Back at the Potwell Inn allotment to install some fronts on the new compost bins this afternoon. We were eager to see whether the worms had sorted themselves out after being moved into a new home and we were delighted to see that they had resumed their activities at the top of the heap. They’re not keen on daylight so you need to be pretty sharp to get a photo before they all disappear. One thing that interested us greatly was how they appear to enjoy the cardboard in the heap. Yesterday I threw all of the half -rotted carboard that we took off the California cylinder into the heap and today the worms seemed to be congregating especially densely around it. One of the challenges with any heap is keeping the moisture level right. I heard somewhere that it should be moist but not wet enough to squeeze water out. This lot looks pretty wet, but the presence of woodlice suggests it’s not too wet. Having mixed it all up whilst turning it yesterday there’s quite a mixture of fresh material and worm cast – that’s the dark looking stuff that contins all the goodess. It’s a miraculous thing to watch, plant material decomposing through the action of all manner of fungi and bacteria and then being passed through the worms and turned into highly valuable garden gold. I swear I can hear the heap shouting “feed me now” every time I walk down the path. So that’s bin number one and we’ll probably stop feeding it when there’s enough fresh material in the adjoining bin to attract the worms through the gaps in the structure. I’m assuming that once the fungi and bacteria have kicked the process off, the worms will move next door where they’ll find a greater abundance of food. That’s the theory – bearing in mind that we had no idea they would colonize the cylinder so abundantly. If they’re happy they just seem to keep multiplying, presumably until their appetite fails to be matched by the food supply. Our only task is to feed and to turn the heaps regularly.
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?
Yes I know you should try to reduce the number of variables in an experiment to draw any safe conclusions from the data but …. This experiment started in early autumn when we sowed the carrots in the packet above in two adjoining cold frames and in two different sowing mediums. There were three questions I wanted to investigate:
- Would the carrots germinate and grow from an autumn start?
- Did one growing medium work better than the other?
- Would the tap roots penetrate the soil pan which had been deliberately left undug.
Question one is easily aswered – we had a good germination, and the plants continued to develop until the present moment. Question two is a bit more complicated because the composted horse manure got the seeds off quicker and the plants put on much more growth than the ones sown in SylvaGrow, the greener but more expensive option. However when we pulled some thinnings today it was clear that although the SylvaGrow plants had not put on so much top growth, the roots had easily penetrated into the soil pan and, given a couple more months, looked set to give us a useful and very early crop of properly shaped Early Nantes style carrots. On the composted manure side we had better top growth and fatter carrots but they were shaped more like Chantenay carrots and seemed to be sitting on top of the soil pan growing outwards rather than downwards as they should. Obviously I can’t rule out the possibility that one frame was bedded on tougher soil, but they were both on a piece of ground that had never been dug but had spent one season mulched with wood-chip to kill the weeds. So I think the takeaway point is that these seeds seem to meet their claim and the experiment also supports Charles Dowding’s no-dig approach, but the question of growing medium needs more experimenting. We’ve had a fabulus crop (still harvesting) of Early Nantes and Chantenay in an open bed of improved soil, so perhaps the answer is to forget about expensive growing medium and improve the soil. The other plants in the photo were some winter lettuce sown in modules which have all been eaten, and very good they were.
Elsewhere on the allotment things are going pretty well. With a week at least of mild weather predicted, we took the fleece cloches off the broad beans today to let them enjoy the warmth and sun. There were one or two frost casualties but on the whole the plants are looking good. One of the advantages of autumn sowing is that the plants tend to tiller into a number of stalks, giving a higher potential crop, and it’s interesting that this seems to be what’s happening to the plants that were damaged by the cold weather in spite of the protection. I’ve been reading James Wong’s book “Grow for Flavour” and one of the points he makes is that a bit of stress is often good for plants. In fact I’m wondering if the lack of heat in last season’s chillies might have been due to the way I mollycoddled them. This season I’ll change the watering regime and see if that drives them on – mind you that might well give me some desperately hot chillies that I won’t be able to eat. Garlic, shallots and onion sets are all doing well and so things look pretty optimistic.
But my main focus today was to start work on the new compost bins. As ever planning is a dynamic exercise and when I saw the sheer size of the proposed 4′ X 4′ layout I revised downwards and decided to go for a 4’X3′ footprint which will give a row of four. The rationale is that you need to get bays filled fairly quickly in order to keep the turning frequent. So there we are, a great day’s work and I can’t wait to get going tomorrow. The hotbed continues to slowly heat up and we’re going to give it some extra “human activator” to drive the heating. The bacterial action is strongly underway now with the temperature at 20C, but it should go to 50C fairly quickly. I don’t want to sow there before the temperature peaks in case it damages the seedlings.
Oh and the birthday parties went well yesterday as well – great family day, but (this is an addendum if you like) all the while we were working on the allotment a couple of homeless women were setting up a tent on the site. As we left I saw one of them injecting herself in the leg -no way of knowing what she was injecting, but what a sorry state to be in. Is this the dream? To have reduced the whole country to something like “The Wire”? Is there no shame?