How to Use Compost in Your Yard and Garden

Compost is a dark, rich, sweet-smelling, crumbly substance which improves soil condition by adding water-retaining humus and nitrogen -vital for the wellbeing of plants.

Compost can be bought, but is so easy to make that there is little excuse for not producing your own. There is a two-fold advantage to making compost. First you are creating something for free which will improve the garden immeasurably, second you know you are making good use of your waste and not taking up valuable space in a landfill site. Dig the compost into your soil, or spread it over the surface when the soil is damp, to act as a mulch.

Virtually any organic material can be composted. From the house collect tea bags, vegetable peelings, eggshells, shredded newspaper, even old cotton or woollen rags. And from the garden save waste such as dead flowers and leaves, bolted vegetables and old bedding plants, grass clippings, soft primings, hedge trimmings and weeds (before they have set seed). Even the children can help by collecting their pet’s droppings when they clean out their cages. These will heat things up splendidly, speeding the process of decomposition.

garden compost How to Use Compost in Your Yard and Garden

Do not use meat, any cooked food, or anything greasy as this will attract vermin. Discard and burn any parts of diseased plants, seed-bearing annual weeds, or the roots of perennial weeds, such as ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) and couch grass (Agropyron repens). These are so tough that they can survive the composting process and you will end up spreading your problems. Anything too woody will not decompose, so either use a shredder or burn such material.

If space allows, have two heaps or bins. This will ensure a constant supply of compost, as material can be rotting down in one bin while you are still filling the other.

Traditional compost heaps

There are numerous methods of making compost. Compost heaps suit large gardens that produce masses of waste. However, completely open heaps are unsightly and inefficient, so it is better to buy, or make an enclosure. Do-it-yourself containers can be put together from wooden pallets and wire or you can buy kits which, when assembled, form brick and wood bins, or slatted timber enclosures.

With open heaps such as these the material ill the edges, where it is cooler, will not compost at the same rate as that in the middle, so the heap will need to be turned regularly. To ibis end, do not overfill the bin. You could tip it out to mix. Cover it with a sheet of polythene or old carpel to keep off heavy rain, but donˇŻt allow it to dry out in slimmer. To ensure there is enough material to heal up sufficiently, the heap or bin must be a minimum of 90cm square by 1.2m/4ft high.

Ready-made compost bins

If you do not want to make a compost enclosure yourself, there are numerous ready-made plastic and metal bins on the market. These are usually fully enclosed, which means that the composted material will heal up evenly and rot down quickly, eliminating the tedious job of turning the compost. The bins are also designed for ease of access to the composted material at the bottom.

Wormeries

These differ from ready-made compost bins in that they rely on a colony of worms (tiger or brandling worms) to produce the compost. The worms are put in specially-designed worm bins on a layer of material which has already rotted down. They are then given fresh supplies of finely chopped household scraps every few days. The bins have a tray to collect liquid, which can be drained off, diluted with water then used for plant food. The resulting compost is wonderfully rich. There are disadvantages to this system however. Wormeries are not easy to get going, the worms need regular supplies and they must be sieved out when the bin is full and it is time to start a new one – not a pleasant task.

Leaf mould

The fallen leaves of deciduous trees, especially oak, beech and elm, make wonderful compost. Pile large amounts in a corner or leaf bin. This is basically a wire cage, and is very simple to make from a roll of chicken wire and four wooden posts. Put smaller amounts in black plastic sacks, seal them and punch some holes in the sides. The leaves will take about a year to compost down although you can speed up the process by shredding them and using a leaf compost activator.

Making compost

- Start with a thick base of rough, bulky material, such as straw or shredded prunings, then sprinkle with either sulphate of ammonia (a dessertspoon per square metre/yard), or a bought compost activator or fresh animal manure, to speed up decomposition.
- Continue building up the heap in 15cm/6in layers, adding a little time to alternate layers if you wish. Avoid adding too much of any one thing at a time, for example too many grass clippings will result in a smelly, black slime rather then the sweet, crumbling consistency formed by successful composting.

Green compost

An attractive alternative to traditional compost is green compost. This process uses living plants, which are grown solely to be dug back into the soil to condition it. Green compost works well for light sandy, or heavy clay soils and has the bonus of demanding less effort than collecting, turning and spreading home-made compost. Sow the crop to be composted in late summer, cut it just as it flowers in early spring, and allow it to lie for a few days. Then dig it in and leave for a couple of months before planting something else-Excellent plants for fixing nitrogen in the soil are alsike clover (Trifolium hybridum) and lupins (Lupinus), but borage (Borago officinalis), mustard (Brassica rapa or B, nigra) and comfrey (Symphytum officinale) also make excellent green manures.

One obvious disadvantage of this method is that the soil cannot be used for any other plants while the cover crop is growing. However if you choose a pretty enough green manure this need not be a problem.


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