Growing a healthy and beautiful garden is like raising a child. You nurture and feed the plants. The upside is that you don’t need to wait 18 years to see them all grown up.
Every good gardener knows that the quality of the soil is the single most important factor when it comes to growing a garden. And the answer to bad soil is compost. We’re sure the topic of compost is sometimes misunderstood, as it’s not the only animal remains or… well, poo.
So, ditch the chemical fertilisers and let’s take a look at how you can safely compost and fertilise your garden.
Compost is a great alternative to chemical fertiliser, as it is not only 100% eco-friendly but if done right, much more beneficial to your garden than the additives you can buy from the store.
The process involves you taking organic waste and basically doing Mother Nature’s work for her in producing humus for your plant babies. Organic waste is around 35% of all household rubbish so materials will never be sparse and you get to cut back on your pollution. Win-win.
It will provide much more nutrients for your plants and help keep moisture in the soil. It will also introduce the much needed beneficial microorganisms in the soil, which will help aerate it and keep your garden healthy.
What to compost?
Pretty much any organic matter can be composted, but do not compost any animal remains or animal products unless you want the unmistakable smell of serial killer hobby room lingering around your yard.
Not only that, but it can bring undesirable bacteria in the compost which later may be used for growing your food.
You can, however, use eggshells. As long as they are dry of course. The most important elements to compost are nitrogen and carbon, with the perfect balance being 25-26 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen ingredients. Here’s where to get them:
|Fruit Scraps||Nitrogen||Add with dry carbon items.|
|Vegetable Scraps||Nitrogen||Add with dry carbon items.|
|Grass Clippings||Nitrogen||Add in-between in thin layers.|
|Seaweed and Kelp||Nitrogen||In thin layers; mineral source.|
|Chicken Manure||Nitrogen||Very good “activator”.|
|Weeds||Nitrogen||Watch out for seeds!|
|Table Scraps||Nitrogen||Add with dry carbon items.|
|Coffee Grounds||Nitrogen||You can use seeds too!|
|Flowers and Cuttings||Nitrogen||Add them chopped up.|
|Leaves||Carbon||Shred them to compost faster.|
|Shrub Prunings||Carbon||Woody stems compost slower.|
|Straw or Hay||Carbon||Straw is better.|
|Pine Needles||Carbon||Use moderately as they are acidic.|
|Wood Ash||Carbon||Shrub prunings.|
|Sawdust Pallets.||Carbon||Straw or hay.|
|Wood Chips/Pallets||Carbon||Pine needles.|
|Dryer Lint||Carbon||Wood ash.|
|Corn Cobs, Stalks||Carbon||Chop them up before adding.|
|Shredded Paper||Carbon||No glossy paper.|
|Garden Plants||Both||No diseased plants.|
|Eggshells||Neutral||Crush them before adding.|
How to compost
There are two methods of composting: Cold composting is the pileup and forget approach, but can take up to two years to be ready and there are some risks involved with the lower temperatures of the mix.
Hot composting is demanding but it gets ready quicker and the high temperatures inside the pile mean that everything undesirable (weed seeds, disease pathogens, pest eggs) will perish.
The heat comes from the microorganisms and fungi that are developing inside the compost and breaking it down. It can heat up in 24 to 32 hours and will retain the heat for a few days up to a week.
The optimal temperature is around 60°C. If the pile reaches 70°C this can be a problem. You can easily get rid of it by turning the pile and adding water.
There are compost thermometers that are easy and cheap to obtain. I suggest you make it easy on yourself and grab one.
It may sound complicated, but it really isn’t anything more than layering rubbish in a pile and letting it ripen.
Compost maturing can take anywhere from several weeks to two years, depending on a multitude of factors and the method you use. This is why most people have a three-bin system set up. In one bin there’s the compost you’re just starting, the second is maturing compost, and the third is where you keep ready to use compost.
This way you have a rotation that ensures you are always stock up on brown gold.
Here are the things you need to keep in mind when composting:
- Start your compost pile on open ground. This way beneficial critters like worms could get into the compost, enriching it with enzymes.
- Setup a base for your compost pile by layering twigs or other harder materials at the bottom. This will ensure the pile has good drainage and will improve the much-needed oxygen intake.
- Layer the materials as you add them to the compost. A good rule of thumb is to alternate between green and brown, moist and dry. Make sure the ingredients don’t clump together because this will make it very hard for the compost to aerate and mature. Any powderlike ingredients like sawdust or wood ashes should be added in small layers.
- Add green manure to the pile, or anything rich in nitrogen really. The importance of manure comes from the microorganisms already living in it. This will “activate” the compost, further speeding up the process of maturing.
- Remember to keep the pile moist, but not soggy. Water it occasionally, but be careful not to overdo it.
- Cover the pile with whatever you have on hand. This will retain the two most important things for compost – moisture and heat. I’ve found out that laying wooden planks over it works best as it also allows rainwater to do the moisturising for me, without soaking it.
- Turn the pile with a pitchfork every few weeks to make sure it’s getting enough oxygen. Do this also when you add new ingredients to it, instead of just layering them atop the old ones. Mixing the ingredients in is important for the homogenisation of the compost, which again speeds up it’s maturing.
Things you should watch out for
If the compost pile starts to develop a bad smell this means that it’s either too wet, there’s not enough air in it, or there’s too much food and not enough dry components. When in doubt, fork in dry leaves! Things you should not add to the compost include:
- Meat and dairy
- Diseased plants
- Bread or similar products as they attract pests
- Metals, plastic and glass
- Sawdust from treated timber
Be extra careful if you are going to add weeds to the compost if you are using the cold method. Check them thoroughly for seed and/or underground stems, because you may end up spreading them all over your garden in the perfect environment to overtake it.
Not to be fear-mongering, but mind that hot composting is called that for a reason. It’s not a real fire hazard at any rate, but you should still keep an eye on it and remember to turn and water it regularly. The only way I see a compost pile bursting into flame is if it were at least 3 meters high. Better safe than sorry.