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Living Lightly column

Making compost

By Charles Robinson

Autumn is compost-making time and I love it.  About twelve years ago I planted an extensive deciduous forest comprising English Oaks, Liquidamber, Claret and Golden Ash, Tulip Trees, Ginko Biloba, Red Oaks and Pin Oaks. These trees have many benefits but, best of all, they provide masses of leaves for the compost.

Our garden has two permanent brick compost heaps and several temporary compost enclosures made of star pickets and chicken wire.

Once I have my compost enclosures ready, I begin by lining the base of each one with coarse vegetative matter.  This is easy because we’ve just picked and stored our pumpkins.  The old leaves and metres of pumpkin tendrils are ideal.  We often use the leftovers from our bean harvest once we’ve picked and podded the beans, and also old tomato plants are useful.  I then place a slotted drainage pipe vertically in the enclosure, on top of the course matter, and then we begin.  The slotted pipe facilitates air flow within the heap and accelerates the breakdown of the organic matter.

Then the compost heap is formulated using a layer of leaves, followed by strips of newspaper, then a layer of chicken manure, followed by another layer of leaves, then repeat until you reach the top of your enclosure.  Throughout this process you can also apply a mixture of water and liquid fertiliser and we also add layers of herbs such as comfrey to kickstart proceedings.

From then on, you can let nature “do its thing”.  I help by weeing in the heap at regular intervals, but this job is best left to the men in the household and may be a little awkward/confronting to your neighbours if you live in an urban area.

You know you have a successfully functioning compost heap when, in the middle of winter, steam is pouring out of the slotted pipe.  This warm environment can have its downside, however.  For about six years now, our brick compost heaps have been the permanent residence of a very large black snake.  This is really no problem as I warn the snake when I’m about to disturb his/her habitat and the upside is that we have very little mouse damage in our vegetable garden.  Annually, we produce over a tonne of compost and our garden loves it.