At the time we bought and moved into our home, the previous owners had a Dalek style plastic compost bin at the bottom of the garden. Taking over another person’s compost can be daunting as you will never know how, or even if, they had composted correctly. Without the required mix of green and brown material, the regular mixing up and possibly watering the heap, you could have a pile of mouldy material that no matter how long you wait, it will not compost. The Dalek we had inherited was bottomless. This may also increase the risk of vermin having moved in to get to the warmth inside the heap. The day came when I committed to opening it up and seeing what lay inside …. Mouldy grass cuttings, dried by age but not composted as there was no real mix of essential ingredients, and no moisture.
Clearing the aged contents into the local authority’s food and garden waste recycle bin, breaking down the Dalek and disposing it at the local recycle centre in the hard plastics container, I set about creating a new compost. Having a garden around six hundred and fifty square meters, set in an area close to established and protected trees I knew our garden would be creating a lot of compostable material. Particularly once I started planting. Lawn cuttings, pruning’s, deadheading, weeds, both annual and perennial, both of which would need different treatment, kitchen peelings, shredded paper, and leaves. At the time we moved in, I had not realised just how many leaves we would be gathering up each year. And over such a long period of time as each tree shed its leaves at different times.
I initially kept the compost location where the original owners built theirs at the bottom of the garden. It made sense as while I am working within the garden, it is not far to take all the material destined for it. Our garden slopes away from the house. Dropping around six feet in hight. All moisture therefore runs away from the house, and we do have patches which are quite damp. Even though it is south facing. This slope does offer an opportunity to grow trees which grow to around four or five meters in height and planted at the bottom of the garden, we look out directly into the canopy when looking out of the windows. I have planted Amelanchier, Flowering Cherries, Eucalyptus, Quince, Crab Apple, Rowen, and the height after some ten years, the canopy of each is seen in line with the ground floor windows giving a feeling of planting you may find in a flat garden. The magic happens when you follow the trail into and around the garden you see the canopy rise and shrubs underplanting coming into view.
To compost our potential to the full, I knew we would need a varied approach to how we do it. Ultimately, to have a hot bin compost would enable all kitchen waste and not just peelings to get composted. Until we installed a hot bin, cooked waste would have to be disposed of via the local authorities recycle facility, otherwise we would be attracting rats. Likewise, perennial weeks would need the heat of the hot compost to destroy the roots, preventing them from regrowing and so they too will go via the local authority. The weekly collection of food waste and garden waste is very welcome, and the local authority compost it all in their facilities, creating a compost they use on the parks and other green spaces as well as selling it back into the community, for gardeners use.
I set up facilities to store leaves separately from the main compost heap which was a wood structure, wrapped in chicken wire to deter rats and mice from getting inside for the warmth and to nest. Leaves went in separate timber containers initially. Three, one-meter cubed containers allowed space enough to drop the collected leaves into. After a couple of weeks, allowing the volume to settle, I would empty each container out and shred the leaves either through a shredder or mowing over them. Both techniques designed to break up the leaves and enable the compost process to start that little bit earlier. The shredded material is put into black bin bags ensuring the contents were moist and pricking the bags all over to create air holes. These bags are then stored behind the shed and allowed to do their stuff and rot down. The process takes around one to two years, but you get gold when you gather your long-awaited leaf-mould. Do this every year and you will be sure of having a constant ready supply.
The main compost was built in two parts. The receiving section into which I would place all our compostable material, from the garden, kitchen peelings and the shredded paper, introducing each in layers and after a month or so, mixing the heap to ensure heat and moisture is moved around. After a couple of mixings, I would transfer this heap into the second section where I continue to mix it until it has composted completely and is usable on the garden for potting, enhancing the soil or mulching. As each load is pulled out to be used, I would sift it to pull out any twigs or larger lumps that had not fully composted, and these would go back in the heap and allowed to compost down further. So far, I have used all I have created as it is ready, but soon I may be able to store more and more and do away with the need for any additional purchased compost. Organic material is different, I still need to buy in composted farmyard manure to add to the mix.
My aim is to garden without anything from the garden needing to leave for the recycle centre. My desire is to do my part in creating a sustainable area and I can see that route to achieving it. The standard compost heap is a start. Creating leaf-mould is a valuable second. Hot bin composting and introducing a wormery are planned and at this point all our kitchen waste will be used in the garden – cans and plastics already get recycled – all paper and cardboard can be shredded or torn up and add to the compost. In addition to composting, growing our own veggies and fruit also helps feed us without having to buy in and again, no need for packaging or the awful airmiles. Eating seasonal foods is key and understanding the growing season with succession planting and companion planting will ensure our achieving this aim.
All I do in this regard is self-taught through what I have read or picked up from friends who share their own experiences directly or on-line through communities with a similar interest. That sought after family home I referred to previously has offered me no guidance. My thoughts return to ‘am I creating that ‘family home’ experience myself, here, now?’ Though our son does sit in his wheelchair and watch what I am doing, when encouraged, he will join in with some aspects of the garden, but he will not learn from me in the sense of following what our parents or grandparents did, onto his own garden, nor will we have grandchildren to involve or include in future years either. We do however treasure the moments we have with our son and as we include him, we find the garden offers us and him many opportunities to learn. This learning may well need to be repeated time and time again, but we have come to terms with that, and repeat our lessons willingly ….