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Starting a composting heap


Compost heap

Compost heap

Compost heap


It's the beginning of April and I wonder how many New Years resolutions are still being kept, probably not many despite the good intentions. But you now have a second chance, by making a new gardening year resolution. April is the start of the growing season and from here on us keen gardeners can begin to get serious with our forks, spades and secateurs. No more cosy fireside evenings, there's work to be done. What better way to start the new gardening year than committing yourself to starting a compost heap. A Compost 'heap', a home made Heath Robinson timber affair or plastic garden centre bought unit whatever your method of making compost it's good for the soul and the garden.

Like most gardening tasks for the common or garden, gardener, the process of making your compost needs to be as simple, efficient, fun and cheap as possible. We want this to be the resolution you do keep. And as with all new gardening tasks don't set your expectations too highly to begin with. As I've said before the neighbour who has a weedless verdant lawn, copious amounts of summer vegetables, or the rich crumbly almost edible compost, the envy of the nation, has been perfecting their skills for years. Getting started is a success in its self. Making compost can be very easy but making very good compost can be very hard.

Even though I would consider myself a good gardener I consider myself a bad compost maker, or lazy a one at least. Being fortunate enough to have a large garden in the country I have opted for the relaxed compost heap method. This basically amounts to two timber edged areas where all garden waste gets dumped. I do mulch woody waste like rose and shrub prunings. This carried out using a simple blade cutting mulcher as opposed to the drum cutting versions. The blade cutters give a finer mulched matter which rots down more quickly. Pretty much everything else gets dumped as it is. This includes grass cuttings which are notoriously slimy and wet when they break down but when mixed with the various dry matter like autumn leaves, mulched twigs and torn up newspaper and cardboard I seem to get away with it. At this point I let a far greater gardening force take over in the shape of Mother Nature.

And would you believe it after a year of neglect and a little digging around I find a surprising amount of what I would call passable compost material. I tend to sieve this with a garden riddle to remove any larger debris which I return to the compost heap. It doesn't exactly resemble the garden centre bought luscious variety but it is compost of acceptable quality. It also appears to be very successful for incorporating when planting, digging into the veg area or mulching on borders. My composting efforts border on very little to none but for some gardeners it is a science, an art form, an obsession.

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For real composting success you need to be methodical, diligent and patient. First select your location. Away from the house but convenient, in the shade is fine. Next decide on whether you are going to heap or bin. A simple bin can be constructed from three old wooden pallets set on edge and attached to four stakes banged into the ground, creating a three sided square. Line the inside of this with fine mesh chicken wire to keep everything contained. Alternatively you can buy an enclosed plastic bin or wooden unit.

I personally don't put any vegetable food waste in my compost areas as I feel it attracts vermin. Using garden waste only I have never had a problem. The general rule though is no cooked food including vegetables and no meat, fish or dairy products. Coffee grinds, tea bags,hoover bag contents, shredded newspapers are fine. Go easy with the grass cuttings. The plastic enclosed bins are useful in respect of warding off vermin but are not large enough for big gardens. Maybe you could use one for the kitchen waste and an open bin for the garden waste. All materials put onto your heap ideally should be chopped into smallish pieces, say 5cms, as this will speed up the composting process.

What really gets the compost going is heat and air. This encourages the vital bacteria to thrive and go to work fast breaking up the organic matter. The heat will occur naturally as you pile up the heap but you can cover with old carpet if you want. To let in air you need to fork over the heap every month. This isn't the most pleasant job at times. Once you have a years worth of material stop adding to it, fork over every month for another 6 months. In the mean time start a separate heap for the newly arising waste. After that six month have a check and you should be finding something approaching the fine crumbly fresh smelling compost your neighbour has been flaunting these many years. Like I said making good compost is hard. Or you could follow my slovenly ways.