Compost diaries: Improving soil and gardening for a better world

Have you ever known anyone who keeps a compost diary?

Well you do now; virtually at least!

Composting is one of the most amazing things about gardening.

It’s not the prettiest, or the most fragrant or those most immediately gratifying, but building the structure of your soil is one of the most import and rewarding things you can do as a gardener.

I’m no soil expert, but I’ve been gardening long enough to see the difference that active care and management of the soil can make. Seeing that difference is, for me, an indicator of the change I can make to my immediate environment and its ability to feed me and mine, while also making a contribution to combatting climate change and the ability of the planet to feed us all.

Although hugely significant, this knowledge is not new. Indigenous peoples and the rural poor have long known the value of composting and honouring the gifts of the soil by working back into it, some of that which it has produced.

Increasingly, the use of high cost synthetic chemical inputs is recognised as being not only harmful to the environment, fuelling climate change in their production and use, but also demonstrates the way in which capital has colonised our land and our food systems. This process has also been associated and in some cases built upon land grabs, evicting and alienating traditional custodians of the land, generating cycles of scarcity and excess, and creating hugely inequitable food distribution systems, all the while seeking to privilege and foster dependence on the particular models of agriculture over which it has control.

Sustainable and inclusive food systems are something we can build window box by window box, yard by yard, garden by garden, allotment by allotment, through community orchards and community gardens, and through the spending power we have. Whilst not all have the same choices or perhaps any meaningful choice, if those that of us who do, did just a little more, the impact would be immense.

For years our only option for ‘growing our own’ was an allotment and it was wonderful. We had allotments for about 25 years before we were able to move here and have our own garden. Much of what I’ve learnt about growing food either came from my Dad or those we ‘allotmented’ with. Allotments are great places for the intergenerational sharing of knowledge, or put another way, being told by established gardeners that you’re doing it all wrong! I joke, most people were generous with their knowledge, and their plants, and the advice was often invaluable.

So anyway, to return to composting, how do I do it?

This is my compost set – up. It’s self built, and it’s nothing fancy, but we do have the luxury of space and therefore we use it. Composting can be done on a smaller scale in urban environments too (scroll down here for more info on a range of systems including less costly self built options).

Our compost area is made up of 3 sections each built with recycled wood and pallets. The front ‘gates’ of each section open, though I only open them when emptying and then only when it’s awkward to access it any other way. By this point I’m generally battling the chickens who like to go in and scratch about and eat all the good things in there.

The wooden frame with the wire mesh on the left most section is my sieve. It will sit on the top of the wheelbarrow while I put the contents of the compost heap onto it and then shake it through into the barrow bit by bit. Once the barrow is full it can go where it’s needed in the garden.

Photographed here in full summer the heaps are very dry but also, as you can see, quite full so I needed to clear out some of the contents.

This whole thing of composting in an area of regular summer drought is new to me. I’m used to a much cooler and wetter environment where we regulated the amount of water that went into the heap otherwise it became a heavy, sodden, smelly, rotten mess, which isn’t great for the microbes and organisms that do the work of composting. Here the issue is trying to prevent it drying out too much and frankly that’s a losing battle. It’s tough enough watering the actual garden and the plants during the hotter months of the year; watering the compost is something that we just have to leave to nature in the later months of the year. We do therefore leave enough material when emptying out each section to create a haven for creatures to bunk down in and remain protected until it cools down and we get rain.

A living ecosystem

Despite the heat and dryness there’s always plenty of life in the heap. These guys were something new to me when I first started gardening here years ago for my in-laws but they’re familiar friends now:

These larvae grow up to be stag beetles (top right) and rose chafers (bottom) and if you share my fascination with beetles this will please you very much. The rose chafers may sound more concerning than they are given that ours seem to spend most of their time in the cardoon and artichoke flowers as you can see above, and leave our roses well alone.

Of course we also get a good crop of worms in the wetter compost, earwigs and an assortment of creepy crawlies which bring the chicken running whenever I start working on the heaps. As much as they can be a little over keen on what I’m doing there, their droppings and regular scratching through anything new put on the heap does some of the work of turning and aerating, so I can’t begrudge them too much…

Soil conditioning

As well as being a positive climate intervention, and home to some pretty amazing creatures, our compost heaps also help us condition our soil, if you can really call it ‘soil’ that is. We’ve moved to an area with very heavy clay soil, so heavy a clay that when wet you can mould it in your hands.

Our heavy clay soil

Having set out our main vegetable patch on an area that for years has been grassed over, we’re really trying to get as much texture and organic material worked in as possible. Clay soil is mineral rich but also with its tiny particles it can waterlog, then dry as hard as cement and open up huge cracks. This is perfect if you’re a wee lizard and these cracks make a great home, not so good if you’re trying to plant seeds and seedlings. Those roots have to work really hard to force their way through compact clay soil and establish themselves and nourish plant growth.

Another new garden friend, and one who loves the cracks in the soil that we despair of

Clay soil can also be slow to warm up in the spring which is another challenge for us, because some things really need to be planted as early as possible to get to maturity and production before it then gets too hot for the flowers to set ‘fruit’. For example, green beans like a warmer soil but their flowers are very sensitive to heat. While in the UK we struggled to get them going largely because of slugs and snails once they were going, as long as it remained warm enough, they kept producing through the summer and were one of the things I used to preserve because we couldn’t keep up with them. Here we succession sow, get one flush from each planting, if lucky, and get nowhere near enough for preserving.

Here you can see the contrast between the clay soil on the left and the texture of the compost on the right

Unlike the nutrients in synthetic fertilisers, the nutrients in compost don’t leach or wash away. They are consumed by the micro-organisms in the soil food web and, through that cycle of life, remain available in the soil until the plants need them and take them up through their roots. Soil is such a complex ecosystem it’s worth getting to know more about it if you want to grow successfully.

What to compost?

One of the most controversial elements of compost heap about which there is often much debate, yes really, is what you actually put on it. My answer is pretty simple. Pretty much everything. We don’t have cooked food waste; we have dogs. But all vegetative waste and the cleanings out of the chicken house go on.

Vegetative waste is generally discussed as being either ‘Brown’ and ‘Green. The brown is the dead materials that give you the carbon you need and includes dried leaves, sawdust, twigs, dead cuttings and prunings. Green waste is live waste, the source of the nitrogen you also need, and can include grass cuttings, dropped fruit, weeds, live cuttings, general garden waste and despite actually being brown, coffee grounds and animal manure.

Many people, myself included, also add paper and cardboard as part of their brown waste component. I don’t add a lot but smaller bits of paper that are a bit too scrappy for recycling, torn paper bags, seed envelopes all end up in the compost.

Most articles about compost give you lots of ‘dos and dont’s’. I’m not really going to do that, I put a bit of everything on, I’ve composted bindweed and goosegrass and while yes, they may take a few cycles in the compost heap to break down, everything does eventually.

I also compost all our grass clippings which, because we share the garden with someone whose stress relief is cutting the grass more often than is perhaps necessary, means we have quite a bit in the beginning of the year when there’s enough moisture to actually make the grass grow before it inevitably stops and goes brown anytime between June and July. My only warning here is that you need to layer the clippings with other waste. Large dumps of clippings may in dry weather mould, and you really don’t want to be breathing in grass mould, and in wet weather they can ferment and be really smelly and upset the balance of your heap.

The only other word of caution is about food waste. As I say, we have dogs, the sort who love any leftovers, and leftovers from leftovers, so this isn’t an issue. If you don’t and you want to compost food waste – do take a minute to think about what other animals may want to come and help themselves to your leftovers. Depending on where you are this may, or may not, be an appealing prospect. That said, one allotment neighbour used to run a restaurant and he buried all his food waste in trenches on his plot (including large amount of bread if I remember correctly). At a suitable depth it remained undisturbed so this may be an alternative to leaving it on an open heap.

The other key ingredients for your compost heap are air and water.

I’ve mentioned above we don’t water ours, and in the summer things really slow down as a result but it’s simply not a viable to option to water compost. This does mean that some of the later summer, early autumn leaf fall that I’d ideally have in my compost, may be sacrificed to the wire mesh corrals use for the wood chippings we get from the hedge cutting, but that’s ok, it all makes its way to the soil eventually. If you have access to wood chip but aren’t sure about whether to or how best to use it, Ben Raskin’s ‘The Woodchip Handbook‘ is a great resource (affiliate link) and completely changed my attitude to wood chip.

Once winter arrives, we usually get a deluge, or a week of rain, and things take off. From that point onwards, the full heaps begin to shrink as the process of composting gets fully underway.

Temporary coralls are used for wood chip and excess leaves

As for air, well the chickens do a bit of that and to be honest, the only time I turn heaps over is when I’m clearing out or amalgamating heaps. Sometimes we have a capacity issue that can’t be addressed by completely emptying out because none of the heaps are fully composted. They may have begun to break down and shrink, but rather than put fresh waste on top of them at this stage I want to top up with compost from another heap at a similar stage, and then put all the fresh waste into a heap of its own. This is when I empty one partially composted section onto another as much as I possibly can.

Keeping track

So given the compost heap is the main source of organic material to improve our soil, and that we’re gardening and composting in very different conditions than we’re used to, I have a compost diary that tracks activity, output (quantity and quality) and distribution. This is a relatively new development as I was losing track of what was going where, what was going to the main vegetable patch, the smaller herb and salad patch and my flower borders. All areas of the garden where we are growing things, including the new beds we’ve made need compost, in fact need more than we can make if I’m honest, so keeping track helps even out the distribution.

This is what it looks like, it’s so simple:

My basic compost diary

The 1,2,3 at the top refers to the 3 compost heaps, the dates show when they were emptied, and underneath is the number of wheelbarrows full of compost that they generated. I also make a few notes for myself. For example, it’s taken a bit of experimenting to see how the grass clippings work, there’s a reason I can talking about mould and fermentation above… Also I really didn’t have much hope for the heap I emptied this month, it looked so dry I thought it would be desiccated rather than composted but actually, when I got in there, it was much more productive and much better compost than I’d imagined. Most of it could go onto the garden with just a small amount of woody material transferred onto compost heap 3. Thats what the arrows and numbers refers to. This way I know where the partially composted material has gone. So nothing fancy and very much a work in progress but it helps me develop a rotation, albeit heavily biased towards the top vegetable patch which is the largest, and newest area in cultivation and when most of our vegetables for the year come from.

Well, if you’ve made it this far in this long post you deserve to share another of the rewards of composting, the companions. In the UK autumn clearance was often closely attended by a robin who rather liked hanging out on our allotment. Here we had a remarkably friendly magpie who enjoyed using the edge of the wheelbarrow as a slide.

I recognise that this is not only a long post, but may be a bit ‘niche’ but I do hope that if you have access to composting, and to growing something of your own, that you either do, or are at least considering it. I would rather the whole food production and distribution system could be turned on it’s head and be made to work more effectively for people and planet rather than for food producing and processing conglomerates, but until that time, anything we can grow for ourselves gives us a little bit of independence and autonomy.

I’d love to hear about your experience of growing, whether it’s cress seed on damp kitchen towel, windowsill herbs, an allotment or your own or a community garden*, please do share your experience in the comments.

Until next time, take care and happy growing.

Tess xxx

*If you ant to find out more about community gardens and see if there’s one near you, scroll down the bottom of this post for links in the UK and US.

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