Composting – is it just a load of old rot?

Just to my left, as I’m writing this, is a bookshelf filled with books about composting. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time you’ll know that we’ve tried almost every way there is of making good compost; and each of them has advantages and disadvantages. The one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that the heap in the picture above is a rubbish heap and not a compost heap. The computer software saying – “garbage in, garbage out” applies every bit was strongly to compost. I’ve even seen an abandoned bike rusting away on a compost heap.

The favourite starting point for most of us is the one you make from wooden pallets. The advantage is that it’s pretty much free to make and it will produce compost. The downside is that the open slats allow cold air and rats to get in, and if there’s any trace of food waste they’ll come hunting for it. Rats are an ever present nuisance and we just have to accept that. You can line them with chicken wire but rats often dig in by tunnelling underneath and you’ll soon discover when turning the heap that the tines of your fork will constantly hit the netting. Our neighbour bought himself a fabulously expensive hot-bin made from expanded polystyrene and the rats simply ate through it. As for the conical polythene ones that you buy at garden centres or from the council – I can’t say because we’ve never had one – but I hear the rats still get in from underneath.

On the far left above is my version of the California Cylinder which, – when there’s plenty of green waste around – will go like a train. It’s made by forming two concentric cylinders of sheep wire and then inserting thick cardboard into the gap between them. You can also build in a chimney to pull heat through. In one of our gardens, when we cleared it of weeds, we had four in a line steaming away merrily and turning out fabulous compost. The next year we had far less green waste and they were not so successful. The other disadvantage is that it’s all but impossible to turn the heap – it’s better to pull the wire and cardboard off, set it up again somewhere close and refill it with the turned compost.

The simplest composting method of all is the leaf mould heap, like the one in the right hand photo, which is a single cylinder of sheep wire filled with as many leaves as you can press down into it. It takes a year or two but it always works. We find that we can grow a great crop of cucumbers on the heap during the summer while it rots. Even open heaps will work eventually, but then you really have to turn them very frequently and they’ll grind to a halt as soon as the weather gets cold. In the end I built a large four bay composting arrangement with removable fronts which works well for us and makes turning easy -still hard work, though!

Composting is a seasonal cycle

The big challenge is that composting works best when you control the ingredients – mixing green and brown waste and turning regularly. So during the winter months there’s nothing much going in except for veg peelings and the like. Winter heaps don’t often heat up very much, and unless they’re well laced with torn up cardboard and paper, they tend to get anaerobic, wet and smelly. Even in a well managed winter heap, you’ll find that it’s worms doing most of the work. Worms are wonderful. They appear out of nowhere, chew up your waste and turn it into gold – very slowly. In the spring if the heap or the ambient temperature gets warmer they’ll move off somewhere more comfortable without any intervention on our part.

There are two peak green waste seasons – early summer when the remains of winter crops like broad beans go in; and autumn when bean vines and all the rest are cleared away. We move the winter heap with its worms to the next bin and then layer the abundant green waste with any sort of carbon we can get our hands on – cardboard so long as it’s not plastic coated, any sort of dried or dead grass, leaves and – interestingly – wood chip. Just this week our bin reached almost 60C with several 2″ layers of wood chip incorporated. We were confident in adding wood chip because we noticed that we get through around 25 barrow loads every year just topping up the paths. It rots down much quicker than you’d think. We’re lucky because the local council bring wood chip and leaves on to the site during the autumn.

But there are other additives that are invaluable in a compost heap. We use horse manure and even seaweed when we can get it. The last load of seaweed we brought down from the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales where we’d been on holiday. It stank to high heaven and was full of flies and sandhoppers so it was an uncomfortable 200 mile journey with the windows open; just as it always is with the still warm horse manure that we use in the hot bed. If there’s any spare we add that to the compost as well because it’s so rich in nitrogen and carbon – already mixed.

We also occasionally use chicken manure pellets to steam things up a bit, and drench the heap with liquid seaweed feed now and again if it feels too dry. Control of the moisture level is crucial to success and one of this year’s jobs on the to-do list is to roof over the whole line of bins so we can harvest the rain falling on them and control the temperature and moisture level more accurately.

Of course the finest additive of all is human urine which combines bioavailable nitrogen and moisture at the same time – but don’t overdo it and make sure you’ve agreed with your partner that it’s OK to clutter up the bathroom with a jug and a five litre ex vinegar container marked clearly “Bio-hazard” . We tell everyone we talk to that we’re doing it because it’s an amazingly effective preventative against crop larceny – because they never know which ones we’ve just anointed!

What not to add

Obviously any cooked food and or meat – although I’ve occasionally left a dead rat to compost down because it seemed only fair. Winter heaps should not contain noxious weeds like bindweed because they don’t get hot enough to kill seeds and roots . a very hot summer heap – if it reaches, say, 60C would kill pretty much anything – but you never know. We err on the side of caution always, having introduced creeping buttercup into one of our past gardens via horse manure.

More particularly after wasting many hours picking bits of so-called compostable material out of an old heap; we no longer add those green caddy liners nor any teabags. We open teabags to extract the tea leaves and the compostable bags which seem never to rot, go to landfill. Even worse are the big ticket tea temples that are part of the USP of Teapigs brand. Sorry guys – without a commercial (very hot) process they appear to be invincible; clogging up the beds and any rake you might use. I actually ran an experiment on the little coir disks wrapped in mesh which purport to be green – and they don’t rot either. When it comes to greening up horticulture it pays to be careful – not everything it says on the packet comes to pass! And don’t ever put in a thick layer of grass mowings unless you’ve allowed it to wilt first in the sun.

That’s it really – the sad sum of my composting experience in a thousand or so words out of the fruits of which we can make maybe three cubic metres of compost and one and a half of leaf mould every year. Marvellous stuff ‘though – and so much better than anything you could buy in a shop.

Telling it like it is

This week I was reading a newspaper feature on the natural history writer Richard Mabey that revealed a certain tetchiness about the representation of nature as an entirely positive – not to say cosy -icon.

 “Bacteria and viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are also all part of nature. At times we need to defend ourselves from ‘nature’ but also row back from the value judgments we make about certain parts of the natural world, because we need the whole thing kicking together if the biosphere, including us, is to survive.”

Richard Mabey in a Guardian interview with Patrick Barkham

Someone once said to me “you know your trouble is that you constantly set up a lovely scene in your writing and then you go and spoil it!” At the time I was a bit rattled by the remark but increasingly I think it was bang on the mark: – that’s exactly what I do; but not because I enjoy raging around my most elegiac visions but because that’s the way the world is. As I’ve said many times before, (sometimes even at a funeral service), love is impossible to imagine without loss – or at least the threat of loss. The greatest joys are too fugitive to hang a lifeline on and so you just have to throw yourself headlong into the torrent and hope for the best. The best writers can inscribe a single moment of the ebb and flow of life without for a moment implying that this is somehow the nature of it.

By way of an example I offer the blackthorn which, today, was in glorious flower outside our son’s allotment. You could never say the flowers were strongly perfumed but they were there in such profusion that the nearby air was infused with the richness of their nectar. Their fruit will appear in autumn, hard and bitter as aloes, and which are utterly unapproachable until they have seen a frost or two and are infused in gin and sugar. The picking of them is a genuinely Good Friday experience because their dreadful thorns will fight you for every berry and leave a septic puncture wound for which you will not forgive them until two years hence in November when you break open the mature bottle of sloe gin. Blessings come with their troubles – they’re contrary sides of the same currency.

So if I write about rats on the allotment I’m not breaking the code of omerta on the darker side of growing things; it’s a touch of duende, of the whole as against the partial. I’d love to be able to show a photo of me in a 1920’s wraparound apron and headscarf; all vermilion lipsticked and gathering sheaves of golden corn but I’d look silly in Madame’s clothes.

The control of rats on any allotment is a necessity mainly because any system of composting except doing it in a hermetically sealed retort, puts two features of rat heaven together – namely food and shelter. Consequently we often meet one another in the way that erstwhile enemies pass in the street; with grudging respect. Not using poisons for obvious reasons, means that the choice lies between chasing them with a garden fork which is likely to result in serious injury, though rarely to the rat; or trapping them as quickly and lethally as possible. Of course turning the heap regularly stops them from building nests and having babies, but they’ll always be there – close by. Today I woke with a possible solution to the challenge, because the problem with trapping is that rats are not stupid and once they’ve seen uncle Pentstemon meet his maker with peanut butter on his whiskers, they’ll avoid peanut butter as if it were made by Rentokil. But we have another problem apart from rodents – which is my fondness for Camembert cheese.

Camembert is surprisingly difficult to buy in prime condition. Supermarkets usually sell it refrigerated so hard it is beyond maturing and completely tasteless. However the local Co-op must be managed by a Frenchman because their Camembert is alway perfect straight out of the chiller. But after a couple of days the smell begins to leach out of our fridge and fills the kitchen. It smells as if there may be a dead sheep behind the washing machine and Madame has a hatred for dead sheep. Normally I would put up with the glorious ammoniac stink of a good one but it has all come to a head. Double wrapping will not do at all and I have been given an ultimatum. Either the cheese goes or she does. It’s an intolerable choice.

And so – this morning I thought suddenly that Camembert might make the most seductive ever bait for the rat traps! Imagine the potential slaughter of six traps baited with lumps of Camembert – I mean – at least twice in each one; twelve fat rats vanquished from the face of the allotments and universal praise from our neighbours who are far too polite to contemplate such a bold plan. I’ll feed the rats to the foxes and film them with the trailcam – which will look great on the allotment WhatsApp page. I shan’t charge a penny for the service – unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin – because 1000 guilders seems a bit steep – and I’ll be allotment Rep by the end of the year as long as the vegans don’t gang up on me.

My uncle Charles was a rat catcher – seriously – and he would always leave the antidote to his cyanide at home so he’d know where to find it. He was a bit eccentric and would occasionally resort to the shotgun and cheerfully loose off half a dozen cartridges after a rat. He was also a terrible shot, so his chicken houses were always infested with them. My Aunty Dingles, his serially adulterous but glamorous wife, (don’t ask!) also made the best clotted cream in Berkshire which is a county not known for clotted cream so maybe it wasn’t that good.

And that – considered as a whole – is probably why I prefer to tell it as it is. It’s kind of comforting not to have to live up to impossible role models and I was at least spared that fate.

What’s your game sunshine?!!