Showing posts with label Organic Gardening - Composting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Organic Gardening - Composting. Show all posts

Monday, 4 April 2011

Making Compost Tea

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

Gardening season is just getting underway here in the form of starting transplants in the hoop house. Once the seedlings get their true leaves I like to water them with a weak solution of compost tea, at least once a week or more often if they need a boost. I also like to have compost tea on hand for transplanting to help the plants get over the shock of handling. Compost tea a great make-at-home fertilizer.

Covered compost pile.

We compost our livestock manure, so that is what we use, but any compost will work fine.
Supplies you will need:

Container - anything from a 5 gallon bucket to a 55 gallon drum.
Tea bag - recycled mesh onion bag works great.
Stick or dowel for dunking.

I'm making about 30 gallons of tea, so I am filling my onion bag about three fourths of the way with aged compost. The more compost you add the stronger your tea will be. It can be diluted or applied directly as long as you use aged manure or compost.

Using the tie on the onion bag slip the stick through.

Place tea bag in container of water. I used spring water - rain water would be great and if you have municipal water, fill your container and wait a day or so to let the chlorine dissipate before making your tea.

I leave my tea bag on the stick so I can dunk it if needed, or take it out when I need to use the tea. It's no fun fishing around in a murky barrel for the top of the bag.

The initial dunking produced a fairly dark concoction. I will let this sit about a week before using to make sure it is full strength.

It's best to keep the container covered, to keep out rain.

Warmer gardening weather can't come soon enough for me. Our weather is vacillating between snow, sun, rain and hail these days. How is your gardening season starting out?

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Quick & Easy Composting

by Chiot's Run

Lately I've been thinking about things I can do to save time in the garden and I decided trench composting would be a great way to do this. I started composting directly in the garden areas that need the most help. Now I don't have to worry about nutrients leaching from the compost pile, which is something I've been reading about. If your compost pile isn't covered, the rain will leach nutrient from the compost into the soil below. Why let all that hard work get leached away? I started trench composting a couple months ago. My parents used to do this when I was growing up. It's a quick and easy way to compost all that stuff from canning.

All you have to do is dig a trench in the garden area and add a layer of your compostable things. Then back fill with the soil you removed. By spring it will have turned become compost and the worms will have distributed it in the garden. No turning, no layering, it's quick and easy! You can dig one long trench and simply fill along as you add the compost items.

I still have my regular compost pile for the large amounts of garden waste, but I'm thinking of starting to put this pile in the garden areas I need to amend, that way any nutrients that leach out with the rain will at least be going into a garden area I'll be using in the future.

Do you practice various forms of composting?

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal, and you can follow me on Twitter.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Fertilizer for the Home Garden

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
We make a big compost pile every Fall - cleaning out beneath our slat-floored chicken coop and mixing in all the fallen leaves and spent plants from the garden. Turned a time or two through the winter, by Spring I have an abundance of organic fertilizer to scratch into each garden bed as I prepare it for planting, and to spread around the perennial plants as they start waking up. Besides replacing needed plant nutrients used up each season, the compost also helps retain water in my sandy high-desert soil.

When first starting a garden, the main thing you'll want to know is if your soil is more acid or alkaline - the soil pH. Testing kits are available from gardening supply catalogs, or by professional services. Your local Co-operative Extension Office might also offer that service, or can tell you who does so locally. pH is measured on a scale from 1 to 14 - 7 is neutral, above 7 is alkaline, and below 7 is acidic. Most vegetables like pH from 6 - 7, just slightly acidic.

If your soil is too acidic (below 6), a sprinkling of lime, ground limestone, will raise the pH. For alkaline soils (above 7), adding extra organic matter such as acidic peat moss will help bring the pH down. Compost, by its very nature continues to break down incrementally years after it's first applied. By adding compost each year, the ongoing process has transformed my initially highly-alkaline desert soil to a constant neutral pH.

When you look at every fertilizer label, there will be three numbers listed, ie. 30-10-10. They refer to the percentage of three basic plant nutrients, and are always in the same order: N-P-K, Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium (potash). In the example above, the remaining 50% would be inert or inactive ingredients.

Compost alone can be enough for a garden, but I like adding a bit extra to make up for anything missing, plus ensure a quick, healthy harvest in my short-season climate. General-purpose chemical fertilizers, besides being composed of possibly harmful synthetic chemicals, are also, for the most part, designed to be water-soluble. Mix them up, spray them on, (buy more) and reapply regularly. They also need lots of water - something in rather short supply here - to make them break down into a form readily available to plants. I prefer making my own general-purpose fertilizer mix from items that normally occur in nature, and then break down slowly and naturally over time.

Each Spring, I stir up a bucket of my dry fertilizer mix, adding a light sprinkling over each garden bed along with an inch of compost. That's mixed into the top 6 inches, then leveled for planting. My fertilizer mix is equal parts bloodmeal (high in nitrogen), bonemeal (phosphorus - you can also use ground phosphate rock if that is readily available to you), and greensand (potassium, plus trace minerals). Trace minerals in the soil are also necessary for optimum garden growth. Zinc, copper, molybdenum, boron, and manganese, though required in very small amounts, are vital for plant well-being, and greensand, coming from sea-bottom deposits, is a good source. Some folks use wood ash as a source of potassium. The potassium in wood ashes is in a very soluble form. Potash used to be made by leaching water through ashes, then drying to concentrate the potassium. If you want to use wood ash for a potassium source, composting the ashes first can help to keep the potassium available for your plants.

Some individual plants also get specialized attention. The blueberries need very acidic soil, so they get a light application of granular sulfur each Spring, and a mulch of pine needles and coffee grounds. What I call my "fruiting" plants - the tomatoes, peppers, okra, and eggplants - benefit from crushed eggshells (calcium) and a bit of Epsom Salts (magnesium) added to each planting hole. My bulb beds - the daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips; onions, garlic, and shallots - like an extra sprinkle of bonemeal. Feed your soil now and it will, in turn, feed you well the rest of the year.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Chronicles of a New Garden: tidy gardening

by Francesca

When I finished cutting the ivy and pruning back some trees that were casting unwanted shade on my garden plot (here), I was left with large piles of plant material, and a question: what to do with it all?

garden waste

How you dispose of large quantities of garden waste mainly depends on whether you live in a rural or urban area, and on how much land you have. In some countries, local town councils have waste management programs that collect yard waste. But elsewhere, and in the countryside, it's up to you.

Here are some solutions to the garden waste dilemma. Please add more in the comments, if you have found a system that works well for you!


Some plant waste can go straight into your compost bin. But compost bins are only for small-scale composting, and because the key to good composting is variety, you don't want to choke your compost with large quantities of one ingredient.


This is the simplest and most time-honored way to deal with the problem: set aside one area, preferably tucked away in a hidden part of your garden, where you'll toss all your garden waste. It will eventually decompose on its own. A compost heap is a fuss-free solution, but it can take years for some vegetable matter to break down, it's not very pretty, and it doesn't offer a controlled environment for decomposition, so you won't know how long it'll take to break down.


This is a carefully planned and “constructed” compost heap, which also provides a good spot for growing vegetables - right on top of the heap itself. Hugelkultur was invented by German horticulturalists Hans Beba and Herman Andra in 1979, and since then has become a part of biodynamic agriculture. Done properly, it creates a raised bed in just a few months, and will remain fertile for 4-6 years (Beba and Andra recommend starting in the fall, so that by the following spring the heap will be ready for sowing).


To make a hugelkultur compost mound, choose a sunny spot in your garden, and dig a trench, keeping the turves as you dig. Ideally the trench should be oriented north-south; make it about 1.5 meters wide, and as long as possible. You then fill it with vegetable matter in distinct layers (see diagram). Put the slowest-decomposing materials at the bottom, such as branches and other woody matter. Then layer in your turves, turned upside down (with the roots up). Next come garden waste and leaves, semi-mature compost, and finally, cover the pile with a layer of the soil you got when you dug your trench. For the first few years, the decomposition process will release some heat and warm up the rich soil, thus prolonging the growing season.

I've always wanted to make a hugelkultur mound – growing while composting sounds like such a great idea – and I'll be starting one this fall. Have any of you ever tried one?

Reference: Heynitz & Merckens "Das biologische Gartenbuch"


This method is something of a compromise between a compost heap and a compost pile, and it's less complicated than a hugelkultur mound. Dig a trench, and gradually fill it with your compost ingredients (kitchen scraps, garden waste, chopped prunings, lawn cuttings ...). When it's full, cover it over with its original topsoil. Depending on climate and ingredients, you can garden where the compost trench is in a couple of years or so.


A very common practice in farming communities, and an efficient way of disposing of woody matter in rural areas where there's shortage of land to compost the wood, like the steep hillside where I live. Farmers pile prunings and other woody matter into bonfires, and burn them when the wood has dried out, choosing a damp, calm day in spring or fall when the fire is easy to control. Instead, they scatter any wet farming waste in the woods, where it breaks down naturally. (They always put their kitchen waste into compost bins, which were provided by our local town council).

What strategies do you use to dispose of large quantities of garden waste?

Saturday, 7 November 2009

An overlooked resource

Just this past week we had a break in the rains long enough I could get the garlic planted. In my garden journal, this signals the beginning of the 2010 gardening season. What usually coincides with the annual garlic planting is that the soil is starting to cool and go dormant. Late fall also is when we start bedding our various types of livestock in order to capture as much manure as we can for next year's compost.

While I am writing this from a farmers point of view, even small holders or urban gardeners with a flock of hens or a few rabbits can gather enough material to ensure sustainability in the garden. While it is easy and convenient to buy organic fertilizers these days, to give your garden a boost, someday the store may not be there, or the economy may be such that those types of materials may not be readily available. And if you are taking into account how many food miles your food has traveled, you have to take into account purchased soil amendments that are often shipped in from faraway places, or the mishandling at CAFO's and slaughter facilities that make that blood, fish, or feather meal possible. Not to mention the drug cocktail present in those materials.

I'll start with laying hens, since many people have taken charge of their egg supply by keeping hens for eggs. In our area, the closest major city allows 3 hens without a permit, or up to 6 with a permit and inspections. The next closest city does not allow chickens, and citizens are pleading with the city council to reconsider. One of the biggest complaints is the smell of chicken manure.
And I have to agree, chicken manure does have it's own particular odor, since it is so high in nitrogen. That smell is the nitrogen dissipating into the air, which is exactly where we don't want it. What is needed is carbon, and the easiest way to capture that escaping nitrogen is to apply carbon in the form of some kind of bedding.

Sometimes we get a notion in our heads, and we run with idea. For most chicken keepers that instinct is that our chickens must free-range or be moved around in portable coops to distribute the nitrogen rich manure, and provide new ground for the scratching hens. But unless you are actively growing grass in a grazing program, many times the chickens just end up fertilizing a lawn, or a grassy area. Which in turn needs cutting, and that takes more fossil fuel and time on your part. Perpetuating the garden instead of the lawn is a much better use of the wonderful output of the hens that is often overlooked or thought of as something that needs to go away. Old timers knew saving manure was saving money.

I have come to the conclusion that even a few spent hens that are beyond their laying career, could provide enough nitrogen rich manure for a family garden of a good size. Of course, you would have to buy a few bales of straw to keep them comfortable all winter and to tie down the nutrients in the manure. But the price of local straw is nominal compared to the price of a bag of fertilizer. Not all crops require this high nitrogen application either, a garden rotation placing this material on the heavy feeders, and following the next year with vegetables that have lower fertility requirements will help you take the most advantage of this home produced fertilizer.

Of course, this does require a different mindset, the thought of cleaning out a huge amount of bedding does turn people off, especially if they have been scarred for life from cleaning out the gross chicken house, that is the typical board or concrete floor type with encrusted manure everywhere. But the deep bedding method is different. The material is light and fluffy, and the action of the hens distributes the manure until it looks and smells composty. After the bedding reaches 12" deep it begins to compost and take on a life of it's own.

We also deep bed our beef cows. By doing this we are able to capture most of their winter manure output for composting, and we are keeping them off the pastures during the wet season and allowing for rest of the land.

As the bedding deepens, it begins to heat and partially compost, giving the stock a warm place to rest and a way to conserve energy in the cold winter months. They are kept a little warmer and therefore do not require as much food to maintain body temperature, which in turn requires less feed to be stored, and less fuel and energy expended by us.

Once the wet season starts anywhere, it is detrimental to the soil and stock to allow them to continue to churn up the green into brown. I know it is common to see swine that are often kept in mud yards, and while it is accepted, it is not proper, or a sign of good husbandry to allow the pigs to express their rooting ways during the rainy season. Wet mud and manure mixed in is a recipe that allows pathogens to flourish, and the soil structure is damaged for years to come, making it hard for the soil to drain properly and accept the manure that is deposited. The same goes for cattle, sheep, and goats whether it is one or many.

If you start looking at your resources at hand in a symbiotic way, ideas form and begin to gel. Here are some ways that may be able to help you make that black gold for yourself and become more independent in your gardening endeavors.

Chickens: Deep bed your hen house for the entire winter. The amount of accumulation will astound you, and cause ideas to sprout in your mind of a larger, more productive garden. Of course, you will have to compost this material, but the results once you start gardening with composted manure will be amazing. It's like waiting for that first paycheck, once you get on a winter bedding/composting schedule you will always compost in the works.

Also a batch of broiler chickens raised in a floor-less pen the size of your garden beds and deep bedded, can be used to jump start new garden areas, or fertilize existing beds. The pen would have to be moved once a week by hand by lifting and leaving the bedding pack in place, but the extra effort would be worth it to have a fully fertilized area for the next season. Have a few friends over with the promise of fresh chicken or veggies, and they will be happy to help you pick up that pen. :) Worms absolutely go bananas in the garden after a treatment like this, and will work their wonders on the straw and chicken manure. While raising broilers outside is a warm weather type of activity, raising broilers in the off-season in a greenhouse is a great way to keep them protected from the weather, and be able to capture their manure. We have found that removing the bedding in the greenhouse and then growing in the soil where the chickens were housed previously, provides ample fertility for a vegetable crop. A system like this works well for both plants and animals, by breaking up parasites and pests of both crops and animals and allowing "rest." The vegetables provide rest from animal impact and the animals replenish the soil and provide rest from crop growing.

Rabbits: Rabbit manure is one of the best for gardens. While you don't see rabbits kept on deep bedding, if you have plans for rabbits, design your facilities in such a way that the rabbit manure is kept from the weather. Perhaps breeding stock in fixed cages inside a well-ventilated lean-to or barn. Place your cages high enough, so cleaning out from underneath them is easily done, and make sure to place straw or sawdust underneath capture the urine also. Chickens in combination with breeding rabbits is a great combination, as seen at Polyface in the Raken house. The chickens sort through the bedding constantly, and keep the strong rabbit manure mixed in the bedding. In this type of system, the manure is almost fully composted by the time the chickens get done working their magic.

Cattle: Whether you have one cow or several, dairy or beef, it makes no matter. Students of Biodynamics know that cow manure has an enlivening influence on soil life. Cow manure is microbially enhanced by the workings of the rumen and should be more revered. For winter feeding, plan your feeding area with the idea of nutrient capture in mind. Meaning not only should the feed be covered and kept from the elements the area at the back of the cow should be kept from the weather too. Not only do we want to get the most out of our hay (collected sunlight) we want to protect the manure and urine output too. To let the manure go to waste from any animal is like throwing money away. Feed that is discarded by the animals, can be used for additional bedding material. Too often for convenience sake, the hay is just thrown out to the stock in a mud or dirt lot, much gets trampled, and soiled and is therefore wasted, and the manure is too, often too much in an area with no vegetation. Bare soil cannot utilize large amounts of manure, some type of vegetation must be present. No green, no gain - meat, milk or pocketbook.

Horses: Horse manure is similar to rabbit, sheep and goat, in that it is dry in nature, and doesn't require the same type and quantity of bedding as cattle. However, the urine needs to be saved to make this a complete fertilizer, so perhaps sawdust in small amounts in the pee area of a horse stall is a good idea. An often overlooked aspect of horse care is day stabling, and night grazing. Keeping a horse in during the day, when the flies are the worst, and allowing for night pasturing, is a way to capture this valuable on farm resource, and keep the horses from being pestered so much by flies. Same for cattle. It also cuts down on potential pesticide usage too.

Neighbors: Got you on this one didn't I? If you don't keep any of the aforementioned animals yourself, maybe your neighbor does. And would be happy to let you supply bedding for his animals if you promise to take the material off of his hands, by cleaning his chicken house occasionally. You provide the straw and some labor, and he provides the manure. A neighbor of ours delivers their stable cleanings to our place free of charge. It is a liability to them, and and an asset to us. Sometimes it is easier to go with the flow, and just utilize what is at hand, than to go against the grain. Our neighbors have seen our composting and the results, but to them, getting rid of all the manure their horses generate is what makes them the happiest. Retraining them is too hard of work.

One final word about facilities, you do not need to build elaborate buildings, simple sheds and well designed feeding and traffic areas are all that is needed. Keeping livestock of any kind requires that the animal's and stockman's needs are met, this post is just highlighting a practice that used to be common in the days that smallholdings, crofts and farms were managed in a more sustainable way.

These are just a few tips, but hopefully I have sparked some ideas. Sometimes the way to save money is not to spend it in the first place.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Low Cost Lasagna Beds

Posted by: Paul Gardener
A posse ad esse (From possibility to reality)

One of the things that I've begun doing this year is to expand on my outreach efforts to new gardeners in my community. It's not that I'm an expert on all things garden related, by no means do I fit that bill. I have however learned a lot of things through trial and error and this spring my wife and I attended a two and a half month training program called the Master Gardener program. I learned a lot of new information and it's really helped with my efforts.

In talking to neighbors and friends, a few of which have been affected by the global economic down turn, one of their concerns is that starting a garden can be a costly adventure. That is particularly true here in northern Utah where we call home. We are very near to the shore of the Great Salt Lake and because of that our soil is salty and alkaline. Add to that the fact that it is a sedimentary soil that over thousands of years has become hard pack clay and it's not what most would call the optimum conditions for starting a new garden. Because of these factors and because Mel Bartholomew of Square foot gardening fame began his whole movement in Utah just a half hour from where we live, raised bed gardening is very big here. It's not cheap to get started though, so I felt concerned with telling people that were already tight on money that they should spend a good size chunk of it on starting a raised bed. At the same time, I know that most people starting gardens directly in the ground have a couple of years of amending the soil ahead of them before they really starting seeing the "fruits" of their labors.

Enter the "Lasagna Garden". I picked up a book at our local thrift store last summer about a garden called a lasagna garden. It wasn't what it sounded like, a garden to grow lasagna ingredients, but rather was a raised bed garden that could be started with little investment and promised little effort for good return. The basics of what this is all about is building a garden bed from miscellaneous organic materials and letting them essentially compost in place to build a fertile soil that can support a garden.

I hate to suggest anyone try something that I haven't done myself so last fall, as a part of our "liberate the lawn" efforts in the back yard, we decided to give it a shot as a sort of experimental garden plot for this year. We already had plans to build a new raised bed there, so it was easy to just modify our plans to go with this new idea. We built the raised beds along our fence line using the same type of recycled concrete blocks that we'd used for the rest of our yard landscaping and, after breaking up the ground a bit with a pitch fork, layered the bottom of the bed with cardboard pieces that were gotten for free from work.

Next I filled the bed with layers of organic material like I was putting together a sort of organic compost lasagna. I took pictures of the process.

To fill the bed, I pulled over a thin layer of soil from the existing raised bed that I was tying into. Onto that I added layers of material like straw, homemade compost, grass clippings, composted chicken manure, course sawdust that was used as chicken bedding, coffee grounds from the local coffee shop and some left over peat and vermiculite that I happened to have on hand at the end of the season.

I filled it very full knowing that it would sink and left it to sit over the winter. The fall rains soaked it, the winter snows insulated it and by early this spring we had what was beginning to look a lot like soil. A few months later and I dug into into it to plant my first crops; a mix of different plants that I hope will give me a good idea of if this benefits some more than others. I've planted watermelons, casaba melon, tomatoes, bush cucumbers, peppers and eggplants in it. The soil was soft and friable and I needed so tools at all to plant the starts.This picture was taken a little less than a month ago. So far, I am VERY impressed with the results of this method. The rich organic matter of this bed drain well, while at the same time holding a good amount of water. Below the surface, the soil looks to be very rich and fertile. This is the first time I've been able to get watermelons to grow well at all, and I'm already starting to set fruit on my pepper plants.

If your feeling a pinch in your pocketbook, or maybe have friends that are, this is a nearly zero cost alternative to building a raised bed garden that can support a lot of garden and can be worked very easily. It seems to be a good alternative and is certainly one that I look forward to exploring further.

All the best to you all.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Indoor compost bin

By Eilleen
Consumption Rebellion

I really enjoy reading all the gardening posts here on the Co-op. I'm just about to start my journey on learning how to grow veges and its great to read everyone's tips and experiences with gardening.

While I have not really been gardening, one thing I have done for years has been to compost. To be honest, I didn't really know what I was doing. I just put organic scraps (minus meat scraps!) into a black bin...and that's it. The bin never got full and after about 2 years, we just dug out the bottom part of the bin and spread the soil on to the (non-edible) garden. Reading through Compostwoman's article on composting, I realise now that the composting I've been doing is called the "cold" method. And I now know that's entirely normal for the compost bin to never get full and for it to take up to 2 years to get some soil out of the compost bin. For a wannabe gardener like me, I find knowing this reassuring.

Anyway, for those who are starting their journey into gardening, I thought I'd share my indoor compost bin with you which I make out of newspaper. You can see it next to my sink in this picture (circled in green):

I get the free local community newspaper once a fortnight and after I've read it, I fold the sheets into my compost bin. The origami fold that I use is shown here:

But instead of using an A4 sheet, I use two layers of newspaper broadsheets. Once its full (which it is in the picture below), I just pick it up and throw it in my compost:

Sometimes, I empty contents into the compost and put it in the recycling bin instead. But I only do that 'cause I wasn't exactly sure how to use my compost bin. Now that I know about the "hot" method, I might just start throwing it the compost bin all the time. ( that its winter, will the hot method work?)

Anyway, as I said, I'm only just starting my journey into vege gardening. If you have any tips at all for me I'd love to hear them!

Friday, 8 May 2009

Don't underestimate the importance of the worms

By Marc from GardenDesk

I have been interested in vermicomposting for nearly 20 years now. I learned about "raising worms on purpose" during my master gardener certification and had the privilege of interviewing a vermicomposting expert for a newspaper article I was writing. She taught me about how great the worms nutrient rich castings were for your garden. I wrote the article about composting with bins and with worms. I then went on to compost in my backyard for many years. Even though the worms excited me for all those years, I never managed to actually set up a good vermicomposting system until recently. With re-kindled interest in worms, I read all that I could find about them in books like The Worm Book and Worms Eat My Garbage, and even CHARLES DARWIN ON HUMUS AND THE EARTHWORM.

My excitement lead me to write about the worms on my blog. When I noticed that they were having babies, I really got excited and showed many close-up pictures. That's when I discovered that not all gardeners share my joy and excitement for worms. Some people, I found out, actually dis-like worms. What? Really? Words like "Gross" and "Disgusting" were uttered about my wonderful new garden helpers. Perhaps our friends the worms are just misunderstood.

Worms are possibly the most important creature on the earth. Earthworms are essential in good soil composition. They aerate it to allow water and oxygen to reach the roots of plants, which in turn supports all animals. Earthworms actually feed by ingesting humus and the soil that they burrow through. Out the other end comes the best natural fertilizer possible. This actually creates rich new topsoil. Charles Darwin estimated in his earthworm writings, that England's farmland had over 50,000 earthworms to the acre. He calculated that they turn over 18 tons or about 16,000 kilograms of soil per acre. This, according to Darwin, brings over an inch of rich soil to the surface every five years! Without worms, our earth would be completely rocky and barren.

What does this really mean to us? Most of us do what we can to be "greener". There are many efforts made to recycle, reduce and reuse. We worry about carbon emissions and over consumption of energy. Many people talk up gardening as a way to be more self-sustaining and to help reduce food transportation energy. All of these things are good and as an avid gardener I do get excited about more people returning to food gardening. But I have to stress that we need to be gardening organically.

Traditional gardening often leans on chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. Most people know that spraying these chemicals are bad for our air and water quality, but do we think enough about our soil? These things are harmful to the worms and are destroying our soil structure and our earth! Not gardening at all would be better than gardening with chemicals.

Now to step down off my soap box a little, I can emphasize with those gardeners who refrain from chemical pesticides, but don't think a little fertilizer will hurt anything. After all, the plants do grow much better don't they? I used to have this mindset until I learned the many benefits we get from worms and the fact that fertilizer drives the worms out of your garden. It is much better to employ those worms to make natural fertilizer.

So what should we do?

One word - COMPOST. Instead of chemical fertilizers, the organic gardener MUST rely on composting to feed the soil (and the worms). You can learn more about composting here and here. If you don't have enough room for large bins like Compostwoman, give worm composting a try.

Anyone can compost with worms because a worm bin can fit anywhere. We have ours right behind the kitchen table! There is no odor and no mess. The worms take care of composting your kitchen vegetable scraps and they don't make a peep (well actually, our house cats can hear them moving). If you don't like the idea of housing worms inside, they do well on a patio or deck as long as they don't get extremely hot, cold or dry.

You can make a bin out of wood or a plastic tub but I recommend getting one designed for vermiculture. I wrote about the many different kinds of worm bins available in my first worm post. We settled on the multi-tier GardensAlive Worm System. Gardens Alive is an organic gardening company that we have trusted for years and we love our new worm bin as well. We are already able to harvest the rich worm compost (vermicompost) from the first tray!

If you have never considered raising worms, I encourage you to give it a try. You will be helping the environment. Whether you make or buy your worm bin, you should look for a reliable source to purchase your first 500 or 1000 worms. You will not be able to dig up enough worms to sustain a worm bin. If anyone is interested, I will post again about the specifics of setting up and maintaining a worm bin.

So am I crazy? Do any of you already raise worms? Have I changed your mind if you used to say you hated worms? Just remember, don't underestimate the importance of the worms.

Keep Growing!

- Marc

Monday, 13 April 2009

What do I do with all this compost?

Posted by Compostwoman from The Compostbin

So, after my compost post you should all have an idea how make good compost (assuming you didn't, already :-)) )and all the things you could be putting in to make it work really well....

I removed the wooden slats from one of the bins the other day, to see how my friends the worms and insects and microbes were getting on with composting...and see what I found! Decomposing stuff up the top and then a beautiful layer of freshly made compost all the way down to the bottom of the box. Ah, the magic of compost. Throw in stuff which is waste and get out for free a valuable resource, which you would otherwise have to pay for!

This is a compostbin filled up in Oct 2008.

But what do you do with it when it is ready, and how do you even tell when it is ready? Well, your compost is ready when it looks dark brown and smells nice and earthy. It should also be slightly moist and have a crumbly texture.

It probably won't look like the compost (growing medium) you buy in the shops and yours will still maybe have twigs and eggshell in it but don't worry... it's still perfectly good to use and you can simply sieve out any larger bits and return them to your compost bin.

So, dig it out and if you can, leave it to mature for a month or two, as fresh compost can "scorch" soft plants if used immediately.

Your lovely compost is food for your garden and will help improve the soil structure, maintain moisture levels and keep your soils pH balance in check while helping to suppress plant disease. Compost has everything your plants need, including nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, it improves your soil's condition and your plants and flowers will love it ( and you for giving them it!)

The compost at the bottom is ready. It looks like soil, smells sweet and has few "bits" left undecomposed in it. There may be egg shells and bits of twig left ( and corks!) but apart from that it has all turned into wonderful, rich compost.

Using your compost in the veg garden

Use about 1 wheelbarrow load per 5 sq m, applied in the spring and summer. Dig it in to the top 15 cms or leave it as a surface mulch. I apply my home made compost at a depth of about 3 cm on the soil but I have lots to spare. I often also put some on the autumn after lifting crops, I then cover with cardboard or geotextile and let the earthworms drag it down into the soil for me.

I also use a generous layer of my home made compost in the bottom of potato and bean trenches.

If you don't have enough compost to do all the veg patch, concentrate on the potato, bean, curcubit and green leafy veg areas. As part of a crop rotation your whole patch will eventually get some compost.

Another experiment in progress! As you know I make a LOT of I use these raised beds to put it in , grow in it and then at the end of the season put the spent compost on the veg garden and start again with filling the empty raised beds next spring.

SO...this bed has lots of lovely home made compost in it and I am using it to grow early spuds and artichokes in it.

One advantage of doing this is that IF your compost still has weed seeds left, you can see them as they germinate and simply hoe or pull them out....

I also grow the indoor tomatos and peppers and aubergines in large pots standing in trays inside the Polytunnel. The reason being that the polytunnel (erected by the previous owners, not us!) was sited on a load of subsoil and rubble dug out from when the garage was the ground is NOT suitable to grow directly into! Even *I* can't work any kind of miracle with it....

I use builders buckets with holes drilled in the base as large pots and plant into them, it works very well, and then the compost also goes on the veg garden at the end of the growing season.

I now grow exclusively in my own compost, in 2008 I experimented to see if my home made growing medium was as good as commercial peat free potting mix, and I found MY mix gave me earlier and better yields from the same sowings of the same varieties with identical this year I am only buying in growing medium to sow seeds into. Once they are plants I will transplant them into my home made growing medium , of compost:loam: sand.

May 2 2008

18th May 2008

In addition to making all this compost in bins I use lots of cardboard/paper to cover my plot when the soil is bare, to stop loss of precious nutrients and to provide some organic material as it rots down...I mulch directly with grass cuttings on fallow soil, and plant green manures WHEREVER I can to promote fertility and add humus to the soil.....

Other ideas for using your home made compost.

If you have plants in pots outdoors you could top dress the soil with a layer of home made compost. Take off the top few centimetres of existing soil and add your home compost. Leave a gap around soft stemmed plants. This will give your plants food and is a great way to make them more healthy.

Dressing your lawn with compost helps young grass take root and can make your garden healthier and greener. First, sieve the compost and remove any large twigs or other bits that have not quite broken down. Then mix it with the same amount of sharp sand : compost (to spread it more easily). You will need a layer of about 2.5cm. I use a stiff broom to brush it into the grass. Mature lawns can really benefit from this dose of nutrients but be careful as newly seeded or turfed lawns can be scorched by it.

Compost is great for your fruit trees and they will be very happy if you spread a thick layer of home made compost around the roots of the tree, as will any soft fruit trees. A 5-10cm layer around the roots will provide important nutrients and can protect against drought and disease. Avoid the base of the tree and do not spread too close to the trunk. This will also suppress weeds growing around them. Doing this once or twice a year will help your trees grow taller and bushier.

Using your compost as mulch is a great idea. Use your 'rough' compost (where not everything has completely broken down) over flowerbeds and around shrubs to help prevent soil erosion and replenish nutrients. Use a layer of 5cm, leave a gap around any soft stemmed plants and if you do this after rain or watering, you will help keep the moisture in the soil.

Digging a 10cm layer of compost into the soil prior to planting will help your new plants and flowers bloom. If you have already planted, simply spread a thin layer of compost-enriched soil around the base of the plants. Nutrients will work their way down to the roots. Remember to leave gaps around any soft stemmed plants.

Spread up to a 5cm layer of compost over your boarders to give them a feed! Earthworms will quickly like get to work mixing it in for you, or you can dig your finished compost into the soil prior to planting. Remember to leave gaps around any soft stemmed plants.

So, I hope this has given you some ideas for things to do with your home made compost and you will all be spreading your compost soon. After all just THINK of all the money saved by making your own soil improver and potting mix!

Also, just think of all the waste diverted from going into Landfill if you compost...think of all the Methane which our waste is NOT producing in the Landfill! Methane is 23 times more potent a greenhouse gas than Carbon Dioxide, remember!

And hopefully you will all have even better crops as a result of using your lovely home made compost.

For more ideas on composting, go here, or here,

Happy Composting :-)

Saturday, 14 February 2009


Posted by Compostwoman at The Compost Bin

Well, I promised a post on compost making, so here it is :-)

Composting your biodegradable, organic waste is great for many reasons. It reduces the size of your waste bin, so means less transport is needed to remove household waste. It gives you fine, homemade compost so you don't need to buy in artificial fertiliser. And it also removes some of the most damaging, greenhouse-gas-causing, waste from landfill sites.

According to CAT

About a third of the waste sent to landfill in the UK is biodegradable organic matter, such as food , paper, cardboard, textiles, and garden waste. In a landfill site, these materials will be broken down by microbes to produce a mixture of carbon dioxide and methane. Methane is a very damaging greenhouse gas - it has over 20 times as much 'global warming potential' as carbon dioxide (by weight). At the moment, about 70% (over two-thirds) of landfill gas is flared off or captured, so a damaging impact will still come from the remaining 30%.

Methane is produced in 'anaerobic' conditions - which means that there is not much oxygen present. The emission to the atmosphere of large amounts of methane can be avoided by not sending lots of biodegradable waste to landfill. Instead, it can be composted at home or at a community level, or sent to a special anaerobic digestion facility, where the bio gas (methane and CO2) can be collected.

Amazingly, by composting all their food, garden and cardboard waste, an average individual would prevent about 5kg of methane per year from landfill, which is equivalent to just over 100kg of carbon dioxide per year.

An average household that composts this waste would prevent emissions of 13kg of methane per year, equivalent to 280kg of carbon dioxide per year (just over one quarter of a tonne of carbon dioxide). By comparison, a small petrol car doing 40mpg will need to travel about 1000 miles to release one quarter of a tonne (250kg) of carbon dioxide, and a small diesel car doing 60mpg will need to travel about 1200 miles to release the same amount. can see it all makes good environmental and economic sense to make compost!

I have been a keen organic gardener and composter for many years and am a Master Composter - a volunteer community compost advisor with my local council and Garden Organic (the working name for HDRA). I go to various events such as county shows, give talks and demonstrations, take school assemblies, lecture, give talks to garden groups and enthuse about compost to all and sundry! I can talk about compost endlessly, I find the whole process fascinating and view compost making as the very heart and soul of gardening.

We garden completely organically here and making compost is at the very heart of all our growing and disposal methods. We take fertility from the earth by growing vegetables and fruit, then we return it to the earth by composting the left over waste and feeding it back to the soil.

Compostman and I make more than 4000 L of compost a year plus what ever is currently cooking in the various compost bins. We use it to grow a huge amount of veg in a quite small space. Our outside veg plot is relatively small at 10 x 14 m, plus another 4 x 4m raised bed but provides us with veg for most of the year, and has in the past supported us virtually all year round. The plants in the 4 x 9 m polytunnel are grown in builders buckets of home made growing medium also, made up of compost, sand and soil. I only buy in growing medium to sow seeds.

I am sure it is all so productive because of all the home made compost we put back into the soil!

In this post I am going to talk mainly about the "Hot" composting method, as that is how I usually make compost. The "Hot" method involves taking lots of material and filling up a compost bin or building up a compost heap in one go. Within a few days, the heap is likely to get hot to the touch. When it begins to cool down, or a week or two later, you can "turn" the heap. Remove everything from the container or lift the container off and mix it all up, trying to get the outside to the inside. Add water if it is dry, or dry material if it is soggy. Replace in the bin.

The heap may well heat up again; the new supply of air you have mixed in allows the fast acting aerobic microbes, ie those that need oxygen, to continue with their work. You can do this several more times if you have the energy, but the heating will be less and less. When it no longer heats up again, leave it undisturbed to finish composting.

The "Cool" method is where you add bits and bobs of compostable material over a longer period of time; it works just as well but takes longer and tends to work best in the summer. It doesn't reliably kill seeds in the same way as the Hot method because it doesn't heat up to a high enough temperature over the total volume of the material. When the container is full - which it may never be as the contents will sink as it composts down - or when you decide to, stop adding any more. Then either just leave it to finish composting (which could take up to a year) or turn it to get more air in and make the fast acting aerobic microbes start to work again.

Whichever method you use, make sure that the contents of your bin or heap is not too dry and add water if in doubt. A good sign that it is too dry is the presence of ants in the mixture.

As you can see from my photos, I use a variety of different bins and have made compost heaps in the past. Bins are good as they allow the material to be contained in one place, and I can also vary the contents to produce different sorts of compost. I have bins which are just grass and card, bins which are slower working and bins which are making very fast, fairly coarse compost for mulching. BUT I have lots of space and a professional interest in compost! (and am a touch obsessed about compost, I grant you.....)

BUT it doesn't really matter what you make compost in! As long as there is air, water and the right mix of compostable material it will produce compost eventually

So...this is how I make compost....

Site your bin or heap in a not too sunny or shady place if possible. If you can, put the bin on the ground. It will still work if you have to put it on concrete, though.
Choose a place where you can easily add ingredients to the bin and get the compost out.

Composting requires a roughly 50 :50 mix of of green sappy stuff ( which is high in nitrogen) and brown, papery stuff ( which is high in carbon). Before you start to fill your bin, try to build up a good collection of "green" and "brown" material if you can, the more you put in a bin at once, the hotter and faster it will work.

In this set of photos, we have just finished cutting down all the spent daffodils and pulling up nettles in the garden so I had LOADS of material waiting to be composted. I also had a collection of old cardboard waiting to be mixed in with the green stuff....It really REALLY helps to build up a collection of "green" stuff and "brown" stuff when filling your bins, as a full bin works more efficiently and composts quicker and hotter, thus killing off any seeds as well.

I started off with a layer of well composted bark shreddings from one of the storage bins then added a mix of paper bits and grass clippings. If you are starting a bin in a new area a shovel full of soil is a good idea as it introduces helpful bacteria and other organisms, but its not essential as I find Mother Nature has an amazing power to sort this out for herself.

I then added a layer of grass clippings and a layer of very damp cardboard bits on the top. Other green material could be used instead of grass.

Then a layer of nettles (without the roots- they go in a "weedy " bin to make compost which is only used in the bottom of very deep holes...)and another layer of card on the top....

I repeated the layers of green stuff (nettles/comfrey/weeds/grass) and brown stuff (card/paper) until the bins were full to the brim.

The green items contain bacteria which will generate the initial heat that is required by the process. A healthy compost bin is a living ecosystem. By keeping a good mix of green and brown material you will provide the perfect conditions for a variety of fungi, insects and bacteria and can let them get on with all the hard work for you.

This mix will heat up FAST over the next few days, getting up to about 60 degrees centigrade in the middle, and then the material will cool down a little, and slump down. At this point I top the bins up again with alternating levels of green/brown stuff....

If this process is done correctly you don't actually NEED to do any digging out and mixing up (referred to as "turning" in compost speak) to get good compost. The turning process is there to get more air in to your compost material to aid the aerobic (air loving) bacteria in doing their job; if you have built the bin correctly, there will be air pockets in it still! you can turn it if you like and it WILL speed things up, but it shouldn't be actually required.

Making compost is really easy...especially if you can get a good pile of stuff together first!

Using this method, in spring and summer I can make acceptable compost in 8 weeks or so. It still needs to be stacked and left for a few more weeks as it is still biologically active and would be a bit rich for plants, but certainly it has finished composting and can be got out of the bins to make way for more fresh material.

I use the comfrey and nettles I grow (well which grow all over the place by themselves!) and add them to my compost heaps AND make fertiliser teas from them to feed my plants..(BTW Nettles are good BUT always make sure they are of known provenance!...else you might be importing herbicides )

If there is anyone out there who likes peat, well it is perfectly possible to make a good peat free substitute using grass cuttings and cardboard. This is called "Grassboarding" and if its only grass and cardboard, it makes a wonderful peat like compost....if you have a source of grass and plenty of cardboard this is a very good thing to make. The result can be excellent compost, which is weed-free and does not contain large particles or lumps of material.

Compostwoman's top tips to maximise compost making!

To get the ideal compost mix you will roughly need a 50:50 mix
of both "green" and "brown" material in your bin.

I keep a few "browns" bins in the house which I use for all the little bitty bits of card, paper, tissue etc which is too scrappy to recycle, as well as a caddy for peelings, tea bags, coffee filters etc ec in the kitchen.

I am always on the lookout for cardboard sheets, from shops or from Freecycle.

I stockpile various weeds and prunings and grass cuttings from the lawns, until I have a good quantity of raw materials to fill up the compost bins.

By composting everything and anything available it is possible to dramatically increase the amount of compost you produce.

● Fruit scraps (including citrus peel)
● Vegetable peelings
● Tea bags
● Old flowers
● Spent bedding plants
● Rhubarb leaves
● Comfrey leaves
● Nettles
● Young annual weeds (e.g. chickweed and speedwell)
● Pond algae and seaweed (in moderation)
● Coffee grounds and filter paper
● Grass cuttings
● Manure (horse, cow, pig, sheep, goat, chicken, rabbit – not too much as could become too wet)

Human urine is a very good activator!

● Tissues, paper towels and napkins (unless they have been in contact with
meat or disease)
● Tumble dryer lint (from natural fibre clothes)
● Old natural fibre clothes (e.g. woolly jumpers or cotton t-shirts
– make sure you cut them into small pieces)
● Vacuum bag contents(as long as you have natural fibre carpets)
● Garden prunings
● Toilet and kitchen roll tubes,
● Woody clippings
● Dry leaves, twigs and hedge clippings
● Human and pet hair (slow to break down)
● Cotton threads/String(made from natural fibres)
● Feathers
● Wool
● Newspaper(scrunched up)
● Shredded confidential documents
● Straw and hay
● Vegetarian pet bedding
● Ashes from wood,paper, or lumpwood charcoal
● Sawdust and wood chippings
● Corn cobs and stalks
● Cereal boxes
● Corrugated cardboard packaging (scrunched up in small amounts)
● Pine needles and cones (although slow to compost don’t put too much in)
● Egg shells (but crush them first to speed up composting)
● Egg boxes (good as they trap air)

EDITED by Compostwoman as a result of comments.

I know I have a lot of space and a lot of compost bins BUT all this will work if you only have one or two compost bins! In the picture below can you see the black "Dalek" type bins? They are 220 l or 330 l capacity, and they make wonderful compost! And the "cold/cool" compost method works really well, it just takes longer and you may get the odd weed seed growing in it, so make sure you keep out any nasty weed seed heads you con't want carrying on ...

I am not soing anything differenly here, to what I would do if I only had one or two bins, honest :-)

Apart from that, anyhthing I have described is scaleable up or down....and you WILL get some compost :-))

And the little flies you sometimes see in the top of the compost bin? They ARE fruit flies and the easiest way to avaid them is to put a layer of newspaper on top of your fruit peelings, or a handful of soil, or scoop a hole in the top of the stuff in your compost bin, put the new stuff in the hols and then cover it over with partially composted material. It doesn't need to have much stuff on top to minimise the fruit flies!

Paper and card is usually printed with fairly harmless inks now (in the UK at least) and I certainly don't worry too much about that, as anything in there is well diluted and a lot of inks are ( I understand) vegetable based now, with the glossinesss being from clay particles. But if you are worried, perhaps steer clear of very glossy magazines? They can go in the recycling bin!

Hope this has answered a few questions!

When the various ingredients you have put in your container or heap have turned into a dark brown, earthy smelling material, the composting process is complete. It is best left for a month or two to 'mature' before it is used as it is a bit biologically active to apply to plants straight away. Don't worry if your compost is not fine and crumbly. Even if it is lumpy or sticky with bits of twig and eggshell in it, it is still quite usable. It can always be sieved before using if you want. Any large bits can be put back into your new compost heap.

I hope this has been helpful, I shall talk in a future post about removing and using your compost and also how to make leaf mould.

Happy Composting!