Jane's Delicious Garden Blog

The magic of compost!

Posted in Grow Your Own Veg! Tips & Techniques by Jane Griffiths on the May 23rd, 2011

You will know you are becoming hooked on gardening when you find compost a fascinating subject! I am a compost addict. I love the smell of compost. I love the feel of compost. When I dig my hands deep into a crumbly bag of compost, its energy makes my spirit soar. If you are serious about organic gardening, making your own compost is an essential part of the process.
J pouring compost into bucket

So what is compost and why is it so important?

Compost is a crumbly mixture consisting mostly of decayed organic matter. It is one of the best ways to fertilise and condition the soil. It provides nutrients for plants, helps the soil to retain moisture, provides food for earthworms and other beneficial insects, reduces erosion and maintains soil temperature. There is something magical about taking a pile of kitchen and garden refuse and turning it into black gold – because this is what composting does: it transforms discarded organic matter into nutrient-rich compost. I have found it to be one of the most rewarding cycles in my garden. Taking every scrap and shred of organic waste and recycling it into food for my plants makes me feel like Mother Nature herself!
Home made compost holding bin and leaf bin

Almost any organic material is suitable for a compost pile, but be aware of the balance required to make it decompose most effectively. Your compost pile requires a proper ratio of carbon-rich material (brown)and nitrogen-rich material (green). Examples of browns are dried leaves, bark, twigs, straw and sawdust. Greens are grass clippings, fresh garden clippings and kitchen scraps. Aim for about two-thirds brown to one-third green mix in your pile. Keep your compost pile moist but not waterlogged – about as wet as a wrung out sponge.
Turn it regularly until it is well rotted.
Compost two bins either side

It is better not to add cooked food, meat, fish, dairy products, or pet waste to your compost. But everything else goes in: all your organic kitchen waste including coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, oyster shells – even used paper towels.

Compost bieng sieved 2

Every year I receive a massive birthday bag of manure from a friend of mine who brings it from his sister’s organic farm. I think it is the only birthday present that can be left outside my gate in Johannesburg without being stolen!

Livestock manure is a nutritious addition to the organic garden. However, be careful how you use it: in its raw state it may carry pathogens and other unwanted elements.
Horse manure in pile with bedding
If applied to the soil fresh it can create an imbalance. This is especially true with chicken manure, which is high in nitrogen. Raw manure may also contain weed seeds, which you don’t want to add to your soil. So, make sure it is well composted first. Do this by either mixing it into your compost pile or composting it in a separate pile. Manure is most often mixed with the animal’s bedding: straw, wood shavings etc.

J collecting horse manure 2This increases the carbon content of the pile. Check the manure before adding it and if necessary combine it with fresh grass clippings and other nitrogenous sources to even out the mix. Even if you buy commercial ‘kraal manure’ make sure it is well composted before adding it to your soil. (It should be crumbly and smell earthy, not like ammonia.)

Green manure sounds odd but it is simply a fast-growing crop, which is then chopped down and incorporated into the top layer of soil to add nutrients.
Green manure chopped upThink of a green manure as growing your own fertiliser. Green manure not only retains and adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil; it also protects it from drying out, compacting or washing away. Once the green manure crop has grown to the point when it is lush and leafy, it is pulled out, chopped up and mixed into the top layer of the soil, or just strewn on top of the soil.

Green manure clover and seedlingsIf the weather is very wet, I prefer to just scatter it on top. But if it is dry, I dig half of it into the top layer of soil and then chop up the rest over the top. A variety of crops are used as green manure – mustard, fenugreek, clover, alfalfa, lupins, soya beans and buckwheat.

Don’t let a green manure become too woody before chopping it in. It is also worth cutting up a cover crop quite finely and then letting it wilt for a few days before incorporating it into the soil. Most green manures should be cut before they start flowering, as the nitrogen is lost to the flower and resulting seed head.

Next week I will discuss leaf mould and mulch.

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