Such Stuff as Great Gardens are Made of
A healthy soil makes for a beautiful garden. Treat your garden to homemade garden compost each year and you will be richly rewarded. Composting is a natural process, which need not be complicated. Micro-organisms are not judgemental. They will work whether you have bought a smart container or have simply dumped organic rubbish in a forgotten corner.
Compost benefits the soil structure, adding humus to light soils and helping to break down heavy soils. It contains valuable trace elements. Although it does not contain as many nutrients as manure, garden compost will cultivate the soil from within, allowing roots to access water and nutrients already present in the soil.
A container of some kind prevents the wind from dispersing things. A cover keeps heat and moisture inside. Oxygen and water are needed to break down the organic material; the heap should be moist but not waterlogged. Turning the heap with a fork will aerate the mix and increase the temperature, speeding up the process. Compost will still be produced in an unturned heap, but the process will be slower. An unpleasant smell is likely to result from a lack of oxygen, anaerobic bacteria releasing the rotten egg smell of hydrogen sulphide. A healthy compost heap will have an autumnal smell.
A large amount of plant material added at one time will produce a ‘hot heap’. Most garden compost heaps will stay cooler as they are added to steadily. The lower temperatures will not kill weed roots or seeds, so avoid adding perennial weeds, such as dandelion, as new plants will generate from the root. Digging out a compost heap containing bindweed is to spend a day sifting through white tentacles of roots.
Most garden waste can be composted. A mix of green and woody material (green and lean) gives the right balance of nitrogen and carbon for the bacteria to thrive. Don’t add material in lumps of one kind but mix them together. Shredding or cutting woody material will help it to decompose. Vegetable waste is ideal for the compost heap; remember to take the kitchen knife out first!
Don’t add cooked food as this can attract rats. Never add meat, or your heap will become a rat bonanza. Any diseased plant material should be avoided, as should grass clippings from lawns treated with herbicides.
Toxic plants, such as yew, can be composted as the process breaks down the plant’s natural toxins. Add these leaves to the heap in a thin layer, or you may discover strata of dried leaves when digging it out.
Leaves can be added for composting, though in larger amounts they should be composted separately to produce leafmould, an ideal soil conditioner. Leaves of oak, beech and hornbeam decompose quickest,while the coarse leaves of sycamore or horse chestnut will need shredding. Collecting leaves with a lawnmower is ideal as the leaves are cut down by the blades.
Think about which annuals, or biennials, you are happy to live with. Seeds of foxglove or forget-me-not, for example, may survive domestic composting and spread with abandon if added. It is worth taking the time to remove any plastic or stickers attached to fruit. Rain will wash and highlight them. A label shouting “Jaffa” beneath your roses will destroy any romantic vision you are trying to achieve. The occasional toy car, or soldier, however, is a charming find.
Composting is the gardener’s back-to-basics. Any effort put into making your own compost will be rewarded in spades.