Here are some tips to help you make compost quickly, easily and simply. Any smallholding, unless it’s a complete jungle, will generate more than enough vegetation cuttings and waste to make substantial quantities of compost.
There are many designs and devices available, or easily built, to help gardeners make compost on their properties. But because of the space available on a plot, the easiest is simply to heap up the vegetation you generate. Simply make a big pile and allow it to decompose and rot in its own sweet time.
But sometimes you need to have access to good quality compost more quickly than simply letting time and nature take its course.
For example, if you open up a new planting bed in previously unworked soil you will want to add substantial volumes of compost to the soil before your first planting. This will ensure a satisfactory humus content.
So here are some tips for making compost in the shortest possible time.
But first, some compost science.
Good compost requires the right balance of aeration. In other words there must be some air flow through the particles. This is best achieved by mixing whatever material you put on the heap as you add it. Thus, a large layer of, for example, green lawn clippings from your mowing will quickly settle into a solid mass. This will effectively seal off the rest of the heap below.
Mixing it as you add it with leaves, dead flower heads, vegetable peelings and twigs etc will enable air pockets to allow sufficient flow through the heap.
Good compost requires the right level of moisture. Summer rainfall on on the Highveld is often sufficient to maintain a satisfactory moisture level in the heap. But a long dry spell, or the addition of a lot of dry material may require you to run a gentle sprinkler atop the heap for an hour or two. Just be careful not to flood the heap, but allow a gentle rain to soak slowly through the heap.
Good compost requires some heat to be generated within the pile. This kills off pathogens that you may have added, such as fungi and bacteria. It also sterilises any seed that may have been part of any material you added. Thus, compost that has been heat-treated is less likely to result in a plethora of weed seedlings once incorporated in your garden beds.
Acid vs alkaline
Good compost should result in the right balance of nutrients, and the right level of acidity or alkalinity – that is, neutral pH.
Adding certain substances in excess, for example pine needles, may change the pH to the detriment of the heap. Pine needles will make it more acid, for example. Adding wood ash, from your braai fire, will raise the level of potash, aka potassium, and provide an important one of the “big three” N, P, K plant nutrients (K – potassium).
The chemical composition of some items you may wish to add may speed up or slow down the composting process. For example citrus peels, if added in excess, will slow down the composting process. Likewise, big branches will prove slow to decompose. Ash from coal and briquettes will dramatically slow down the composting. Used cooking oil, fat, etc should never be added as it will seal off any chance of airflow and turn the heap rancid.
Don’t be scared of adding newsprint, paper towel, or tissues, but steer clear of glossy coated papers. And make sure any paper you add is well-shredded and mixed with other material.
Plastic, polystyrene, metal, glass, cork and similar items will not compost and should be excluded. Rather separate them and send them to a recycler.
Similarly, meat scraps and bones should not be added as they will attract rats and mice, and will smell as they rot. Also, they won’t decompose so you will need to remove them from any compost your harvest before use. That is, unless you want your flower beds to resemble a ghoulish graveyard as they emerge later, bleached and white, from the soil.
Reduce particle size
Compost will be made faster if the raw material is reduced in size as it is added. A garden shredder, therefore, is a very useful tool in your compost manufacturing process.
Likewise, a chipper can be used to reduce tree prunings and small branches to compostable size. Just be sure to mix this material with other components first. Better still, use chippings direct on your beds as weed and seed free mulch.
Animal manures of any species will aid in the composting process if added in moderation.
If you have horses or donkeys a good strategy is to full a sack half way with fresh manure. Suspend this in a covered drum of water for a couple of weeks.
The nutrients in the manure will then leach out and mix with the water. This will providing you with a potent liquid manure, which can be diluted and applied directly to your plants.
The grass shreds and seeds that come with horse manure will be left behind in the sack, and thus residue can be mixed into your heap to make a potent compost accelerator.
Worms and grubs
In time, a well-run compost heap established on bare earth will start to attract its own colony of earthworms, grubs and bugs. These are your friends in the process. They will live happily in the heap chomping away at this readily available food source, and leaving behind their castings – poop. This is the best component of compost that you can wish for.
You can artificially increase your heap’s worm population by adding a few handfuls from soil in your garden that you find well-populated.
Indeed, to maximise your production of vermicastings and vermi-tea consider building or buying a vermicomposting set up, separate from your bulk composting arrangement. Just be aware that the worms commonly used in vermicomposting setups are of a species different from common African earthworms. Indigenous earthworms prefer to operate at deeper depths than the commercially-available Red Wrigglers.
Above all, leave your compost heap to its own devices unless something seems drastically wrong. The two most likely issues you will have, is a heap that has gone bad, easily identified by an unpleasant odour emanating from it, and a plethora of flies. Less likely is a heap which spontaneously combusts, identified by smoke, rather than early morning steam, rising from the heap.
In the case of a heap gone bad the cause is usually too much moisture and not enough aeration. Deconstruct the heap, allow the material to sun-dry for a couple of days, then remix it and pile it again.
When to harvest compost
Assuming you are constantly adding new material to your heap as your gardening activities dictate, how will you know when there is compost ready for use? And how will you access it?
After an initial period of four to six months from establishment, you should have some dark brown, well-rotted compost gold at the bottom, and in the centre, of the pile.
At this stage you should deconstruct the pile. A good idea is to separate the top, newest material from the partially composted stuff beneath and on the sides, in separate piles, until you reveal your target at the bottom. Dark, friable and sweet smelling, this should be free of grubs and earthworms. These, having done their magic within, should have moved on to “fresher pastures” in the material higher up.
Dig out the good stuff for use in the garden, and remix the partially done material with a bit of fresh material. Reconstruct the heap.
Start at the bottom with a good layer of twigs and small branches. This allows for good airflow into the heap. First add the partially composted stuff, then add the rest of the fresh material atop. Now adjust the moisture level, and allow the process to continue once more.
To read other articles about growing vegetables and crops click here.
Main image: Compost heap with steam rising on a chilly morning – a sign of good microbial activity within, by Andrew Dunn, http://andrewdunnphoto.com/ from Wikimedia Commons