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

Allium power

This weekend I have been gathering in the onions (Allium cepa). They are nice and dry, and easy to lift.

Onions ready to lift  7.16

The crop is modest: about 1.5 kg this time. Some – perhaps half a kilo – were taken previously, and I have left a small patch in the bed to collect later. The bulbs vary in size, from small to pretty respectable. The soil preparation in this end of raised bed 4 was perhaps inadequate – just a dressing of compost – whereas the rest of the bed was dug out and treated the hugelkultur way before filling in with mixed soil, sand and compost on top. There was no supplementary feeding.
With these caveats, the onions have turned out well: firm, juicy and aromatic, with no sign of going to seed. If they are small, that suits me well: I don’t fling my onions about when I cook, or they overpower the myriad flavours I love in vegetarian food.

Onion harvest 1    7.16

Still, the shallots (A. cepa Aggregatum) in raised bed 2 are behind, and it will be a while before I can lift them. The leaves are surprisingly green, given the summer heat, and the bulbs have not really formed, but since the shallots were sown as seeds rather than planted as sets (or baby bulbs, like the onions) this is perhaps to be expected. The few I have are in any case something of an experiment as I’ve never grown them before, but I like the flavour and decided to give them a whirl.

Shallots 7.16

Personally, I’m not very attached to the Allium family, but their versatility makes them a valuable addition to the kitchen. Expert organic gardener Charles Dowding considers them a “fine vegetable to grow as well as to eat.” He finds their long, round leaves and upright habit “strangely inspiring” among the otherwise timid early spring veg in his British garden. And, as he notes, they are the basis of most soups and many savoury dishes, and thus truly a valuable part of the kitchen garden*.

Onions are so widely used in Middle Eastern cooking as to be a staple. Meat and fish dishes; soups; vegetable stews like okra cooked in tomato sauce with or without chunks of meat; pickles; and salads – all of them would lack an essential element without onions. They are also the crowning glory of a simple meal such as koshari* or megadarra*, fried to a crisp golden colour and sprinkled liberally on top.

There is a curious cross-over between Middle Eastern cuisine and an Italian recipe for cipolline in agrodolce mentioned by the doyenne of C20 British cookery writers, Elizabeth David, in “Italian Food”*. Here, the onions are cooked briefly in water, then gently sauteed in olive oil before adding vinegar, bay leaf, cloves, sugar and salt. Claudia Roden has a similar recipe in her “Book of Middle Eastern Food”*, but with the addition of sultanas and mint, and without the cloves.

The roots of onions are lost in the mists of time. Ancient Egyptians grew them, ate them and used them medicinally. It’s a cliche that the pyramid-builders were fed rations of bread, onions and barley beer. That’s a spartan diet on which to build the only remaining Wonders of the World: surely there were lentils in there too? Alliums were among the food supplies found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb and they are seen in some wall paintings in the tombs of minor officials of ancient Egypt.

Nowadays, every street stall selling the national breakfast dish of wholemeal flat bread and ful beans will also have spring onions to accompany them… An interesting way to start the day, you might think.

In medicine, the juice has valuable diuretic and expectorant properties, lowers blood pressure and blood sugar, and eases gastric complaints. Taken externally, it is useful against boils and acne. Onions were certainly known as a weapon in the herbal armoury in late medieval/Renaissance England: the diarist John Aubrey mentions the proverb*:

Eat Leekes in Lide (Lent) and ramsins in May
And all the yeare after, the physitians may play.

Ramsins, the charming Old English word for onions, were prescribed for treating colds and coughs. I love the choice of words in Old English: for example, “pilewort” (lesser celandine) leaves nothing to the imagination!

Chives 7.16

Final flourish on the theme of onions must go to our trusty chives (A. schoenoprasum). They have been a wonderful feature of the herb bed for years, produce flowers for the bees and propagate for the humans in abundance, and add heaps of flavour to my salad bowl!

Notes:

Organic Gardening the Natural No-dig Way, Charles Dowding, Green Books

Koshari and megadarra are dishes of rice and lentils with or without the addition of small pasta shapes, served with hot tomato sauce and fried onion garnish, and a staple of the diet for millions across the Middle East and North Africa.

Italian Food, Elizabeth David, Penguin Books

A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden, Penguin Books

John Aubrey, C17 diarist, quoted in The Gardens of the British Working Class, Margaret Willes, Yale University Press