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October Notes on composting.

Updated: Oct 29, 2022

There are three things I really love about October. Firstly, the rich changing colours of leaves in the trees and kicking the fallen ones; secondly, chrysanthemums flowering along with dahlias, seed heads, scrambling annuals and grasses sparkling in dew. Then finally, it will always be cool enough to get stuck into turning the compost heap without over heating.

Compost heaps almost have a mythical nature. Gardeners that consider their technique successful have a knowing twinkle in their eye. A confidence. They understand the alchemy and somehow, they have reached the zenith of gardening, creating soft, crumbly rich dark and sweet smelling material. Ah!

Dear reader, it is a kind of alchemy, magical life giving to the soil but there is no secret. It’s for all of us. Composting is one of those brilliant parts of gardening - where weeds, woody branches, spent plants and grass clippings all mix together to create something that is more than the sum of it’s parts. Compost returns nutrients and minerals to the soil, improving structure and water retaining capacity.

So if you do have a little space in your garden or allotment that you can dedicate to composting, all the better. This year, I took down the pallets that made up the 6 bays we had here. I compost in the open ground now! It was hard work turning a heap, difficult to move barrows around and get into the compost and most of all, it was ugly. The bays did eventually make good compost but it took a long time.

I have been inspired by the formidable ‘Land Gardeners’ early this year to make compost more easily and quicker!

When we cut the grass in the walled garden, usually every couple of weeks, I do a good quick weed so we have a huge pile of ‘green’ nitrogen rich materials. I also cut down the comfrey and nettles which are great accelerators and nitrogen rich material. I think I must have cut these ‘compost’ plants down 3 times at least this year. Literally growing my own material for the heap, to feed the soil with. If you can’t beat them, use them.

Then earlier this year, we did a lot of fruit tree and hedge pruning which provides the ideal ‘brown’ carbon rich materials. We shredded all the stems and branches and have had a couple of bins of these. There is lots of lovely white fungi growing which must be good! If you don’t have much prunings, shredded card or paper will do. Then I add these to the heaps with some old rich compost from last year. And that’s it really. So it is all layered up, alternating green to carbon then some compost, adding a watering can of water each time to soak the pile (this really heaps the decomposition process and gets the heat up.) I do this in an open patch on one side of the garden, then if I can manage it, I will turn it several times over the next few days - literally turn the heap top to bottom, fluffing it up and getting air in, watering again if dry. Making a neat pile next to where the old one sat.

This way of composting creates beautiful material very quickly, and I have been using it in my compost mixes all summer. It has been brilliant. Now I have several piles, built this year and I intend to spread them around as mulch over the next few weeks as the plants in the garden shrink back a little, exposing the soil beneath. Don’t worry about materials or mix rations too much, just make some compost. Returning plants to the soil in this way is quite the essence of gardening, closing that loop and creates magical gardens too.

Originally published in Cambridge Edition October 2022


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