It’s not particularly difficult to compost a bicycle, but there are certain special compost heap designs that favour the process. Obviously this can be a very slow form of composting and so it’s important not to rush the process since partially composted bicycles can make the formation of a fine tilth for seed sowing very difficult. The easy ingress of air and rainwater is known to favour rusting, and of course the addition of iron to the soil is of some benefit to maintaining colour in hydrangeas. The impact of aluminium and rubber is less well, known but leather saddles are favoured by some species of worm.
Fortunately most dedicated allotmeteers have innumerable old wooden pallets lying around awaiting a purpose and so I have photographed a number of suitable designs below. Please note in the above illustration that the bicycle tyres have been deflated for safety reasons.
Bicycles also make excellent supports for summer displays of bindweed.
Another storm from the Met Office alphabetical list rattles up from the Atlantic today, so yesterday saw us on the allotment preparing. Our plot is partially sheltered from all but due easterly winds because it’s at the bottom of the site with a row of trees to the south and west. This makes it a frost trap, and it doesn’t get nearly so much sun at this time of the year as the plots at the top. By the equinox things even out a bit and the sun is high enough in the sky to fool the trees. But there’s always two sides to ill fortune, and we gain a great deal from our sheltered position, for instance in the higher plots polytunnels are shredded and even sheds sometimes overturned. Our sheltered position doesn’t, however, protect us from gusts of 60mph and all the turbulence that these storms bring and so yesterday we fixed a windbreak around the broad beans, and battened down the hatches on the coldframes with a layer of fleece. It’s not really very cold, so the response of the beans to their pampered existence is to produce even more flowers. We shall either emerge as cunning horticultural whizzkids or hopelessly over-optimistic amateurs and we shan’t deserve either label because to garden well you need to take a few risks and enjoy a good deal of luck.
Sad day too, when we discovered that one of the stalwarts of the site had died at the weekend. We could see that he was in failing health, but he managed to conceal the extent of his illness from everyone. He had wicked nicknames for everyone on the site, and usually managed to nail them in a word or two. He was quick to befriend us when we first took on our plot, and I’ll miss our exhange of friendly insults when I pass his shed. His allotment was an extension of his personality and it will be awful if the next person on the plot clears away all his unusual perennials without even knowing what they are.
The most enjoyable part of the day was the first turning of the new compost bins. After years of building cylinders that needed to be dismantled before you could access the compost, it was a joy to wield the big manure fork and turn the heap into the next section in no more than ten minutes. When I first turned the compost into the new bins the temperature shot up and I was fearful that the brandling worms would desert the heap altogether. But they must have retreated to a lower, cooler layer and yesterday they were back in their thousands. This, of course, has been a slow winter heap and shortly we’ll be adding loads of fast decomposing green material to the new one so having the sections in a row means the population of worms can find which bin works best for them and set up permanent residence. It’s quite wonderful the way they found their way into the original heap.
Back at the Potwell Inn, the sole casualty of our holiday appears to have been the sauerkraut which we stored in the fridge to slow down the fermentation. It appears that the drying atmosphere of the fridge has sucked a lot of the juice out. Sadly I left the valves open on the jars to allow any gas to escape. I haven’t had time to taste it yet, but there are a couple of large savoys left on the plot and if needs be I’ll just start again. We need to clear out the last of that brassica bed ready for planting the potatoes in the next ten days when this sequence of storms has blown through. On another bed, though, we’ve started to harvest the purple sprouting broccoli, and we’ve still got lots of carrots in the ground. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had something to put on a plate right through the hungry gap?
Or at least as much of it as I could force on to a PDF and then convert to a JPEG. It’s harder and slower than you’d think. I suppose it would have made more sense to do the plan before the seed order but we had a clear idea of what we wanted to grow and – as always happens – it’s only when you start the detailed planning as to where exactly things are going to go, that you realize you just need a few more square metres. But we don’t have a few more square metres and so it’s going to be a very tight fit. There’s another challenge, inasmuch as some crops come out in time to get a second crop in afterwards, but the very thought of trying to plan successions that way (although the software allows it) – makes my head spin.
All this planning is attributable to my being felled by a cold and kept indoors with only my protestant work ethic for company. Oh and miserable weather just about topped it. But after three or four days, the streaming eyes, the sneezing and the hacking cough have subsided a bit and we were able to go up to the allotment clutching the print-off in order to see just how difficult the plan is going to be. It’s now true midwinter and growth has slowed almost to nothing among the plants. It’s as if everything is taking a break and waiting for a sign to wake up again.
But one group of residents has not stopped for a moment this winter. The compost heap has become a wormery without any effort at all on our part. With plant growth at a standstill the only thing going on to the compost heap has been our household green waste – peelings, eggshells, cardboard, coffee grounds and leaf tea all go on every couple of days but the heap never grows. Down at the bottom of the heap the magic has happened and when I separate the two layers I’m confident we’ll have excellent compost. Lifting up the old carpet and the cardboard on top reveals an astonishing amount of worm activity. I’ll need to be careful when the heap is turned into its new home. The worms have found their own way into the heap and they are really thriving, so I’d quite like to start a proper wormery, but what would be the point when the system is working so well without any interference from me?
Now the new raised beds are almost finished there’s still a bit of old-fashioned digging to do in order to remove the last of the bindweed and couch before we forsake digging altogether and rely on our friends the worms to do the work for us as they take the mulch down into the ground. It’s a win-win situation, but I’m not sure the summer is going to be all about lounging around drinking Pimms. It’s going to be just as hard work to source and produce the quantity (about 10 cubic metres) of compost we’ll need to run the no-dig system really well. And there in the middle of the plan are the three new compost bins that will be the engine of our productivity – when I finally get around to building them.
I’m not sure what to call this beast any more. It doesn’t seem to obey any of the rules that I thought we’ve been following for years, but goes on it its own sweet way consuming everything we put into it. It’s supposed to be a compost heap, and at the beginning that’s how we treated it. A compost heap is an exercise in managing cycles – loading, turning and eventually extracting the finished compost, and that’s how ours has always worked in the past. But this one seems to be different. We began it back in the summer when we relocated it from some neighbouring unused ground. We didn’t really pay too much attention to it apart from makng sure that it was kept moist through the dry summer. We compost all of our suitable household waste (probably 5Kg a week) – peelings, eggshells, cardboard, tea leaves (not bags) plus anything that comes off the allotment. It’s not huge, it’s 1m diameter by about 1.5m tall which is just over 1 cubic metre – about the maximum size we can manage. Any bigger and it’s difficult to remove the wire frame to get to the compost. It couldn’t be simpler to make, you just make two cirular cages with sheep wire, one about 25 cm larger than the other and line the gap with heavy cardboard. The boxes bicycles are delivered in are easy to scavenge in town. Then you fill the wire and cardboard tube with whatever comes along.
In the summer we started to feed the heap with urine diluted 10:1 with water and it heated up considerably, not to the 60C claimed by some systems but above 40C which, at 10C above ambient even in the hottest weather, showed that something microbial was happening. While this was happening I noticed that very large numbers of brandling worms were moving to the top, presumably to avoid the heat. We’d never added any worms to the heap, they just seemed to find their own way there. As autumn came on they moved down again and I expected that the heap would slow down and not do much until the spring. I was mindful of the fact that it was now very full and would need turning as soon as I could build a second container. But whatever process is going on seems not to have diminished at all, and each time we top the heap up, within days it’s reduced once again, and I’m beginning to wonder whether the primary process is driven now by worms. So has it turned from being a compost heap to a wormery? I’m really concerned about disturbing it while it’s working so efficiently so I think I’m going to leave it alone over the winter, maybe wrap it up a bit with some insulation and see what happens. I’ll just build a second compost heap alongside it.
If it has turned itself into a wormery, then extracting the compost is going to be a bit more difficult because the cages don’t permit the easy removal of material from the bottom, and so I might just build a proper worm bin with a means of extraction and then try to move the original contents, complete with worms, across to it. I don’t know exactly what the weight would be but 1 cubic metre could be 500-600Kg depending on the moisture content. I’d always thought that I’d need to buy worms to start the process, but as always nature needs very little help in doing what it always does. I guess I’ve created an ideal environment for brandling worms to breed in and they’ve just done their thing. I’m delighted, hopeful, grateful and I feel properly put in my place once again.
The timber has arrived for the new batch of raised beds and so the next couple of weeks are going to be devoted to civil engineering. There are a lot of outstanding jobs to be done, not least plumbing together the four water butts because the mains water supply has now been turned off and we need to get all 1000 litres of rainwater gathered over the winter. I also now need to get a wormery constructed and finally I want to do some experiments with a moveable hot-bed next season. Our second LED propagator light has now arrived so soon it will be time to sow chillies ready for an early start. Yesterday we removed all the window boxes to the greenhouse to protect the geraniums from the frost, and we’ve replaced them with another six boxes planted with spring bulbs. For a while it looked very bare through the windows, but there’s something hopeful about seeing the green spears poking through the soil. It all sounds easy but everything has to be lugged up and down three flights of stairs and across the sloping allotment site and my knees are complaining.