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Monday 15 September 2014

Compost - a transformation achieved by tiny lifeforms

Published 06/05/2014 | 05:42

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Turning the garden compost is a seasonal chore that brings with it an annual renewed appreciation of the wonderful work done by soil mini-beasts, bacteria, fungi, decomposers and other micro-organisms.

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Our compost is stored in two clamps; one is an active dump for all kitchen vegetable peelings and scraps, some grass mowings, hedge clippings, gone-over contents of planters and hanging baskets, potato haulms, tomato stems, autumn leaves and all manner of sundry rubbish. Any vegetable matter that is biodegradable is grist for the mill of the compost heap.

Over time the whole motley collection of organic bits and bobs is reduced from a smelly wet mess to the dry, sweet-smelling crumbly wonder that is garden compost. How tiny life forms achieve this wonderful transformation is an annual source of wonder and admiration.

The collection in the first clamp gets turned, tossed and mixed with a garden fork into the second clamp and is allowed to rest there for a further year before it is fully broken down and deemed fit for use as a garden mulch and soil conditioner.

Both compost clamps are made from four wooden pallets standing upright on the bare soil and held together at the corners with cable ties to form bottomless open boxes.

As one clamp is emptied the other is turned from the waiting receiver. The top layer is only partially rotted so it is smelly, wet and full of Tiger Worms at all stages of development from newly hatched to large adults. Robins and Blackbirds with young to feed are not shy about grabbing tasty snacks anytime I turn my back.

As I dig deeper into the heap the rotting mass is well decomposed, is still damp but is no longer smelly. Worms are no longer present. Deeper again the compost is dry and crumply with lots of Common Woodlice, fast-running Centipedes, the odd very large Yellow Slug or very small Netted Slug. Shiny, pearl-like eggs of the Garden Snail stand out against the brown background.

Each year's emptying of the compost clamp brings a surprise find. This year's surprise find was the mossy wonder of a Wren's nest tucked in the space between the inner and outer leaves of the pallet's deck boards. The nest had no lining or eggs and appeared to have been abandoned. The lack of lining suggested that the male who built the outer dome failed to attract a female to line it and set up home there.

Wexford People

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