I’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?