue (and because I did bean poles in my last article) this week seems like the best to talk about the subject to which this column owes its name: compost. And in particular the compost plant: comfrey.

Composting has a distinct cyclical rhythm so although it’s the ninth article in the Compost Lover series it seems right to talk about it now. At this time of year the creatures that make the compost start to become more active, move back into the heap or simply come alive. If you’ve never done it before take a hand lense or microscope to your heap and watch the life there. It’s one of the most interesting nature reserves you’ll ever visit.

I have a slow or cool compost heap which takes between six and twelve months to mature, with much of the exciting decomposition activity occurring between now and September. You can make compost a lot quicker using the hot composting method but you need a lot more waste materials to get started. The cool composting method is best for a small garden like mine.

To make the most of the main composting season you need to get started as soon as possible. After September most of the micro and macro organisms that make compost are absent from the heap, dormant or dozy. If you leave it much longer you wont get a good amount of finished compost until the end of next summer.

Throughout the winter I’ve been topping my heap up with nitrogen rich kitchen scraps (vegetable peelings, fruit skins and cores, tea bags, coffee grounds, but not meat, dairy, bread or fats as they all attract rats) and any carbon rich cardboard I’ve accumulated through my normal shopping habits (cereal packets, egg cartons, food boxes). This carries on through the rest of the year and seems to stabilise the heap successfully. Generally too much nitrogen makes a heap smelly and soggy and too much carbon leaves it crackly and dry. Either way no good compost comes from a heap that has lost its balance. I never lay the cardboard in flat, which tends to suppress the movement of air into the heap. I scrunch it up into fist sized balls and chuck it in willy nilly. Compost creatures need air and these scrunchies help to keep the air in the heap.

There are plenty of weeds coming up at this time of year and it’s tempting to see them as a problem rather than a resource. But nutrients stored up in the tissue of many weeds can be recycled through the compost heap quite safely so don’t blat everything in site with a weed killer. So long as you keep out those weeds laden with seeds, tough perennial roots and anything that might reproduce in the heap from the stems or leaves there isn’t a problem. A Colour Atlas of Weed Seedlings by J.B. Williams will help identify those weeds that are safe to compost.

Wild comfrey growing in the wrong place could also be called a weed but the cultivated non invasive variety Bocking 14 is grown specifically to add umph to your compost heap or to make an organic liquid fertilizer. It always bounces back from a hard cut and carries on producing broad strong shoots and leaves throughout the summer months: each packed full of nutrients brought up from deep soils by their impressive root system. This means you can cut it to the base every six weeks without fear of losing the plant and add the stems and leaves to your heap. They are one of the easiest plants to propagate from root cuttings and come up fine without any attention if planted correctly: horizontally between one and six inches long and about two to four inches deep. Alternatively order plants direct from the Organic Gardening Catalogue.

Resources
The Organic Gardening Catalogue (www.organiccatalog.com 0845 130 1304).
A Colour Atlas of Weed Seedlings, J.B. Williams.

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