Make your own compost

Baptised into the Church of Composting!

Two weeks ago I became a member of Norfolk Master Composters.

Thirty of us spent the weekend learning more about turning much of our kitchen and garden waste into gorgeous, crumbly black compost.

Compost bins and signs
We looked at the pros and cons of various methods including a barrel or tumbler composter which speeds up the process

A bin to suit everyone

The Master Composter course, organised by Garden Organic , was held at the Green Britain Centre on the outskirts of the pretty market town of Swaffham.

It seems that when it comes to composting there’s a bin to suit everyone.

Lifting lid off bin
Lifting the lid off the Green Johanna with a black hotbin in foreground

We looked at the pros and cons of most of them including how to make a compact wormery or a Japanese inspired bokashi bin.

And we discussed the efficacy or otherwise of black plastic “dalek” bins (that can often be bought cheaply from the local council) open heaps and everything in between

I’d never heard of some like the Green Johanna which takes cooked food and meat.

Spreading the word

Now we’re expected to spend at least thirty hours over the coming year preaching the good news at plants sales, fetes, at work to colleagues and anywhere else the spirit moves us.

My first attempt last weekend failed miserably.

I picked up all I needed for a outdoor display from the compost co-ordinator, David Hawkyard in Norwich.

But the extreme cold and constant rain meant the Easter Eggstravanza at my local village hall was an indoor affair only.

But writing this blog is one way to encourage others and I hope I can take some information to a nearby plant swap soon.

My own experience

Until a couple of years ago I was a bit half-hearted about composting.

I had a cold heap on my allotment near Norwich which I rarely turned and yet it produced half a cubic metre of reasonable compost each year.

I topped up the veg beds very occasionally with van loads of spent mushroom compost.

And for a time a friend of mine brought me spent hops from his micro brewery to add to the heap.

Making your own compost is much cheaper when you need lots of it for No Dig gardening

But I became almost evangelical about composting three years ago when I moved to a bigger garden where I’ve been trying a No Dig approach.

That’s because it requires lots and lots of new compost every year as a growing medium, soil conditioner and mulch.

I’ve gone from one compost heap to six!

Last spring, Angus, a young Australian visitor helped me reinstate three very rough bays made out of old electricity poles.

We cleared up an area at the bottom of the garden so we could grow more veg.

Veg bed and compost bays
New potato bed and compost bays

And at the end of the summer I managed to make my first “hot” heap from scratch – layering brown and green material with the occasional addition of urine and homemade comfrey liquid.

I was amazed at how quickly it heated up and how it accelerated the composting process.

I pretty much followed this video by Charles Dowding .

You don’t have to go as far as peeing on your compost heap but both the comfrey and the urine are good accelerators along with nettle leaves and horse, cow or pig poo – although I am no longer adding manure as I would like to rely entirely on plant matter.

Seaweed maybe a good alternative but I haven’t tried that yet.



An act of faith

Sowing seed despite the cold snap

It’s an act of faith as it seems like winter will never end – even though it was the spring equinox a few days ago.

And weather forecasters are warning us we’re not out of the woods yet – another massive drop in temperatures from the current balmy 12 Celsius to a miserable 3 degrees  is on the cards.

Mange Tout pea seed
Sowing mange tout peas (Carouby de Mausanne variety) with seed saved from last year

It’s difficult to believe that in three months time these seeds will have grown five or six feet high, produced beautiful lilac flowers and set small, crisp, edible sweet pods that are one of the first harvests from the vegetable garden along with minute courgettes (zucchini), broad beans (fava), and lettuce.

Mange tout peas are at the back to the left of the tunnel

Fresh veg now

Believe it or not we do have vegetables to harvest right now – overwintered purple sprouting broccoli and rainbow stemmed swiss chard that’s sprung back into life under a small fleeced tunnel.

There are also mustard leaves from the polytunnels at the allotment project where I volunteer and a few leeks that survived the extremely hard weather a couple of weeks ago.

The first sowings

The first seed I sowed about a month ago were aubergines (who knows why as I only produced one the size of my thumb last year), tomatoes and a selection of chillis – mostly from saved seed.

Tomato and aubergine seedlings
My tomato and aubergine seedlings are not putting on any growth

They have stubbornly remained at the two-leaf stage even though they’ve been cosseted in the warmth provided by some brand new electric propagators.

I do despair sometimes and wonder why we try and grow vegetables suited to warmer climes.

Maybe we should stick to brassicas, potatoes, peas and beans with the odd root vegetable thrown in.

I am also flying in the face of bitter experience with an early sowing of Florence fennel.

An early sowing of fennel
An early sowing of fennel

The only time I’ve ever had a decent crop is when the seed has been sown after midsummer’s day which means there’s less likelihood of the plants bolting before they’ve had a chance to make decent fat white bulbs.

But I still live in hope!

Other small miracles

I have also sown summer savory – a herb that goes well with broad beans. It acts as a companion plant deterring blackfly but it’s also good added to the cooked beans (a bit like the role basil plays alongside tomatoes).

It’s been sown on top of the compost as it needs lots of light to germinate – fingers crossed. And I guess that is one thing that is really noticeable now – the days are as long as the nights and the light levels have really increased

And a second tray of coriander is up and running.

Coriander seedlings
Coriander is leggy but strong and toughening up outside during the day

Leek seed – both early and longer lasting cultivars – has germinated.

But I have yet to get my potatoes, beetroot, lettuce, brassicas and turnips on the go.

I also intend sowing some chervil, dill and borage soon.

And onions and shallots that I meant to put in before Christmas are still languishing on the table in the glass house. Aaaaargh! I’m already running behind!

No Dig

I am practising no dig for the second year running so today I prepared some more large pieces of cardboard (mainly discarded bike boxes) ready to lay down on my vegetable beds to be topped with compost.

I have made my own compost but may have to resort to buying some more so that I can use it as a thick mulch to smother any weeds.

I will transplant my module sown seedlings into the fertile top dressing once the weather had warmed up. I’ll also direct sow other seeds in a month or so.

Charles Dowding is evangelical about the no-dig method as is Australian permaculture teacher and innovator Morag Gamble.

Her methods are more suited to gardening in the southern hemisphere but there are still some interesting tips to be gleaned from her blog.