Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Invasion of the Daleks

Well, not really Daleks -- more like compost bins. But when you look at these photos I'm sure you will see the resemblance...

Compost bin No.1 -- in a convenient position close to the back door
Compost Bins No2 and No3 -- at the bottom of the garden
Another view of Nos 2 & 3 -- plus the remaining half of my first plastic one, now converted to a tub

Anyone who grows their own veg is almost certainly a convert to the concept of home composting. For me it's almost like a religion. It's an article of faith that anything suitable  - absolutely everything, no matter how small - gets recycled into the compost bin. All the veg trimmings from the kitchen; all the dead leaves and prunings from the veg in the raised beds as well as those from the ornamental plants; all the "spent" commercial compost used in the pots and tubs; all the weeds that I dig up, etc, etc. I have even been known to go out scouring the lanes for comfrey plants and horse poo to use as activators!

All the experts say that if you want good quality plants (especially veg) you need to feed the soil, not the plants. So I make as much home-made compost as I can, and add it to my raised beds as often as possible, in the hope of improving the soil. This has, over the years, benefitted the soil in my garden enormously. It  is still, despite the addition of all that "bulky organic matter" sandy and dry (often euphemistically described as "free-draining"), but it's a lot better than it used to be. It is certainly fertile, and I get some really fantastic crops from it, again and again. I think if you were to crop the beds as intensively as I do without adding copious quantities of compost, the soil would soon be exhausted.

Many years ago, when we first moved in to our current property, we inherited an old dilapidated shed. I replaced this one with a new one, and saved some of the wood from the old one. With this I built my first ever compost bin. It is about a metre cubed. In the early days, it held as much compost as I could reasonably make, but you know how things are -- you always end up wanting more, so I then bought a commercial one to augment it. This was a 330 litre plastic one with a hinged lid. It was really good, and served us well, but it eventually succumbed when my neighbour's fence fell on it during a winter gale. The lid was destroyed and no longer fitted, and the top of the bin was split. I then sawed it in half, retaining the bottom portion, which (inverted) now serves as a large pot for growing marrows. The home-made bin has gone a bit "wonky" now, and is on its last legs, but these days I use it as a container for growing cucumber plants, which love the 50cm + depth of rich soil it offers.

The old home-made bin, now used for growing cucumbers

The "re-cycled" plastic compost bin now serving as a tub for growing marrows
When the first of the plastic bins died, I went on to accumulate three more. This means that I can always have one "on the go" whilst another is being gradually filled, along with a third one which is converting fallen Autumn leaves into leafmould. This latter process does take a long time -- two years approximately - so ideally you would have two bins for this purpose. OK, so the fact is, you can never have enough compost bins. The deciding factors are basically 1) how much space you have, and 2) how much you can afford to spend. Actually, plastic bins are not too expensive these days. The last one I bought cost about £30.

I have not been particularly scientific about making the compost. I just bung stuff in as and when it is available. Subsequently I mix it all together, using a long piece of wood as a stirrer, at frequent intervals. In theory, you need the "correct" balance between the woody "browns" and the sappy "greens", but I have never found this to be all that vital. Perhaps I have been lucky, but year on year my bins have produced copious quantities of rich friable compost, in appearance very much like soil.  If it is properly done, the compost will be relatively dry and completely odourless. Bad compost is sloppy and nasty-smelling. I generally use the matured compost from each bin all in one go, rather than digging it out in small batches using the twee little flap that most of the commercial bins include. I usually do this task during the Christmas holidays, when I can reckon on getting a whole day to myself to "play compost" as Jane describes it -- this is not a job you can rush. I remove the plastic bin by lifting it off vertically, leaving the compost itself in-situ. I then use a spade to fill up a trug-tub with manageable quantities of the stuff and distribute it around the beds manually with the aid of a trowel, to a depth of about 5cm. The worms then take over and gradually incorporate the compost into the soil over the next couple of months, without the need for digging.

A word now about the siting of compost bins. You have to admit they are not particularly lovely to look at, so it makes sense to put them in an unobtrusive postion if you can. Also, bear in mind that you are going to be accessing the bins quite frequently, so it might be best to site the bin close to the back door, so you can easily pop out to it with the kitchen scraps, even in the depths of winter. It hardly needs to be said that the bin needs to be sited on top of soil, not a hard surface such as concrete. This is to allow access to worms and other beneficial organisms that will help to break down the material and convert it into compost. Furthermore, don't devote good growing space to hosting the bins(s). Two of my bins are in a dry, shaded spot at the bottom of the garden which is competely unsuitable for growing anything, so I have no qualms about using this otherwise unproductive space for the compost bins. Finally, consider using your bins as windbreaks. It sounds odd, but my house has what I describe as windtunnels at both sides - narrow gaps between our property and the next, through which the winter winds fairly whistle. Putting a compost bin in such a position as to shield my crops from at least some of the potentially-damaging winds is certainly worthwhile.

One other thought about compost bins occurs to me: my first commercial one was acquired via an arrangement between my local Council and the manufacturer of the bins. This meant that punters like me could buy the bins at a really cheap (subsidised) price. If I remember rightly my first bin only cost me £5, which was about 20% of the price I would have had to pay in my local Garden Centre. Deals such as this are fairly rare these days, because home-composting has caught on in a big way, and no longer needs to be so actively promoted, but it does no harm to ask your Council if anything like this is on offer.

In respect of the plastic bins I currently own, I have one major criticism. Unlike the first one I had, the lids are not of the hinged variety. They just detach competely, held in place purely by their curved profile. This is less convenient than I would like. Nipping out from the kitchen in a howling gale, I have to remove the lid completely -- and put it down somewhere - while I scrape the contents of my kitchen compost box into the bin (which needs two hands). Inevitably the bin lid blows away whilst you do this, and has to be chased around the garden before it can be replaced. I preferred the hinged version! But Hey Ho, it's worth the odd niggle like this for the results you get at the end...

1 comment:

  1. Just came across this entry as I was scouring your blog...

    We don't have a compost box in the kitchen, but right outside the kitchen door we keep a 2-gallon plastic bucket that you can easily reach from the door. Then whenever I poke about in the garden I just empty it in the compost bin (a cracked plastic water butt that has been duct-taped together in a hap-hazard way) and this routine works very well for me. In fact I'm more likely to forget taking out the trash than to forget emptying the compost bucket...


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