Making compost is part of the cottage gardening lifestyle. It helps to improve soil texture and add much needed nutrients to your soil after the growing season. It is essentially ‘Black Gold’ for the cottage gardener. It is worth making compost to have it available when you need it.
It will be easier to make compost in a large garden where the compost heap can be hidden but even a small garden can benefit from added organic nutrients. If you have the room its time to create your own compost heap.
The benefits of compost are that it is the best soil conditioner. A soil conditioner is not a fertiliser but a combination of decomposed organic matter that helps to improve the soils texture, improves fertility, improves drainage and improves moisture retention. It helps both a sandy soil and a clay soil and keeps a loam in perfect condition. For more about soil click here.
To improve the soil condition you compost farmyard and stable manure, garden compost, hop waste, chopped up bark and wood chips. To improve the nutrients in the soil you need to add an organic compost.
Making compost was traditionally done by the cottager who took time for making compost. He would stack it and then add manure occasionally then at the end of the year he would turn it making sure that all the compost on the outside went into the middle, where it is the hottest, and then perhaps grow courgettes on the heap. At the end of the second year the compost would be then dug into the ground at the end of the growing season before winter.
This method works well but can be time consuming. If you use manure you need to allow about twelve to eighteen months for it to rot. If you have the space you can have two to three compost heaps going a once.
You make compost in a container pile or heap or in a plastic bin or compost tumbler. The home made heap is the best option for large cottage gardens the bin or tumbler is best suited for small gardens. To make the heap you create a contained area for the organic matter.
It can be made of wood with slatted sides, bricks or wire mesh. You need the air to circulate and you need to be able to turn the compost with a fork to help aerate it. Do not make it too tall or too wide and a side opening is ideal to unload your finished compost.
Your compost needs to have water added. It should be damp like a squeezed out sponge. To help improve drainage a layer of gravel can be used at the bottom and to improve air circulation you can use a pile of twigs and branches under the compost layer, the gravel and twigs are not necessary unless you live in a very damp place.
You can also cover the heap with a plastic sheet if your compost is getting too damp, during a rainy spell for example. The cover also works during a very dry spell to keep the moisture in.
If you are making your own heap try to make two or even better three containers for making compost. One to use, one in the process of breaking down and the other being built.
If you buy a plastic bin with air holes on the sides for every 15 cm of organic waste add a layer of fresh stable manure to add nitrogen and in dry weather add a little water.
If you buy a compost tumbler you can turn it to help aerate it, add a little water once a week to keep the moisture content like a squeezed out sponge. The compost tumbler is the best option for small gardens.
If your cottage is a rental or has no space for any type of compost heap try to find an organic gardener who might trade or sell you some compost. A local farmer or riding stables may sell you manure.
For a good compost only use organic matter. It is food for your soil and will be going into your vegetables next season so be careful of what you add. It is not a rubbish dump. You are essentially creating a gourmet dinner for your soil, your time will be well spent however, when your garden produces a wonderful bounty of vegetables, herbs, fruit, and flowers that give you a kaleidoscope of colour and perfume the garden during the summer.
* Use a good balance of the following in alternating layers:
Woody material well shredded
Perennial weeds (placed in the centre of the heap)
Green plant debris
Seaweed (rinse thoroughly and chop up before using)
Diseased or pest infested plant matter, fats and oils, human and pet waste, plant debris treated with herbicides or pesticides. No brassicas infected with club root or onions with white rot. No Plastic materials.
NOTE: Fruit pits, seeds and animal bones will attract vermin and scavengers if sitting on the compost heap.
Making compost is the gardener assisting the natural process. In nature plant and animal waste naturally decay and break down returning organic matter in the form of nutrients back into the soil. Micro-organisms break down the materials into hummus which is a dark, friable soil, the texture of crumble topping.
To break down organic matter micro-organisms need carbon and nitrogen. When there is an in balance nitrogen escapes into the air and smells like ammonia depleting the pile of nitrogen. Excess carbon means that decomposition slows down, depleting the pile of nitrogen.
To prevent an in balance make sure you use a variety of ingredients that are listed above, you don’t have to use them all just mix a few together well in alternating layers for an enriched finished product. Just like mother nature would do.
Fresh manure or other decomposing matter should never be used directly in the soil. The exception being seaweed that has been rinsed and chopped or bone meal (blood, fish or meat) can be used in new planting holes to help provide nitrogen and phosphates.
You may need permission to bury animal waste so if in doubt stick to the compost ingredients listed above.
Farmyard and stable manure should be left to rot for about 12 to 18 months if you can before applying to the soil. Manures should never be used fresh as they will rot in the soil and deplete it of its nutrients at the same time creating a ‘Hungry Soil’. Fresh manure can burn plants as its ‘hot‘.
You do not have to do much to your compost heap once you have added a variety of suitable ingredients in layers you just need to keep it damp like a squeezed out sponge, add water (rain water is perfect) once a week and turn occasionally with a fork.
The middle of the heap is the hottest so make sure that debris that is slow to decompose gets into the middle this is the best place for perennial weeds unless you want them growing all over the compost heap. In extreme rain or heat cover with a plastic sheet.
Depending on your ingredients your compost should be ready in 3-4 months in summer or 6 months in winter. If you can, wait a year, of if using fresh manures wait one to two years. It will be ready when it is dark brown and crumbly.
It is a little time consuming and composting works better with the 3 pile method; mentioned above, if you have the space. You will be rewarded with a soil that is easier to work and produces better plants.
Making compost will be a routine that you will get used to, using the compost should be an annual routine. You need to put back nutrients into your now depleted soil at the end of the season in autumn if using your home made compost you will not need to add any fertilizers, just compost regularly.
When preparing your soil in the vegetable patch or flower borders for example spread your compost as deep as you can, till it into the soil each autumn at the end of the growing season ready for next years planting or use as mulch.
Mulch is a surface covering of organic matter. Mulch also stops weeds from emerging. It must only be spread over moist soil to prevent the soil from drying out in summer. A combination of compost and shredded bark is an ideal mulch.
If all this is a little overwhelming start with a small batch and each year make a larger amount as it becomes second nature. You will improve your soil making it easier to work and enjoy a better harvest it also feels good to do something with all that waste…and your soil will love it!
“The Cottage Garden” by Christopher Lloyd and Richard Bird
“A Practical Guide To Gardening” by Brockhampton Press
“Beginners Guide To Gardening” by Stefan Buczaki
“Gardeners Desk Reference” by Anne Halpin: Excellent book especially if you are cottage gardening in America.