Noah Chase studied horticulture at the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. He now co-manages a family run nursery, Deelish Garden Centre in Skibbereen, specialising in rare, unusual and edible plants. His passion is sustainable gardening, useful plants and care of the environment. With plenty of free organic material in the garden at this time of year, this month Noah looks at composting and worms.
Composting has the greatest impact of any sustainable gardening practice. Composting recycles and enriches. It benefits the health of your soil and benefits your family at the same time. Composting kitchen and garden waste means less material going into the landfill and more organic material for your soil. Composting can be as simple as raking leaves over your garden. Whether you’re growing vegetables, lawns, flowers and shrubs or fruit trees, composting will bring a positive change to your garden while reducing waste. Composting practices which improve soil quality also help to conserve water. There are many different ways to compost.
Advantages: Low maintenance; you don’t have to turn the bin. The lid keeps rain off the contents and helps to deter animals; a good idea if you plan to add kitchen waste. The black colour of the bin absorbs heat, enhancing the decomposition process.
Downsides: Low maintenance means the process can take longer. Composting can take from six months to one year using this kind of container. Decomposition will occur more quickly if aerated; however this is cumbersome with an enclosed bin.
Advantages: The energy-efficient design is relatively easy to aerate. It works by supplying bacteria with the oxygen it needs, and consequently speeds up decomposition. Tumblers are available in various sizes; the lid keeps rain off the contents and helps deter animals. Drums usually sit off the ground so there’s less bending!
Downsides: Once these units are full and the decomposition process begins, you have to wait before adding additional materials.
Heaps or Piles
This is the most popular method for most gardeners. If possible try and have a few piles in different parts of the garden; this can be handy if you have lots of garden waste because it can take a long time to decompose.
Advantages: Best for those with adequate outdoor space and who are willing to invest time — if not building a bin — then in turning their heap or pile.
Downsides: If not properly aerated, heaps can take a long time to decompose and become a wet mess. Because they’re not enclosed, heaps can also attract pests.
Definitely an activity that’s best done in the autumn. Simply put, you place a thin layer of raw materials, such as leaves or seaweed and incorporate by raking it into the soil of your garden. Over the course of the winter, the material will break down into ‘garden gold’.
Advantages: Worm bins can be located anywhere, from under the kitchen sink to outdoors or in your garage. Once up and running they require very little maintenance. A stacking tray design allows the worms to ‘eat their way up’ to their food, leaving their nutrient dense castings behind.
Downsides: Temperatures need to be considered. Ideally a worm bin should be located in an area where the temperatures do not go below five degrees. In cold climates, you should bring your bin inside during the winter to avoid freezing; in hot climates, keep it wet and cool. Occasionally, unpleasant odours may waft from the container when it’s overloaded with table scraps. If this occurs, stop adding food until the worms have had a chance to break down what’s left in the bin.
It’s also easy to make your own worm bin; just look online for loads of great designs…
Simply collect as many earthworms as you can, or order them from an irish supplier to start your wormery.
Earthworm castings or excrement are rich in nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium; the key minerals needed for plant growth. Earthworm castings also help bind calcium, iron, and sulphur to soil particles – minerals that also help plants thrive. Try to collect the juice that will start to drip out the bottom of the bin. Mix it 1:10 with water to make an amazing liquid plant food.
Once you’ve chosen the type of composting option which would best suit you, just start adding organic materials and try to remember the following points:
Keep your compost damp – not too dry and not too wet. Moisture allows the bacteria to travel around in the compost. If the compost is too dry, the bacteria can’t survive and decomposition will be slow or cease altogether. If it’s too wet, it will limit the amount of oxygen that aerobic bacteria require to survive.
The more surface area you create, the faster the decomposition will occur and the more usable compost you’ll create for your garden. A jar full of small stones will have more surface area than one big rock in that same jar, and in the same way, smaller pieces of waste will have greater surface area for the bacteria to work on than large chunks. They will break down much quicker. Therefore, for the fastest decomposition use smaller pieces of waste – ideally one inch or less in size.
Almost all organic material will compost. Ideally, you are trying to achieve a 2:1 ratio of carbon rich (browns) to nitrogen rich greens (two parts brown to one part green).
Examples of carbon rich
(brown) material include:
• dried, shredded leaves
• dried grass clippings (avoid putting too much at once)
• sawdust • coffee grounds
• peat moss • potting soil
• nut shells pencil shavings
• shredded paper, tissues and kitchen paper • tea bags
• wood shavings
• chopped hay or straw
To chop brown material (like leaves), run the lawn mower over it a couple of times. Adding too much brown to the mix will slow the composting process.
Examples of nitrogen rich (green) waste include:
• egg shells • cooked rice
• fruit and vegetable peelings
• houseplant trimmings
• fruit pips
• wooden toothpicks
• flower bouquets
• garden trimmings, (nettles and comfrey are excellent)
• tossed salad • old bread
• floor sweepings • pet hair
Adding too much green waste will cause the compost to smell, and composting shouldn’t be a smelly process. If you do smell something unpleasant, it’s easy to fix by adjusting the carbon/nitrogen balance or by turning the drum more frequently (if you have a drum).
Bacteria is an important asset to your compost. To encourage good bacteria growth, I recommend adding one ounce of Compost Activator (we find Vitax or QR work well, both stocked at Deelish Garden Centre) to one cup of water and sprinkle in the drum once per month. Another source of bacteria can come from existing compost or top soil.
When you first begin to compost, it will take approximately six weeks to reach sufficient numbers of bacteria for consistent decomposition to occur. Along with the bacteria you may notice other creatures such as insects, fungi or worms calling your garden composter home. These creatures are beneficial to your compost and chemicals should not be used to eradicate them; they’ll actually help your compost to break down much faster.
We’ve discussed the green and brown components of compost and now we’ll discuss the things that are neither green nor brown and the reasons you shouldn’t add them to your compost.
• Pet waste is not suited for compost if you wish to use your compost on food producing gardens
• Fatty wastes will clog the compost and slow down the composting times
• Nuisance weeds should be avoided, as they’ll propagate new weeds and will thrive with all the lovely nutrients in your compost.
• Meat and Dairy products attract unwelcome animal visitors
• Chemically treated wood products are not advised, as they leach out unwanted chemicals into the compost
• Bones should’t be used unless they are ground up or put through a chipper first
• Glossy paper with colored ink should be added to your recycling bin and not your compost pile – the inks can contain toxic chemicals.
Compost is finished when it’s taken on a dark, rich colour, it crumbles easily and you can’t recognise any of the original ingredients. It should have a sweet, earthy smell. If it’s too stringy or lumpy, it may need more time. If this is the first time you’ve tried making compost, keep in mind that the amount of time can really vary. It can take anywhere from three to twelve months to produce proper compost.
Once you’ve created your finished compost, you can add it to the soil any time of year without the fear of burning plants or polluting water. There are all sorts of benefits gained by using compost. It builds good soil structure, which in turn enables the soil to retain nutrients, water, and air; it protects against drought; it helps maintain a neutral pH, and it protects plants from many diseases commonly found in the garden. It also feeds earthworms and other microbial life in the soil. In general, it doesn’t matter what kind of soil you have. Any soil can be improved by adding compost.
Wishing you all the best with your composting, and remember gardening doesn’t have to cost the earth!