Rotting luck – get yourself a compost heap

If there is one single thing any aspiring gardener can do to transform his (or her) garden it is to change his attitude to the soil. Stop thinking of it as dirt and start to recognise it as the source of all success.

Soil might look pretty dead and inanimate but it’s actually teeming with life. There are said to be more living organisms in a handful of it than there are people on earth. These little soldiers are the stuff of life. In their relentless mission of renewal they put back into soil what the gardener takes out. Do a deal with them and you have the first secret of successful gardening.

The deal you do is quite simple. You feed the bugs and they will in turn feed your plants. The good news is that you don’t need to buy expensive fertilisers to do the job — all you need is compost that you can make for free from the garden and kitchen waste you otherwise throw away. 

Compost made at home

Compost heap at Gardener's Call

My three bins are a bit full right now Keeping one empty means you can turn the other heaps into it.

Don’t confuse it with the stuff you buy from the garden centre which is a useful soil conditioner and great for growing seeds and small plants. The compost you need to feed your soil is packed with bugs that break down living material and in doing so provide you with nutrients. Its the natural process of renewal — essential if you grow veg but still important for your hungry flower borders.

So park up your green waste bin and stop giving away all that potential fuel. The vehicle you need to do this job is a compost bin. There are many varieties kicking around, from plastic beehives to ones that look and work like concrete mixers. The choice is yours but I reckon simple is best and you can quite easily make you own for next to nothing.

The ones I like are of the wooden slatted variety because they let air into your rotting mix. If you want to buy them then this offering from the wonderful Quickcrop is ideal. Once you have a flat site, it literally drops into place in minutes. No screws and no nails!

The composting process

Much depends upon how much green waste you generate but I reckon on having three heaps not just to deal with volume but to provide a progression. (Otherwise, you are covering up your emerging material with the new stuff). While heap 1 is just starting the process with new material, the bugs in heap 2 are going flat out. Heap 3 stays empty and is used to turn the other heaps into on say a monthly basis, and in doing so accelerate the decomposition process.

Warm compost heap at Gardener's Call

Keep it warm but moist to speed up the process

The ingredients you need are a mix. Don’t make the mistake of piling in just grass cuttings because you will end up with a messy pap. A balanced heap needs some browns to go with the greens in the shape of more woody material. You can even chuck in brown uncoated cardboard if you don’t have enough of the right stuff.

Once you have your heap, you can just leave it for nature to take its course but that means maybe a year until you have what you want. Far the better way is to accelerate things by turning it occasionally because compost (like soil) needs air. It also needs water so keep it a bit damp; and cover it down with some old carpet to keep it warm.

Turn, turn, turn

Take a look at an industrial compost heap (which is where your green waste ends up) and you will see them first shred the big stuff and then turn it constantly in rows. Do it that way and you can have compost in about 16 weeks, and what’s more, the heat generated will have killed the weed seeds.

It’s best used just as a soil conditioner but if you really want to employ your home-made compost for growing fine seeds then try popping a metal tray of it in the oven for 40 minutes to kill the weed seeds first.

But if you simply spread your mucky magic stuff on your soil you will do immense good not just in terms of nutrients but in helping to retain moisture. 

Happy soil = happy plants = happy gardener!