Saturday, 2 June 2007

Food Gardening For Beginners - Part 9

Compost Making

Peter Cundall Australia’s favourite Gardening Guru says that:
“Compost is nothing more than organic matter – anything which has once been alive - which has been broken down to a state of decay”.

That said, the quality of (and therefore value to your garden) your compost will depend very much upon what you put in it. What you use to your compost will often depend on what is available to you from the area in which you live.

You’ll need to source materials that will provide a wide range of nutrients and balance these with bulky materials that will help aerate the soil. The compost also needs moisture to enable the living organisms that will break down those materials to survive and do their work.

I don’t intend to go into too much detail about the science behind composting; there are many books available on that subject. One of the best I have found recently is an ABC Gardening Australia book by Tim Marshall called Recycle Your Garden. The author goes into great detail about the science involved. Try to get a copy from your local library. I’m sure there are many from overseas too.

Some useful links.
Gardening Australia Compost Fact sheet
How to make compost – HDRA
Making Compost – Journey To Forever

There are many methods of making compost. Different designs for bays, barrels, boxes, tumblers, tubs or even free standing.

The following is a step by step guide to the building a free standing compost heap in situ on the bed where I will be planting my Tomato crop next Spring.

I will stress here that I won’t be planting into this bed for nearly 5 months so everything will have a chance to break down properly, in the cold of (our) winter…

Earlier in the season I planted green manure in this bed but due to lack of rain it hasn't grown as well I thought it could have, so I have decided to ask Doc to dig that in and begin the compost. I know some of you choose not to dig but the soil in this bed doesn’t contain a great deal of humus but does contain a lot of tree roots presumably coming from the gum trees out in the front garden so hopefully this digging will help break those roots up a bit.

Whilst Doc was busy digging I gathered the materials so they were ready to use.

I've used 3 bales of straw, 1½ bags of purchased cow manure, the last cuttings of comfrey, some chook manure and wood shaving mixture that was taken from the chook house a few months ago, lots of beautiful nettles of which I have an abundance of this year (it has been raining enough for them to grow!!) and even some marshmallow plants that are threatening to take over the Dog Pen Area.

As most of the straw bales around the garden are now wet and beginning to go mouldy (and sprout wheat) I need to wear a face mask whilst working with them to avoid breathing in the spores. Also for working with the manure.

I attached the water tank hose to the garden ‘long hose’ to fill the watering can. To this I’ve added some seaweed mixture, fish emulsion (Charlie Carp) and a teaspoonful of Epsom Salts for magnesium. Each straw layer was watered with this mixture.

I covered the finished ‘heap’ with clean (jute) carpet underfelt to keep in the warmth and shall monitor it to make sure it is getting hot enough for composting to happen and cover it with plastic if needed (if heavy rain threatens…I wish!!)

After 7 to 10 days the pile will be turned over onto the other half of the bed and later be moved back again. That way any run-off nutrients will go into the soil in the bed rather than to the bottom of the compost heap as they usually do. I will continue this regular (but probably less frequent) turning until the compost is ready and then keep it covered from extremes of weather until planting time.

According to Peter Cundall (again)
“You can tell when the compost is ready to use as there will be no recognisable lumps of organic matter and it will have a rich soil texture.”

OK. Let’s build the ‘heap’

Over the freshly dug soil I spread the first layer of straw and broke it up with a claw hoe

At this stage I borrowed a plank from Doc’s stash to put on the soil to avoid treading on it too much!

This layer was covered with cow manure from the bag

Some the marshmallows were layered over this

And covered with straw

I then mixed up the water brew

And poured it over

The next layer had some of the chookhouse mixture on it…

…with some of the nettles…

…again covered with straw and watered. These layers were continued and included more marshmallows with comfrey leaves

When the final layer of straw was added the ‘heap’ was getting quite high as this is a free standing heap that is as high as I’d like to go but in a contained area you could go higher.

After a final watering with the brew…

…it was covered over with underfelt and left to heat up.

I hope to add more photos and update this article as the heap is turned to show the breaking down process.

First Update: here
Next Update: here
Final Update: here
Check out our Compost Thermometer: here

Part 10: Teas For Plants

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