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News from the Compost Kitchen

Back in February I shared my composting-beginner’s pride at having managed to put together this three-bay compost kitchen, made out of old pallets drilled together. Here’s the post if you want to see the details of how I put it together.

Well, my rapidly-growing batches of compost have continued to be my pride and joy, and filling the bins has become an absolute favourite garden activity – I tend, tweak, feed and check temperatures like a crazy lady with her pampered pet (or a crazy chef…or crazy scientist…all of these metaphors kind of work!).

I get so excited to see the ‘magic’ happening, as the temperatures go up, and the various ingredients I’ve added break down with the help of bacteria, fungi, worms, and a host of other organisms – making the most magnificent compost – a living, thriving ecosystem in its own right, a precious resource for feeding and replenishing my soil.

So here’s me in the pic above with the three bays as they are today – 5 months on from when I started to fill them. As I explained back in February, the idea of the three bays was originally as follows…

  1. The filling bin

  2. The leave it alone to mature bin

  3. The use it bin

I’ve had so much incoming material however, that I now have two maturing bins and one being filled. What’s more, the one I’m filling is pretty much done, so I’ve just started a fourth in a spare old bay nearby!

My plan is to give all the veggie beds a layer of compost in the autumn. Following ‘no dig’ principles, I won’t dig it in, rather I’ll let the worms and winter frosts incorporate and break it down ready for next spring.

I’ll be using the compost that is currently maturing in the first two bays, so it looks like I’ll have about 1m square for the veggies. It looks like a lot, but still I’m not sure if that will be enough for all the beds. We will see!

Compost Ingredients

Listed below are the things I’ve been adding to these heaps over the last few months. I intersperse layers of so-called ‘greens’ and ‘browns’ (nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich) to make sure to get the perfect balance of moisture and air into the heap.

Greens(Nitrogen-rich / Adds moisture)

  1. Grass cuttings (This is the No 1 super-ingredient as it is plentiful and really turns up the heat. I’ve been adding grass once a week.)

  2. Weeds (Chopped up into pieces max 3 inches – see more on this in next section)

  3. Prunings/cuttings (From flower and veggie beds – again, always chopped up small)

‘Browns’ (Carbon-rich / Adds structure and air)

  1. Dried out prunings/cuttings/weeds (cut up into pieces max 3 inches long)

  2. Ripped up brown cardboard or paper (I avoid glossy/coloured stuff)

  3. Wood chippings (donated by my neighbour tree surgeon)

  4. Wood ash (just a handful now and then)

Mixing ‘greens’ and ‘browns’ Left – Chopped up prunings and weeds, some fresh, some dry, so a mix of ‘green’ and ‘brown’, Right – Grass cuttings and ripped up cardboard

I don’t put any of the kitchen scraps in here. Although I could put some kitchen scraps, like veggie peelings and coffee grounds, in an open bin like this, I usually put all my kitchen scraps together in one tub – that includes the cooked food and meat/dairy that would attract vermin if I put it in these open bins. Instead all the kitchen scraps go into the plastic Green Johanna bin – see my posts here and here for more information about this type of bin and the compost I get from it.

The need to cut up small

I’ve learnt over the past year or so how important it is to cut up the organic matter that goes into the bin if you want it to turn into decent compost soon enough for you to really be able to use it. We had a compost bin before, but there were long fibrous and woody pieces in there that were taking forever to decompose. with so little of their soft interiors exposed to the bacteria and microbes. Also they created large air pockets throughout the heap, which meant everything was just too dry and cool.

Now I chop things with the shears as I put them in. It takes a while and it’s somewhat fanatical – but I kind of enjoy it (it’s like chopping up veg for the pot) – and it makes so much difference to the heat of the pile, and consequently the speed at which it breaks down.

In the end I went back to the useless heap of sticks that was the old compost pile, wondering how to deal with it. Then I realised that a lot of the stuff in there was so dry and brittle now that it would crush easily in my hands. So, not compost, but a perfect ‘brown’ to balance out the abundance of greens that spring and summer bring to the bins. Maybe this could be a strategy if there’s no time to chop (and you’ve got the space) – leave it for a few years until it’s brittle enough to crush easily and quickly in your hands. A long route to a short cut?

After a year of cool composting, longer and more fibrous cuttings are dry and brittle – easy to crush and add as a ‘brown’

Hot composting and Weeds

Putting weeds into the compost is something a lot of people worry about, for obvious reasons – will they survive the composting process and come back to haunt me, popping up all over the veggie beds next year?

Most of the weed – stalk and leaves – is no danger at all. But roots, or seeds, could be a problem if the compost heap is cool or only warms up a bit, especially of the most vigorous weeds. In this case, a solution I have heard about is to submerge the weeds in a bucket of water for a few weeks to completely kill them, and then add them to the compost after that.

With the temperature consistently above 60 degrees centigrade, weed seeds and roots cannot survive

However, my compost has been getting really hot. Newly added material in the top half of the bin has consistently been between 60 and 70 degrees centigrade. I have heard from a couple of renowned composters (Charles Dowding for one, and Nicky Scott for another), that if the compost gets up to temperatures of 60-70 degrees for a sustained period then any seeds or roots will have been cooked to death. I am taking this chance – all the weeds go in, seeds, roots and all. Fingers crossed they are right…and my thermometer is not wrong!

How about you?

Do you compost? What methods do you use? How does your approach compare to mine? I’d love to hear your experiences and expertise in the comments. 🙂

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