Making Compost

I remember years ago reading a garden book which explained how to build and operate a compost bin. It was in the 60’s to 70’s describing the standard way of composting on a quarter acre section.

I have built a few compost bins myself at different places that I lived. In fact one of the first jobs on moving to a new home was to construct a two bin compost unit. This was done by constructing a double bin out of wood, the easy way to explain this is the construction of one bin. Four square posts, 100 x 100 mm would be placed about a metre apart to form a square. These would either be dug into the soil or left free standing, with wooden slats, 100 to 150mm nailed to the outsides of the posts leaving a little gap of about 10mm between each slat. These would cover three sides of the square leaving the front open at this stage. The second bin would use one side of the first bin and be constructed likewise alongside the original using another two posts. We now have a rectangle structure with two open sides in the front. The front posts would have two 20mm wide strips of wood nailed to the length of the posts which would be the guides so that loose pails of wood could be slid down the posts and later removed by sliding upwards. A couple of these slats would be slid down the first bin and then one would start to fill the bin with green material such as grass clippings, weeds, leaves, animal manures, sweepings of the floor, kitchen scraps and the family potty. (Remember some of us still had outdoor toilets called long drops back then, especially in the more rural areas.)

A handful of garden lime would be thrown in along with a bit of blood & bone.
More slats would be slid down the front till the first bin was full. Then slats would be progressively removed as one forked the contents into the second bin. The moving of the material in this manner allowed air through the composting material, thus re-heating the pile and breaking it down faster. This procedure could be repeated, backwards and forwards a few times until one was happy with the compost which then was applied to the garden.

In the meantime most of us had to build a third bin onto the structure to take the fresh material that keeps becoming available. Just about every home had their compost bin along with a chicken run and a big vegetable plot.

Another method was also used back then in which one would dig a trench the width of the vegetable garden about two spade deep and 2-3 spades wide. Into this trench at one end, would go all the kitchen scraps, family potty and other organic waste. When the bit at the end reached soil level it would be covered with earth and more waste would be placed in front of this till the trench was full of waste and covered in soil. Another trench would then be dug alongside, a couple of feet apart and progressively filled in the same manner. Over time the whole of the vegetable plot would have received a good dosing of material. Once a trench was covered, a crop such as silver beet or leeks would be planted on top.

Little ground was left bare except for the trench area as one had to produce sufficient vegetables all year round to keep the family fed. Thus we have looked at two ways of composting organic waste the later is much more beneficial to the soil and garden.
But let us now look at what actually happens in nature. The best place to observe this is to walk through a forest or bush area and note all the litter that is on the forest floor.
If we scratch down under the litter of leaves and things we find an abundance of worms and creatures along with a good layer of humus that has been created by the action of the soil life from past litter.
So which method is best? Obviously the world has been naturally recycling waste material for millions of years and the creatures of the soil have evolved to perform this function. Not necessarily because they want to, but that is the way they live and survive.

When we use the old compost bin method or one of the new-fangled plastic bins to make compost what actually happens? Green waste has two basic components, nutrients and energy. Nutrients make tissues and energy powers the process but in our compost heap energy is lost in the composting cycles and nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen are lost. But if take say our grass clippings and spread them across the bare soil of the garden, the soil life including the worms will take the decaying material down into the soil and there is minimal losses and lots of gains. Composting creates greenhouse gasses where mulching traps carbon dioxide in the soil to the benefit of our plants and planet.

Now days I seldom use my two modern plastic compost makers except when I have a lot of green waste. I just stuff it into them and forget about it for months. What comes out later on is good for the garden to a point (well anything is better than nothing) Instead I have adopted the methods of cutting weeds off just below ground level with a sharp knife or Dutch hoe and leaving the green material on the surface to break down naturally. If I wish to speed up this breakdown I just spray the dying weeds with Thatch Busta which provides extra food for the microbes to increase their populations. The more of them there are, the faster the job is done.

There is also a school of thought that goes like this; you mow your lawn and take the clippings away.
You have taken away nutrients and energy which the grasses have produced and the grasses need more nutrients and energy to grow more grass. So then you have to at some point of time, feed the grass so it stays healthy and looks good. Now if say a sheep was used instead of the lawn mower, then as the animal wandered along eating at one end it would be fertilising at the other end. Neat recycling and happy grasses which love to be chewed or mowed.

If we did not use the catcher then the clippings would be recycled naturally back to feed the grasses, a bit cannibalistic when one thinks about it, but effective especially when the grasses have produced seed, as the seed will grow new grasses and thicken up your lawn. At other times when the lawn does not have seeds then the clippings can be used to great advantage, fresh over your gardens.
You will also notice if you leave the clippings on the lawn it does not take long for them to break down and disappear, in fact they are often fairly well gone before the next mowing. Using this method can cause a thatch problem in the lawn so regular sprays of Thatch Busta should be applied to speed up the breakdown and covert all the material to lawn food.

It is such as waste and cost both to you and the environment to take lawn clippings to a land fill.
Because of the problems of the world, global warming, water shortage and pollution it is not good to have one of those things in your sink that gets rid of kitchen scraps. They cost a lot of money to buy and install plus they use up water needlessly. Compare the cost of a unit to the price of a worm farm at about $200.00. The worm farm will take your kitchen scraps and covert them to vermicast and worm pee both of which are excellent for your garden.

It is not everyone’s cup of tea but having a few chickens running around part of the backyard is another excellent way of recycling your weeds and kitchen scraps.

The key is to work with Nature not against it.

Happy Gardening – Wally Richards

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