“My only desire is an intimate infusion with nature, and the only fate I wish is to have worked and lived in harmony with her laws.” ~ Claude Monet
The biggest challenge I have faced had in establishing my home garden has been the soil.
As you may remember, I live on a coastal plain and the soil is essentially sand. It’s lovely stuff between your toes at the beach, but in my garden, it’s plant kryptonite.
It’s salty, water-repellant and alkaline. But thankfully, as with most problems, there is a solution. Part of this solution is….
The soul of any good soil is the rich, dark, rotted, nutritious sweet-smelling stuff that is compost. And my garden demands a lot of it. Compost transforms my unforgiving sandpit into a water-retaining, bioactive, nutrient rich soil that plants just can’t help but thrive in.
Happily, I have access to a lot of waste. Uneaten food (thanks kids!) plant trimmings, (thanks to the seasonal rotation of my veggie beds) weeds, shredded paper from the office, and most recently, chicken poop. Wonderful stuff. Since we becan composting in earnest, our council bins are much lighter!
It makes no sense to dump into landfill something as valuable as potential compost.
So I thought I would take you through my main composting processes I use in my household to create the garden gold that is compost.
(or as I prefer to call it, My Worm Empire)
My worm bin is a hungry beast and I love it. The worms eat all all our fruit and vegetables, any leafy vegetable garden waste, plus paper, eggshells and even the boy’s cut-at-home hair. In turn, I get rewarded with nutrient rich castings which I incorperate into my seed raising mix, layer into our garden beds and even use to keep us supplied with splashings of worm tea.
In the spring, I sometimes sell my worms. It’s a bit of pocket money for me, but it’s pure profit. I am, after all, selling what most other people pay the council to collect each week from their rubbish bins. It also makes me perversely happy to sell what is essentially my garbage mixed with worm poo and worm-love progeny.
If you want to know more about keeping a worm farm happy and healthy, see my post here.
Our ladies, Myrtle, Joy and Biddy (named after my Nanna and her sisters) are a recent addition to the garden, but already are proving invaluable. I do purchase a crumble mix for the chooks to eat, but they also gobble up any fruit and veggies that the kids do not. They also happen to love weeds, especially clover.
Personally, I have been surprised and grateful for the amount of poo the ladies create. Apparently, a healthy chook will deliver over 10kg of poop a year! Our council still delivers a free weekly community newspaper, so once it has been scanned, it goes in the roost to catch chook poo. I empty their roost of it’s poo everyday, (otherwise the flies and smell can become overpowering in a urban environment) then it goes into my tumbling composters, newspaper and all.
Milkwood Farm’s gravity fed chicken run is a model to emulate should we ever move from the suburbs to somewhere more spaciously rural. In the meantime, I have to do the job myself…
Each fortnight, I clean out their run by raking up the mulch that is now nicely marinated with chicken poo. That goes straight onto the garden as mulch where it is needed, and the chicken run is filled with fresh mulch.
If there was any need for proof of the benefits of chicken poop, the flagging lemon tree contained within the chicken run has practically lept into life this spring, clearly benefiting from the ladies’ daily deposits.
I’m not a fan of compost bins or heaps, as I have the upper body strength of an eight year old boy and find it too difficult to keep them turned over and well aerated. So instead, I have two big plastic compost tumblers that I keep on a rotation basis. While one is being actively filled, the other is maturing. A few spins a day mean everything gets churned regularly. I could actually do with the same system in my front garden, now the raised beds have expanded our cultivation space. I’ll ask Santa.
I like my tumblers because they keep the compost enclosed, which keeps it from drying out in my harsh climate. Plus, it is secure against vermin and other pests. Rotating the bins to areate them is easy. Then all I have to do is get the mix right. I add comfrey leaves to my bins when it is available, it accelerates the composting process and adds extra minerals.
It’s amazing how quickly compost breaks down under the right conditions. I was astonished to discover a range of pricey compost related accelrators and products at the hardware store recently. I think it’s a waste of your money. Composting is essentially supervised rotting. After slavishly following compost “recipes” I have discovered that as long as your compost is kept hot, aerated and moist, it’s hard to stuff it up.
The trick is to add the raw waste chopped up. Big chunks, whole stems and plants take a while to break down so spend a few minutes with the secatuers or mulcher to chop everything up before putting the waste in the bins. Smaller particles break down faster and it makes weeks worth of difference to when the compost is ready to use.
You know your compost is ready to use when you can no longer recognise what went in there. If you can still see chunks of food or waste, or the bin really smells, give it another week. If it looks dry, add water and more green waste (if you can get your hands on used coffee grinds, they are a fantastic addition to compost.) If it looks too wet, add some dry bulk like cardboard, paper or mulch to sop it up.
Everybody gets weeds. I hate to spray them more than I hate to remove them by hand. Despite my best efforts to get them before they run to seed, I am not always so vigilant. I have tried to compost them, but grasses especially seem pretty indestructible, and can sprout inside the bin or as soon as compost is spread. Thankfully, there is another way to kill the weed seeds for good and the delightful by-product is a soluable plant tonic.
I fill a bucket full of weeds and simply cover with water. (make sure the weeds have not ever been sprayed, only “organically grown” weeds for this project!) I cover the bucket with an old towel to allow air exchange but to keep pests out. Again, I also add some comfrey leaves if available to accelerate the decomposition and to add extra nutrients, but weed tea will work fine without it.
It’s only fair that I warn you, this preparation gets offensively funky, so put it somewhere where it cannot be accessed by kids and out of the way from any olfactorily delicate neighbours. I give it a stir every day to help aerate the mix and breakdown the plants.
Then, in about 4 weeks time, (sooner in our summer heat) the weeds would have been leached of all their nutrients and a brown tea can be strained off any residual weed matter. At this point, it shouldn’t smell too bad. Dilute the tea with ten parts water and apply to your plants. The dregs from the bucket can go straight into the compost bin.
I confess I haven’t made any weed tea since getting the chickens, as they gobble the weeds up. The downside to weed tea (other than the smell) is that a bucket of stagnant stinky water is a bit of a mozzie magnet. If you see mosquito larve swimming about in your mix, pour it out onto a sunny patch of soil straight away.
The only household wastes that I don’t compost are dairy or meat products. We don’t usually have a great deal of that kind of waste anyway. But, the cat that visits us is usually more than happy to polish off any remaining milk from breakfast or meat. I know she appreciates the leftovers because she reciprocated with a dead rat on my doorstep a few weeks ago. You’re welcome Puss.
I would love to hear your favourite composting tips. What’s your preferred composting technique?