Why Compost

By Michael Kelly founder of GIY

Of all the skills that I have learned as a GIYer, being able to make my own compost has been the most useful. The compost corner at the end of the garden, is not a pretty or quaint place – but it is pivotal when it comes to the food producing that occurs in my garden, and without it, very little food would grow at all. Over the years I have learned to see these two parts of my garden (the veg patch and the compost corner) as intrinsically linked and part of a natural cycle of growth, decay and re-growth that is essential to growing.

Composting is the process of turning plant and animal matter in to a rich, highly nutritious, soil like material. By adding this material to our soil, we make our soil more fertile. Food grows in the veg patch, taking nutrients from the soil; the plants then travel the short distance to the compost corner, where aided by an army of organisms, they rot down and release their nutrients; this composted material is then ferried back to the veg patch to nurture the next season’s crops. It’s the ultimate closed-loop virtuous system and my health, and the health of my family, rely on it functioning properly.

I often think that engaging in the process of composting can restore faith in an afterlife. Composting is, basically, the act of dying: things rotting and decaying to their winter oblivion. But it is, at the same time, a hopeful process because out of that decay comes new spring life.

I am not blessed with good soil in my garden. Our house sits in a valley at the bottom of a hill, and our soil is heavy clay that is frequently water-logged. I remember when I dug the soil first 7 or 8 years ago I noticed it was sticky and wet, like potter’s clay, with a rust-coloured marbling in it. In those first years as a GIYer, I was plagued with poor growing conditions, since the soil was slow to warm up in spring, sodden when there was rain and rock hard when dry.

But by adding a good covering of compost each winter to the soil in my veg beds, I have gradually transformed the soil in to something more conducive to food growing. These days when I put my hands in the soil, I get quiet satisfaction from the crumbly, black soil at my fingertips. The soil in the veg patch (but not the rest of the garden) is now relatively easily to work, crumbly and high in organic matter.

The more compost you can produce in your own garden the better. It’s a frustration to me that I haven’t ‘closed the gate’ on soil fertility in my garden – in other words, I don’t produce enough compost to cover all my veg beds every year. That generally means that I have to go scrambling to find a source of organic matter elsewhere, and that can be somewhat of a lottery – either some cow or horse manure from a local farmer or equestrian centre (usually too fresh) or seaweed from local beaches.

To produce big quantities of compost, you need to start viewing all kitchen and garden waste as potential compost ingredients. Get yourself a small bin or caddy (with a lid) for under your sink and put all uncooked food waste in there. You will be surprised at how much you produce – veg and fruit peelings, egg shells, tea bags etc – and also surprised at how little waste you are sending out to bin collection. One note of caution – I don’t add any cooked food to this bin to avoid attracting rats to the compost corner.

The same logic applies in the garden – leaves, grass cuttings, prunings and the like – these are all compost gold. If you have a few laying hens or ducks you have a consistent source of dynamite compost material in the form of their soiled bedding.

I use three different compost systems in my garden – a plastic composter and a compost tumbler for food waste, and home-made open compost bays for garden waste. The plastic composter is the standard unit you get from local authorities or from your garden centre. It’s not terribly easy to get compost out of (even with the hatch in the front), but by alternating layers of food waste and newspaper you can produce quite good compost (albeit slowly). When it’s full, I move over to the compost tumbler which has the benefit of being rodent proof, since it’s off the ground. Each time you add a bin-load of scraps in to it you give it a turn, which aerates the compost and encourages more rapid decomposition.

For garden waste, I have a 5-bay compost system made from old timber pallets – it’s my attempt at the “New Zealand Box” compost design and the idea is that it acts like a compost conveyor belt. You fill one bay and when it’s time to turn the compost you tip it in to the next bay. So if the system is working right you should have compost in each bay in various stages of decomposition.

The main problem I have had over the years is producing compost that is too wet due to an overload of nitrogen in the form of kitchen waste. This can be balanced by adding carbon in the form of newspaper or cardboard. I have found old newspapers to be a life-saver when it comes to making good compost! Monthly airing of the heap by turning is also vital. It’s amazing how much the process of composting accelerators after turning a heap.

Don’t expect magic results in your first attempt. The good news is that eventually, despite mistakes you might make, compost will turn out well in the end. All organic matter will rot down eventually, given enough time. The skill you learn, is how to make this happen quickly.

For more growing tips and resources visit www.giy.ie