Finally – today the very first load of compost came out of the new row of bins and was spread across the beds we’d just removed the broad beans from. I said a few days ago that, at the time I built them, I thought I’d made them much too big, but with the sudden acceleration during spring, and now we’re harvesting crops, the first bay was filled to the top and ready for its first turning – which meant I had to clear the second bay of compost that was moved from the previous setup.
I think we must have tried every conceivable method of making compost over the years, and for a long time we’d settled on double cylinders made from sheep wire and lined with thick cardboard. These were wonderful but had one major disadvantage – it was very difficult to turn compost from one cylinder into another without constantly catching the tines of the fork in the sheep net, and in practice we usually dismantled the nets altogether – which was time consuming and a bit messy. So when the opportunity came along to build some more conventional bins in a row, we decided to make the switch. We knew we were making good compost the old way but we had to weigh up whether the benefit of having an efficient system would be more worthwhile than the loss of a twelve by four bed. The answer to that question has come in two ways.
Firstly the value of the compost has been more than demonstrated by our crop of potatoes. They were grown on a borrowed patch of ground that had been a bit cold and neglected. Our soil is clay loam, potentially very fertile but inclined to waterlogging and easily poached when walked on – another reason for moving to raised beds. It hadn’t seen much by way of organic material over the years and so it had a look and feel I can only describe as ‘starved’. Last autumn we gave it a thick layer of compost and covered it with builders black plastic until it was time to plant the potatoes. Even in that time much of the compost had disappeared and the worm count was very much higher. Better still the ground was easier to work by far. We planted four varieties in the ground and they’ve all thrived – we’ve almost finished eating the Jazzy and we’re into the Arran Pilot. Pink Fir apple and Sarpo Mira are both flowering and the earlies we’ve lifted have given pretty reasonable yields. What’s more, when the plants are lifted the soil is sweet and friable, quite different from its condition last autum.
So that’s the first reason and the second is the sheer ease of turning – so easy in fact that I’ve been regularly turning the ‘live’ heap in situ to add shredded paper and cardboard if it starts to get a bit anaerobic. Our son brings big bags of grass mowings every fortnight, and these can be a nightmare to compost without creating a stinking mess. However we shred all our paper waste at home, and down in the basement there’s a large bin for cardboard waste and we regulary filch the good stuff because it’s so handy for weed control, or temporary covering and in this instance tearing up into small pieces and mixing it with the grass cuttings. What’s particularly noticeable is how much the worms love it. If we chuck a big piece of corrugated carboard in, a week later it’s got its own population of brandling worms, often in the hundreds. So the heap consists of all our green kitchen waste, shredded paper, cardboard and egg boxes (which seem to disappear quicker than you could imagine, along with all the green waste from the allotments. I’ve said before, its difficult to know whether it’s a compost heap or a giant wormery and – to be honest – it really doesn’t matter because all that counts is the quality of the compost.
Do we add any activator to it? Well, there are no rules but if it’s gone cold and slow the best activator of all is a drenching with urine, or sometimes a sprinkling of pelleted poultry manure or fish blood and bone. The urine has the added advantage that it discourages people from nicking our food if they know it may just have been watered with a ten to one mixture of what Lawrence Hills used to call “human activator”. It’s best to imagine the heap as a dynamic environment that thrives when interest is shown in it. Getting the carbon/nitrogen balance is critical, and so is controlling the moisture levels.
If it gets too wet, neither the worms or the bacteria are happy just as they’re unhappy if it gets too dry or too hot. Paying attention to the details means that we can make far more compost in a given time. Of course a neglected pile at the end of the plot will eventually make something like compost but on our site it would always be full of bindweed roots as well. Weeds are often lazy and thrive in a neglected heap. We never put any pernicious weeds or annual seeds in the compost because we deliberately keep the heat down for the benefit of the worms. Consequently annual seeds, couch and bindweed are not killed in the process and the’re best disposed of elsewhere – a green waste collection or a well controlled incinerator or couch fire in the autumn. We try to keep bonfires down to the minimum although if the temperature is kept low by controlling the air intake they will last for days with barely a whisper of smoke or steam.
At the end of the day, good compost is probably one of the most important crops we grow and absolutely worth all the attention. Having the bins in a line, with removable slats at the front, makes turning a pleasure. It’s still hard work, but it takes a fraction of the time and buying compost – we’ve used tons of the stuff getting the plots into shape – is very expensive.
So the crops are flowing in faster than we can eat them which is good news for the family. A couple of days of hot sunshine has given us chance to plant out everything that was left in the flat, the greenhouse and the cold frames – quite a moment to savour. I love planting things out after they’ve been in a series of pots. There seems to be a qualitative difference when they discover their roots are free to stretch themselves and I swear I can hear them singing in their own plant language.
The sunshine has also brought out the crowds on to the green outside the flat. The university students are all pretty much finished now and we play musical neighbours with a stream of parents (for freshers) and vans (from the second year onwards) fighting a guerilla war with the traffic wardens. It’s lovely to see the barbeques and to hear the sound of the young people enjoying themselves. I even find a bit of late night music and partying strangely comforting. But it’s also brought out a huge number of rough sleepers, we even get tents on the green until the police turn up and move them on. Last night I was watching the fun when I spotted a young man crouching between two cars smoking crack from a piece of foil. The dealers like this place because there’s no CCTV and an abundance of escape routes on both sides of the river. The police have taken to riding bikes but it doesn’t seem to have made much difference. It’s heartbreaking to see so many young people in deep trouble with disordered lives, homelessness and mental illness. How much is a human life worth? Almost any time we walk into the centre we see someone toppled over, unconscious or comatose after using spice. Last week we heard a young woman hurling abuse at an invisible person, and then a little later a fire engine nosed down the road to put out a fire she’d started. Moving the problem out of sight isn’t working and by and large our neighbours are sympathetic to their plight. Last year neighbours were remonstrating with the police after a man and his partner who’d been camping peaceably on the green were heavy handedly moved on by the police. The council policy seems to be to keep the tourists happy at any cost – even human cost.
There are days when even the joy of growing our food is tainted by the thought that so many people will never be allowed to experience it!