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Posts from the ‘Compost – or is it “kompoost”?’ Category

The Blues… and the Greens

For the past couple of months – bar a short trip to London to visit our two delightful little diversions* – I’ve been working hard in the garden. In winter time in Egypt it’s all go if only to catch up with everything you couldn’t get done in summer with the heat, exhaustion, holidays and so on!

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Magical mulch

I’ve never been one for mulching. This year, however, and quite by accident, I have discovered its virtues. I think I’m a convert.

It was all to do with the neighbourhood cats. They were making free in the raised beds as the crops were removed or died back, using the friable and somewhat dry soil as a local, er, convenience. I decided something had to be done.

First step was to cover RB2 with netting. But this had to be at a low level, with gaps to give the tomato plants some freedom.

RB2 with netting 6.17

It didn’t work: A cat got in and panicked under the netting as my husband approached. Not a good experience for either of them.

So, as we were going away for a long weekend, I needed to improvise fast. I chucked onto two beds a lot of the clippings and trimmings I had piled between the beds to dry prior to composting.

This made an untidy sort of thatch over the soil, to some extent battened down with pieces of wood or pruned tree branches. But it had the merit of being quite airy and letting in a fair amount of light, while acting as a cat deterrent.

Now, a week or so later, I’m discovering that mulch has other advantages. I guess all good gardeners know this, but I have rarely given it much thought apart from one experiment with straw many years ago, which didn’t work.

For starters, it is an antidote to cats. It also plays a role in drying out “brown” stuff for the compost. But both of these matters are perhaps beside the point. Mulch certainly helps the soil retain moisture: Even at the end of a fearsomely hot summer’s day, I find some dampness there . It also protects plants, especially seedlings, from the harsh sun and from having their young roots broiled as the water near the surface evaporates.

RB4 mulch and seedlings

So, with some “lift” – i.e. air and light between the stems and leaves – it is both protective and nurturing. It may also protect and nurture snails and slugs, of course, but I keep a sharp eye open for such hooligans sheltering in the raised beds, and this is usually enough.

Reading up about mulches in “Grow Organic“*, it seems I have some way to go to perfect the art. I don’t have enough compost or semi-rotted leaf mould; these are ideal materials because they will add to the organic matter in the soil by safe, natural decomposition. The clippings are probably quite useful since some elements – especially the drying leaves – will eventually be incorporated in the earth below. At the same time, I am not digging in the woody parts so they will not rob the soil of nitrogen as they break down.

Ideally, mulch should be up to 10 or 15 cm deep. I haven’t added this amount, but as I am keen to let seedlings germinate and thrive, this is probably just as well. If you want to use mulch to stop weeds from growing as well as retain moisture in the soil, then you need this kind of depth, perhaps with an under-layer of cardboard or several pages of newspaper.

What I need to do now is to extend the practice, especially to the fruit trees. I keep a circular bed, diameter approx. 60cm, around each one free of weeds. This is good, as far as it goes. But the advice is to mulch well, leaving clear a circle of about 15 cm diameter immediately around the trunk.

So, by sheer chance, my wish to maximise re-using everything we produce in the garden is getting a step closer. Clippings, trimmings, discarded plants – always assuming they are free of disease etc – will from now on have another use in the Jasmine Garden before they get to the compost bin. Wonderful!

Aubergine 6.17* Grow Organic – from Garden Organic, pub. Dorling Kindersley – see http://www.gardenorganic.co.uk

The lady’s all for turning

I’ve spent several days over the past three weeks dealing with the compost heaps: Co-operative and crumbly (well – getting there, at any rate!), nicely bedding down, or recalcitrant and smelly – you name it, I’ve turned it.

In my family, no-one ever turned the compost. Stuff from the kitchen and the garden was dumped onto two or three heaps far from the house itself. The piles were contained in makeshift, 3-sided wooden pens, latterly in similar containers made of wire netting. Then they were left to get on with the job of rotting down. No drama!

No-dig organic gardener and educator Charles Dowding describes compost-making as an “alchemical process that degrades almost anything.” Mesmerised, I watched a video on his website* of how he goes about making huge quantities of compost for his market garden in western England. His approach? Almost any plant material goes in, even roots of weeds such as couch grass, provided the heap is added to regularly, thereby smothering the roots. Temperature and moisture levels are kept optimal, and the proportion of “green” to “brown” is roughly 50:50.

Getting the right mix of “green:brown” is the fundamental principle underlying all good compost-making. Ideally, aim for the ratio above, or even for 25:75.

In Egypt, my results are somewhat mixed, I don’t know why. It can go according to plan:

But it may not:

The third bin, which was filled over the winter, contains a seriously nasty sludge, very wet and unusually pungent. My instinct is that its rather acid smell may indicate too much citrus fruit waste. The excess moisture means not enough air in the mixture. Dowding’s rule is that you should not be able to squeeze any liquid out of the mix: By no means an activity I enjoy, squeezing this lot gives it away.

So here’s the lowdown on my composting method:

Containers: There are five bins, none of them large. One is made out of wood from freight boxes and measures 42cm x 35cm x 60cm high. It is lined with cardboard – a material that never seems to rot down. Then there are four plastic bins, also 60cm high, with drainage holes pierced in the bottom of each one. None of these is lined, but I usually start with a network of woody twigs and stems at the bottom to protect the drainage holes.

Contents: We recycle all the plant-derived waste from the kitchen. Peel and chunks of vegetable/fruit are cut up into small pieces (by hand!) Coffee grounds can be included: they are also “green”. Debris from the garden goes in, some in the form of fresh clippings and fallen leaves. Then there are loads of chopped woody stems and twigs (brown material). As far as possible, I dry these in the space between the raised beds and as soon as one load of dried matter is moved into the bins, in comes a new batch of fresh waste:

Bugs and weeds: There is a view that you can compost anything, even clippings of (for example) hibiscus, geranium and roses after the mealy bugs have invaded – weeds will be smothered by a good-sized heap, and pests cannot take the heat in the, er, compost-kitchen. I’m not of this school of thought: I don’t compost pernicious weeds, and I think infested plant materials should be burned. So I do sort the waste before I compost it.

Temperature: I don’t have a thermometer I can use in the compost heaps, but I note that Charles Dowding is careful to measure the heat. Ideally, you should aim for 55C-70C. Above 60C, most pathogens and weed seeds will die, he says. I’m pretty sure our compost gets a good deal hotter in the summer months as the bins are in full sun through the middle of the day. The final product may have been pasteurised for all I know!

And finally… Are you all for turning? I am! Mr Dowding considers it to be optional, but advises it will introduce more air into the mix, keeping the useful bacteria healthy. You will also break up any clumps of matter, aiding the degrading process. What you get, in 6-8 months’ time, should be a gorgeous, dark(ish), crumbly organic mixture, both light to the touch and rich to the eye – truly, a gardener’s feast!

* For Charles Dowding, see:  http://www.charlesdowding.co.uk