The last few days has seen a massive leaf drop here so that means it is time to make leaf mould. Collecting leaves and making that wonderful soil conditioner for next year really does mark the changing seasons.
The common advice is to use a container made from chicken wire strung around four wooden poles which are knocked into the ground. Like some many other pieces of received gardening wisdom it is not the best way. The problem is that the leaves at the edges dry out which really slows down the fungal rotting process.
Over the years I tried several different methods and found the easiest and cheapest was to use builder’s big bags, or bulk bags, that are used to deliver sand and gravel. The advantages are that they are free and stop the wind from drying out the contents.
Do not cover the top; let the rain keep the leaves wet. This is different to making ‘normal’ compost because leaf mould is a fungal process which needs to be wet.
There is no need to use any of the magic additives on the market or to add anything other than leaves. You can shred them if you wish, and that certainly speeds up the rotting process, but just plain old leaves in a big bag are all you need.
There is also a lot of discussion about how long it takes for the leaves to rot down. Some say 2-3 years but I usually get usable leaf mould in 12-18 months. It does depend on the leaves as some rot faster than others.
Now is also a good time to use leaf mould on the garden. Spread a thick layer over beds to stop winter rain compacting the soil. Do not worry if the leaves are not totally rotted as worms will help incorporation and rotting will continue so by next spring you will have a bed of wonderful soil ready for sowing carrots and other crops.
One common question asked by newcomers to organic gardening is what can be composted and what should be left out of the compost bin. The quick answer is that you can compost anything that has lived as every living organism breaks down and eventually returns to the soil.
The more refined response is that there are some things that are best left out of the compost bin for various reasons. There are also a lot of myths going round about what you should and should not put in the bin.
It seems that people are being advised not to compost cooked food with some advisers even saying that it is illegal! This mistaken idea may come from legislation about the disposal of meat after the last foot and mouth scare. While I would not put meat of any description into a domestic compost bin other cooked food is perfectly safe to compost and I cannot find the source of any legislation saying that it is illegal. If you know of the any law that prevents the composting of cooked food in a domestic setting i.e. at home in your garden then PLEASE contact me.
Another associated myth is that you should not compost cooked rice or bread. There is a web site saying that rice contains bacteria so should be left out of the bin. I know that you need to be careful when reheating rice but there is no reason at all why it should not be composted. Compost is all about bacterial decomposition that is what generates the heat, so once again this is an urban myth that is developing into another obsession.
There is also no reason why you cannot compost small amounts of bread. It will breakdown and is best covered by other material and not left on the surface. The only reason why you should not add larger quantities is that bread is very good at attracting mould and mould kills bacteria. So larger quantities bread can slow down or even halt the composting process. Maybe the best answer is not to waste bread in the first place, think of all the bread and butter puddings you are missing.
The common reasons given for not including cooked food is that it will attract vermin i.e. rats. My experience is that rats eat anything and will enter a bin if it contains uncooked vegetable waste e.g carrot tops. The way to keep them out is to use square welded wire mesh on the floor of the bin with holes small enough to keep them out. Please note: it has to be the welded mesh; chicken wire is not strong enough.
So, do not be scared by the unfounded myths about composting. Kitchen waste is a valuable source of plant nutrients and can be composted, just remove the meat.
According to the Telegraph the performance of peat free composts are, to say the least, variable. A recent article reports on testing carried out by gardening Which. The conclusions are that some peat free composts are not worth buying.
The best for seeds were: “… B&Q Multipurpose, B&Q Sowing and Cutting composts and New Horizon Organic and Peat Free Growbag.” And for small plants “… B&Q Multipurpose, B&Q John Innes No.2 and Westland West + Multi Purpose Compost.”
Bits of ground up plastic coated particle board found in JAB New Horizon in 2009
I have used bags of “New Horizon” for seed sowing for many years with great success. Last year I was alarmed to find what looked like the remains of ground up kitchen units in most bags. There have been other similar reports about not so natural foreign objects in the compost. I have not found anything from the makers (William Sinclair) to explain what happened.
When growing from seed it is really essential to produce strong, vigorous plants as they are more likely to thrive and resist pests and diseases. For that you need good compost either commercial or DIY.
Some people make their own seed compost mix but to be honest the one time I tried I got severe damping off – a fungal disease that rots the stem where it enters the compost and can fell a whole tray of seedlings over night.
If you are interested then try a mix and see how it performs. Some suggestions: mature leafmould (~ 2 years old) is said to work on its own but can be mixed with sterilised (to avoid damping off) loam at a ratio of 1:1. Or garden compost, leafmould and sterilised loam at 1:1:1. [From “Encyclopaedia of Organic Gardening”, p.116, HDRA/Dorling Kindersley, 2001, ISBN 07513 33816 ]
Dirt/soil is our most precious natural resource and it’s under threat. Decades of intensive agriculture has depleted soil of nutrients and made it much more vulnerable to erosion.
The film says we have lost a third of our top soil in the last 100 years but that has gone virtually unnoticed and unreported. Lets face it dirt is not news.
We totally rely on soil for our food; if soils are disappearing or becoming less productive then the whole world suffers. But this is one of those problems where we can really help. The answer is to put something back. For gardeners that means compost, compost and yet more compost! And manure. For farmers it means adding organic matter. For government it means making sure that soil is valued as the most precious natural resource we have.
Finally, looking after your soil produces bigger crops with higher nutrient content. So, my New Year resolution is to compost everything I can, especially kitchen waste, so that nothing leaves the house or garden that could not have been returned to the soil.
There is a superb article in the November/December edition of Resurgence magazine. The author, Mukti Mitchell gives some alarming figures for the organic matter content of UK soils. He says that in a forest there is 15% air, 15% water, 60% rock and minerals and 10% organic matter. In agricultural soils the organic matter has decreased to around 3.5% and in heavily cultivated soils it can be as low as 1%.
What was even more amazing is that Mitchell states that increasing the level of organic matter not only produces rich, productive soils which grow healthier food but it also sequesters huge amounts of atmospheric CO2.
Further calculations suggest that on a global scale, rich-soil farming could have a sequestration potential so powerful that it could turn back the carbon clock. These figures are backed up by the latest science. A 2007 study for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that if world agriculture adopted best practices to increase soil organic matter content, it could mitigate 6 to 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2030, which is between 20% and 35% of current annual global emissions (29 billion tonnes per year).
That is an impressive statement; so why no action? Because once again the absolute stranglehold of agrochemical companies prevents any real progress.
Modern intensive farming has split into two camps: arable and livestock. To return to truly sustainable farming would require a mega shift in attitudes and a break with the globalisation treadmill we are now on. The result would smaller mixed farms that could easily use their muck to improve soils and grow better crops. That would create richer soils, more nutritious food and help reduce CO2.
All we need now is the realisation that the effects of peak oil, climate change and water shortages, the perfect storm predicted for 2030, needs a radical rethink about how we grow food and will not be solved by reliance on any technological ‘silver bullet’. Returning to more traditional agricultural practices will help us be more resilient, create jobs and loosen the reliance on an oil based economy. It is really that simple.
Of course all of the above applies to gardeners, organic matter is the key, composting every last piece of vegetable waste is crucial!
In 2008 many gardeners suffered damaged crops and polluted ground after applying manure from farms using herbicides containing aminopyralid. The problem was so bad that the product was withdrawn. Now it is back!
The approval of the Dow AgroSciences herbicide, aminopyralid, has been reinstated by ministers on the recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides.
The active ingredient will be re-introduced with new recommendations and a stringent stewardship programme devised to prevent inadvertent movement of manure from farms. Key to this is the requirement that products containing aminopyralid are only applied to land that will be grazed by cattle or sheep; not land where forage will be conserved. This requirement aims to ensure manure generated from treated grassland remains on the pasture. Problems have arisen when conserved forage from treated pasture was fed to housed livestock and manure created in large quantities.
So, it was not using a chemical so persistent it can go through the digestive systems of cows, sheep and horses and remain active in the manure for several months but that framers did not know how to use it correctly. According to Dow this will be solved when farmers are retrained. The offending products were also used by many equestrian enthusiasts on fields grazed by horses. Will they be re-trained too? Will users be required to show proof of their re-training before being allowed to purchase herbicides containing aminopyralid?
What Dow fails to acknowledge is that the long term persistence of this herbicide is the problem.
The chances are that gardeners will once again use contaminated manure with devastating results. The answer is to be very careful where you get your manure, question the farmer or horsey person about what they use on their land or better still stop using manure altogether and switch to well made compost.
An article on the Environmental News Network says that using compost in the garden is better that fertilizer. Adding good quality compost improves soil fertility, soil structure and provides nutrients in a way that enhances the soil.
A good quality compost can improve the soil far more than other amendments by making it more porous, and balancing the nutrients so that plants can thrive over a longer time. In clay soils … adding compost can break up clay so that water can penetrate into the earth, while losing less moisture from run-off.
A healthy soil also allows beneficial insects, earthworms and other creatures to crawl around and work the soil, which opens it up and allows more air to flow through. In turn, this aeration allows the soil to hold more water. This means that people don’t need to water their lawns and gardens as often.
Good compost is the best soil amendment but some compost is better than others. Producing quality compost is down to how it is made. Just throwing your waste material on an open heap will produce compost eventually but it will be of doubtful and variable quality. Being more systematic by waiting until you have enough materials to fill your bin in one go, having the correct mix of green (N) and brown (C) materials and the correct amount of moisture, will ensure that the compost works quickly and heats up. See the Composting pages in the Resources section above.
Every gardener should make compost from garden waste. There really is excuse for the huge bonfires that are a regular feature of most allotments. So do NOT burn fallen leaves use them to make leaf mould, see this page, which is low in nutrients but a very good soil conditioner.
And do not forget to compost your kitchen waste, be proud to have a ‘slop bucket’!
What annoys me is the language the press has been using about this story. Evidently there are plans for every kitchen in the country to have a ‘slop bucket’. Some of the more popular papers have treated this much like the frequency of waste collection services and wheelie bins. It verges on a hysterical over reaction to a simple step that could make a real difference to the amount of waste sent to landfill and the fertility of UK soils.
Recycled kitchen waste returns nutrients to the soil and produces high nitrogen compost. Every last drop goes into a home made compost tumbler for as it is far too valuable to throw away.
There will be more on a new project comparing different DIY tumblers later in the year so watch this space.
To celebrate compost awareness week I have uploaded a step by step guide to making compost. Click the link below to access the PDF file. If you do not have a PDF reader click here. Please feel free to ask for help or raise an queries you have in the forum.
Next week is compost awareness week, a time to celebrate compost!
Compost is an essential part of organic gardening making compost is often seen as a difficult and sometimes magical process. Let’s be clear, composting happens without the intervention and that is the problem, you don’t need to do anything other than throw dead plants on a heap and wait. Everything will decompose and in time there will be a pile of compost. There are better and quicker way to produce high quality compost by using a more systematic approach.
If you want to know how to compost, or how to improve your results, then see the guides in the resources section of this site by clicking here.
We plan to have our own online activities next week so watch this space. Your local council might be having an event next week so it is worth checking their site.