If the soil we have is ever to be improved, I’ll have to get moving.
You will understand that I am from time to time distracted from the gardening. Take today, initially just another quiet Friday (first day of the weekend) that soon turned into something a touch surreal. Our neighbours set the ball rolling with a birthday party and disco for kids. After a while, the sounds of “Happy birthday to you/Sana helwa ya Gameel” began to merge with the chanting, accompanied by car horns, of pro-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators making their way down the main street after Friday prayers. For a while it looked as if there would be a competition between the two; then the demo moved on, and the barbecue took over – business as usual, you could say.
Right now, it’s not always easy to keep my mind on the compost bins and off the social and political currents that flow around us.
Compos mentis and compost mania
The Engineer, our gardener, can’t see what I’m going on about. I instruct him over and over to “feed the soil, not the plants”; he counters with a sort of chant about “K-P-N” (potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen), foliar feeds etc. Our minds rarely, if ever, meet.
The home-made bins sit in a corner; I think they may be sulking. But I have to do this myself, and I have to get it right, if the garden is to be organic. Once, while living in Qatar, I tried the commercial product. It turned out to be a smelly grey dust full of bits of plastic and glass. Most of it went in the (dust)bin. Since then, I’ve had three years of trials in Egypt: two were successful, one a dramatic failure that produced a nasty, smelly sludge (diagnosis: not enough dry cuttings and other carbon-based items, not enough air in the mix). But the bottom line is, I can’t produce enough compost for the size of the garden and the needs of the beds.
Now, for our latest DIY compost operation we have three containers, two closed and left to the worms, one in current use to take new waste. This is how it goes:
– Begin with a layer 15 cm deep of dried plant cuttings, twigs, leaves and shredded cardboard.
– Add further layers, alternately, of kitchen waste (veg and fruit + eggshells), and dried plant matter, cardboard or paper that doesn’t have printers’ ink on it.
– As the heap gets deeper, keep it damp but not soaking wet by adding kitchen waste water (e.g. from washing fruit and veg, rice, pulses etc).
– Turn the heap occasionally, and check the contents for signs of drying out, or the opposite problem, overwatering.
A few caveats:
– No diseased plant cuttings, twigs or leaves with obvious signs of insect attack.
– Avoid grass/weeds, whether from beds, edges or from lawn mowing – too solid and given to packing down into unmanageable masses + liable to be full of seeds.
– No animal waste other than eggshells.
– Dry plant material from the garden in the sun before adding, in order to maximize the “brown” (carbon) matter as distinct from the “green” (nitrogen). The recommended ratio of carbon to nitrogen varies, but some gardeners say it should be as high as 40:1.
– Cut unwieldy materials into smaller sections/pieces to assist in the breaking down process. I’m as likely to slice and dice bits of carrot, potato and celery for the compost bin as for the cooking pot!
– Some materials are better used as mulch on beds: ficus leaves take forever to break down in the compost bin, so I leave them alone and wait for the worms to take over in situ.
To ferment or not to ferment
Now, about the issue of producing more, faster, all the time… My new-found contacts in the online Organic Network have come up with all sorts of suggestions. Many of these boil down to canny use of Effective Micro-organisms (EMs) to accelerate the process. There’s the bokashi method from Korea, in which EMs added to bran are used to begin the process of composting by fermentation, and all types of kitchen waste, including animal matter, is used; or there’s yeast; or lactose.
Alternatively, you can use home-grown liquid fertilizer. Actually, some of this emerged as the by-product of an early attempt at composting in an old plastic bin, when the container sprang a leak and I discovered that the marvellous dark brown liquid oozing out could be diluted with water and given as a tonic to potted plants: it proved a pick-me-up of spectacular strength. Then I tried growing comfrey to make another type of tonic by soaking the leaves in water; this had no noticeable effect.
Finally, our gardener has just uprooted, at last, and with maximum exertion, another of my soil-improving measures. This was “berseem” or clover, planted in one of the raised beds in the interests of fixing nitrogen. Well, it fixed all right – the roots went down so deep that it stayed put against all attempts to clear it out. A feast for the bees, but not a moveable one – until yesterday!