The perfect composition – how to make and keep the perfect compost

Whether you are trying to live a more sustainable life or are just keen to lessen those bin charges, home composting is perhaps the most impactful and best solution.

Not only is it a way of recycling kitchen and garden waste away from landfill and waste-treatment systems (that, let’s be honest, are less than desirable if we want a clean planet in ecological terms), but the extra reward is that it yields a new resource— a food for your soil. 

Don’t waste your waste — make it a resource.

For the most part, commercial compost is currently peat or a peat substitute, both of which are low in plant-required nutrients and only good to bulk up soil or start a seed bed. That said, changes are occurring as brown bin and recycling facilities see potential in supplying a composted product. Just as the mushroom industry did some time back.

Mushroom compost is the spent compost after the mushrooms have been harvested and it’s not very nutritional but a good bulker. 

Coir compost is gaining the larger market share in peat alternatives, closer to peat in consistency and growing parameters, it is derived from the hairy husk of coconuts and as a by-product of the coconut industry (booming at present due to the rise in demand for coconut water, milk and oil) it helps reduce industrial waste too.

What I like about the coir alternative is that it has inherent anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties that inhibit the spread of plant pathogens in the greenhouse and garden. All that said, I’d rather make my own.

I would feel a bit lazy if not damn crazy to be paying the council to lift my grass clipping and kitchen scraps only to buy it back at the end of the month to replant up my window boxes. To me that’s a bit like renting the glass off the bartender in order to buy a pint.

No, homemade compost is the way to go. Rich in all the major and minor nutrients and effectively free of charge. 

Just the cost of a wormer bin (if you want to go up scale) or a handful of screws for a few recycled pallets if you want to stay old skool.

You will need a structure of some sort to get the best end product — making a heap doesn’t mean making a mess — you can collect all your material in to a nice compost bin or place your layers inside a home-constructed heap, sided with wood, pallets or corrugated metal – to contain the waste.

Tidiness is everything but also in the case of a compost heap, the boxed-in or confined space adds to the breakdown of the material you put in it — too airy a construction and it won’t heat up enough to decompose.

While worms and beetles and other garden friends help break down matter into soil – essentially compost is produced by the action of bacteria living off decaying matter.

The ideal conditions for bacteria are warmth and moisture – not having a loose heap keeps warmth and moisture in — the confinement of a constructed heap means the bacteria will work fast and generate more heat (heat which can kill off any weed seeds that slipped through or any plant diseases or viruses too).

The hotter it gets the quicker you cook it. While bacteria also need ventilation, and turning heaps not only let out steam, but moves the newer material into the ‘center of the oven’ – vented sides are good but a cover top is great too.

When it comes to making compost think of lasagne – it is all about the layers. Compost is essentially a mix of soft, green, nitrogen-rich material (grass clippings and green garden waste) and dry, brown, carbon-rich material (woody material and items like shredded paper, cardboard and so on). 

Kitchen waste, between carrot tops, potato peels, tea bags, coffee grounds and eggshells etc will enhance the properties of either.

The perfect composition – how to make and keep the perfect compost

I think of my heap layers as soggy, dry, soggy, dry rather than green-brown-green-brown.

The aim is to balance so as not to retard decomposition — too dry and no bacteria action — too wet and no heat to speed it along. A layer of grass clippings will go soggy so a layer of browns on top will balance. A layer of grass clippings that have been dried off in the sun over a day or two is effectively straw and so can be considered a brown layer.

Turning compost not only keeps it cooking, but evenly distributes the resulting minerals and nutrients from the process and the material you add. It is good to turn the whole heap at least every month, so construct a second heap beside it and you can just fork or shovel it over with ease (well, lots of effort really, but think of the calories you’ll burn).

If summer is particularly rainy then covering the top of the heap is essential to stop a wash out and a cool down. If it is particularly hot and dry – as of late, then we may need to thing about adding a bit of moisture to keep it ticking along. If the heap dries out, it will stop cooking.

Don’t overdo it and let it get soggy — but a watering can of water every now and then will see you right. You can have tea as well as water – comfrey or nettle tea (fermented for two weeks in a bucket) will not only add nutrients but can reactivate a stalled heap.

Air flow is important to supply oxygen to the bacteria that speed decomposition, turning introduces this and also prevents the heap from eating a bit of the nitrogen it is producing. If you mopped up some spit milk or tea with kitchen roll – that can go on the heap.

The paper was once a tree and so adds carbon. (Newspapers and magazines I am reluctant to use because of the inks – but if it’s not for edible gardening then ok). I do say think of lasagne – but there is no need to grate parmesan on top.

In fact cheeses and meats are a no-no as they can draw the unhelpful wildlife to the heap. Most heaps are too hot for rats or mice to nest in but that heat won’t stop visiting cats or foxes from making a mess of it. 

Cover your heap against their disruption of it with chicken wire or tarp. Cooler heaps are nice places for field mice so getting the layers right and turning, will keep it the oven and not the haven.

Temperature cannot be over-emphasised— there is no set degree to aim for — I am sure there are some compost fanatics out there with a reserve on eBay for a temperature probe — and each to their own but once it’s warm to touch and steaming on a turn, you are in the range.

Heat means that aerobic decomposition is occurring – basically that the beneficial bacteria in the heap are hard at it. while the heat also kills off the more cool-preferring harmful bacteria and many of the weed seeds that may have made their way into the heap.

Many weeds are dynamic accumulators (they pull up trace minerals from subsoil), and so add value to the heap. You can allow roots to dry out before adding and carefully remove seeds if you have the patience. I can mindfully wash the dishes, but life is too short for some things, so I ferment my surplus weeds in a bucket before adding.

Depending on the ingredients and the water/heat balance you could have good compost in a few months. Some items such as leaf mould can take a year to develop properly.

The turning helps equal out consistency but also aids evaluation of readiness — what we want is an end product that smells earthy, looks dark and is crumbly in texture. Your home compost is nutritionally dense and will rejuvenate your soil and raised beds. 

It can be used as a top dressing or dug in.

GARDEN NOTES

East Cork Flower Club will hold a demonstration with Rachel McCarthy, florist, on Monday, June 13, at St John the Baptist National School, Midleton at 8pm. There will also be a members’ exhibit entiltled, “Simple Elegance”, 30”, to include roses to compete for The Jean Kiely Memorial Trophy. Horticulture - rose specimens to compete for the Ruby Trophy.

  • Come along to the next Clonakilty GIY meeting on Monday June 13 at 8pm in O’Donovans Hotel. Enjoy the chat and a fun gardening quiz, prizes galore. Contribute to the donation table if you wish. 
  • Items may include produce, books, pots, plants, seeds, seedlings etc. Open to public. This is the last meeting of the summer, returning on September 12. Enjoy the summer, happy growing and harvesting. Contact 086-3451175
  • Marymount Open Garden: An Open Garden at the home of Margaret McAuliffe. Brittas, Lombardstown, Mallow, Co Cork will be held next week, Saturday June 18 from 2pm to 6pm. This will be signposted.
  • The Bloom 2016 medal winner of the Overall Large Garden category was won by Alan Rudden from Westmanstown, Co Dublin for his Chilean inspired ‘Santa Rita Living la Vida 120 Garden’. Earlier this year, while researching the project, Alan travelled to Chile to visit the Casa Real Estate, home of Santa Rita wine. The contemporary Latin American garden includes an alfresco dining area and a pool surrounded by Mediterranean arid planting. Bloom first-timer James Purdy from Belfast won both the Overall Medium Garden category and Best Plant Design Award (new this year) for his ‘Podscape Garden’, which demonstrates a sustainable approach to everyday life. Meanwhile, Oliver and Liat Schurmann, renowned garden designers and owners of Mount Venus Nursery, Mutton Lane, Dublin won the coveted Overall Small Garden category for ‘The Designer’s Back Yard’, an oasis for garden designers. New to Bloom, University College Dublin won the Best Concept Garden for its ‘Evolution of Land Plants’ garden designed by Dr Caroline Elliot-Kingston and Nicola Haines. Finally, within the Floral and Nursery Pavilion, Boyne Garden Centre, Slane, Co. Meath won Best in Show. The medals at Bloom are highly coveted and months of planning go into the design and creation of each of the gardens. The highly experienced and renowned team of international Bloom judges, led by head judge Andrew Wilson, together with award winning garden designers and the curator of the National Botanic Gardens, spent over two days meticulously observing and deliberating before announcing the much anticipated results. The judging panel awarded a total of 57 medals to show garden designers and nurseries including; 24 Gold, 12 Silver Gilt, 13 Silver and 8 Bronze. Each of the judges acknowledged the exceptionally high standard of this year’s show gardens, with a record number of gold medals awarded across show gardens and nurseries.
  • Buds and Blossoms,the Laois Garden Festival takes place on Sunday June 12 from 12 to 6pm at Spink Community Grounds, Abbeyleix, Co Laois. Guest Speakers include garden luminaries like Dermot O Neill; Fionnula Fallon; Hester Forde and Mary Keenan www.laoisgardenfestival.com
  • Join Chapterhouse Theatre Company in the magical surroundings of Powerscourt Gardens in County Wicklow as they present Sense & Sensibility in one of Ireland’s most stunning open-air venues on June 26 at 2.30pm. Bring along a picnic and soak up the views. Ticket prices are from €16.50 and include entry to Powerscourt Gardens. www.powerscourt.com

Fiann’s tips for the weekend

* All your efforts should be paying dividends now. Keep harvesting and enjoying your rewards.

* Keep successional sowing and planting out to maintain your garden larder. Now is ideal for amaranth as edible leaf, Beetroot (early and maincrop), carrots (early and main), calabrese, cauliflower, chicory, Chinese cabbages (leave tatsoi a little later to avoid bolting), courgette and marrows, endive and other salad leaf, pumpkins and squash, radish, sweetcorn, turnip, early and main crop.

* This is the last month to harvest asparagus before resting it, it needs to build up root system for next year’s harvest; but a good comfrey feed now will do only good.

* A liquid tomato feed to roots and fruit crops is a good option this weekend after all the recent heat.

* Tradition has it that potatoes are ready to harvest once the plants are in flower, but apart from the fact that not all varieties produce flowers, there is the issue of quality and quantity of water and nutrient supply to swell the tubers up to good sizes — fork up a sample plant, if too small, leave the rest a little further and give a good organic feed and water well.

* Harvest some willow bark to make a homemade hormone rooting agent. The bark, stem and foliage all contain Salicylic acid, (the original aspirin ), which helps boost a plant’s defence mechanisms against pathogens, (excellent for cuttings), but also indolebutyric acid, a plant hormone that stimulates root development and growth — simply soak a few willow twigs in water for a few days and there you have it.


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