Compost bays finished! – so now what?

IMG_4974I’ve been staring at this photo for ages, and I spent hours last night lying awake and asking myself “why aren’t I more pleased?”, and I’m coming to the conclusion that something like Newton’s third law governs gardening as well as bus-pulling competitions.  Every brilliant idea or project has at least one equally valid and opposite way of  achieving the same end, and within about ten minutes of any irrevocable decision being made in the garden I will be haunted by the thought that I should have done it the other way.

Yesterday being a wonderful harbinger of spring, we saw bright sunshine and a temperature of 16C for a brief period and so I siezed the chance to finish constructing the new compost bins and drove the posts into place.  Late in the afternoon, too late really, I forced myself to keep going until the last board was screwed on and stepped back to see what looked like sufficient volume of bins to hide a couple of double decker buses.  So, far from feeling content, I instantly went into panic mode, wondering how on earth we were going to find enough composting material to fill them. I am not one of those fortunate (or stupid) people who is untroubled by self-doubt.  Every detail of the design and construction had been the result of an interminable inner dialogue, fuelled by the easy availability of contradictory advice.  I remember years ago reading Christopher Lloyd’s book on small gardens and being puzzled at some of the choices he was making. Always ready to canonize a man who’d written a book, it slowly dawned on me that his idea of a small garden was something not much less than an acre; but blessed as he was by a total absence of self-doubt he was encouraging me to consider the best place to put the Wellingtonia on our patio.

Compost bins bring out the certainties like almost no other topic in gardening.  Lawrence Hills was particularly good at laying down the law, as was F H Billington and any number of others. The precise design of the air inlets, the height in relation to width, whether circular is better than rectangular and so it goes on.  Organic writers on composting remind me of a vestry meeting of the local Strict and Particular Baptists. I think the reason I felt a bit down when I surveyed my compost bins is that the completion of each stage on the allotment represents a final choice after which only time will tell – they’ll either work or they won’t.

All too many expert gardeners have learned their skills on a much larger scale than we have to operate on. Growing one crop means not being able to grow another because there’s no more land available than the 250 square metres we’ve managed to cobble together from two half-allotments and a borrowed piece – and the converse is that we don’t have the benefits of scale, bringing in green waste from a larger operation. So we compost our own kitchen waste, we save urine because it’s full of available plant nutrients, all the green waste from our allotment is composted of course, and we can bring in our own paper and cardboard waste supplemented by liberating packaging cardboard from the basement. Then we could rake up the grass movings (along with the dog mess) from the park outside the flat and, in the autumn we have the much battled-over leaves, brought in by the Parks Department. Last night when I thought about the compost bins I’d constructed they seemed to have grown to the size of aircraft hangars.  I saw a summer ahead during which – and in order to sustain the no-dig ethos – we’d have to expend an ever greater amount of energy running a compost factory. Only time will tell, but 3 cubic metres a year is a lot – I mean a massive target.


Eventually, this morning, we went up to take a second look and they seemed to have shrunk a bit. One of the bays can be filled immediately with last autumn’s leaves and the existing cylinder will probably yield about a third of a bin each of new, progressing and finished compost. Experience tells me that one full bin of finished compost needs three of unprocessed waste, so that means filling the starter bin between eight and nine times a year. Strangely I find it’s always comforting to know the extent of the challenge but it’s massive.

But the daffodils in the window boxes are in full flower and this morning early I bottled 5 litres of raspberry vinegar so what’s there to worry about?

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

2 thoughts on “Compost bays finished! – so now what?”

  1. You could use one bin until needed as storage or cover it in plastic for emergency cold frame-like plant protection for potted seedlings. Space is never wasted and I bet they will fill up much faster than you expect! What you really need is a bunny hutch that fits over one bin and can be slid from one to another. NOTHING better than bunny berries!!! I grew mammoth cauliflower (12″ beautiful heads!) when I had movable bunny hutches in my veg garden. I’m sorely tempted to get them again, but I’m getting too old to go tend them when the weather is awful (which is has been often this winter!) Give it some thought! You can feed them lots of garden trimmings, plus alfalfa pellets that do nothing but improve the soil if they knock them out of their bowls.

    1. Yes, we used to keep chickens in our orchard and they did wonders for us – scratching, pecking grubs and turning it all into fertilizer. We were their biggest fans apart from the foxes who adopted us as a kind of takeway. The rabbit idea is great but, once again we’re overrun with foxes (very friendly and very greedy) who slaughtered chickens and ducks on a neighbouring allotment. And it’s exactly as you say about looking after them. Having kept chickens and, at one, time a goat we discovered it’s almost impossible to get anyone to look after them while you’re on holiday. It’s bad enough with seedlings!!

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