Our Compost Heap

Composting is very much in vogue these days, for ecological and environmental reasons, whereas a few decades ago it was the preserve of the traditional farmer and gardener who could not afford to dispose of masses of vegetation any other way, or could not afford to ‘buy in’ soil conditioners and fertilisers.

Apart from regularly composting horse manure the ‘hot quick aerobic’ way, we have also been building up a ‘roving compost heap’, also known as a ‘cold’ heap for the past 5 or more years.

Recently, we needed to disassemble this heap, something Clive has been looking forward to for years! Why? To find out how well it has worked, what has been produced and, specifically, what and how much has failed to break down.

The result – about 2 cubic yards of what looks like quality dark friable loam, which just has to be a great soil conditioner and fertiliser too, such was the amazing variety of organic matter that has gone into it over the years. Having scraped the heap’s skin and most recent additions, we found the core of the heap, about 6 foot long and 3 foot high, to be incredibly weed free, despite having had just about everything we are told should not be composted added into it at some time or other – albeit having tried to kill it first under the heat of the sun!

The beauty of this method was that any weeds were very easy to remove, because of the lovely crumbly dry texture of the compost. A single dock, a few thistles and a couple of nettles were probably the worst. There was no bindweed at all, no twitch grass other than on the skimmed surface, but I would not dream of burning twitch or any other grasses anyway as they are just what you need to produce better loam than you could buy.

Another discovery! Instead of burning brassicas we piled them up and attacked them with a sharp spade or mattock to chop them into bits and bruise them before adding them to the pile. As no trace whatsoever of any over a couple of years old could be found it seems woody, fractious waste breaks down quite fast once you start the process off. Yes, it takes time, but then so does starting and managing fires which maybe outlawed soon anyway.

A roving heap is so called because as the height approaches 3 feet or so, you add new material one end creating a linear pile with an ‘old’ and ‘new’ end. New additions need keeping damp, particularly in the case of woody stems. To achieve this, the heap has had about 20 litres of kitchen slops chucked over the ‘new’ end weekly. This ‘cold heap’ approach was adopted when we realised that burning damp sods, woody stems and pernicious weeds, was maybe a waste of organic matter, as well as a nuisance to others. Despite loving a good flare up of old wood, brambles, etc a couple of times a year, we found that we were soon accruing several cubic feet of additional organic matter every year, so it was worth dedicating some space to it.

Every spring, the previous year’s additions have shrunk to half their original size. During seasonally wet weather and hot summers it has been covered with cardboard or carpets. Overall, I was surprised it was harder removing man-made detritus than any unrotted matter or weeds.

Some tips:

Good:

  • coffee (nitrogen rich)
  • all vegetable kitchen waste
  • cooking water and tea
  • annual and perennial weeds (if dried in the sun first)
  • attacking the heap occasionally with a sharp spade, especially in midwinter when it is freezing

Bad:

  • bleached tea bags (the paper does not break down)
  • diseased vegetables

We also added the remains of two long rows of runner beans, smashed up with a sharp spade and piled up to rot over the winter – a small heap 18 inches high is the result. Why burn this wonderful resource when it can be added to your cold heap in the spring?

by Jenny Sippings & Clive Smith

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