Compost revisited

Excuses, excuses : Work – Christmas – Family – Illness, I have enough excuses to explain away the lack of posts here. My best is this though, borrowed from a Frenchman :-  ‘Eet ees ze Lazeeness!’  – with a Gallic shrug if possible.

The work was intended to provide enough money to enable me to slouch through the bitter end of winter just reading and writing. But the weather has been benevolent, and the worsening state of the world has doubled the urgency of expanding  the kitchen garden. This is from one of LondonBanker’s last blogs:-

Deflation has become inevitable. The bankers, lawmakers, regulators and academics who collaborated in the betrayal still hold power, like the well-armed brigands in the fortress, and their continued collaboration to prevent accountability must inevitably discourage honest savers from risking further loss. Even so, it is the savers/peons who hold the ultimate power as they can starve the brigands.  Friday, 12 December 2008

I like the idea of starving the brigands – but I don’t see it happening. And first, as a peon [albeit with too much house,  insufficient land and no savings] I must ensure that we don’t starve first.

Time to revisit the compost bins. A post from mid-october shows my carefully constructed wire-and-lino containers, and the plastic bins bought via La Mairie and part-subsidised by our village commune. Another photo shows a heap of compost made last summer.

I had consulted several sources online and I felt confident that with my previous experience I could cook up a good amount much faster this time. The bins were filled with a mix of leaf and strawy horse-manure and remnants of the autumn’s kitchen and garden waste. Plus dosings of my self-generated liquid nitrogen [that’s urine] collected over the weeks to act as an accelerator.

So when it came time to undo the mesh and turn it over, I was sorely disappointed to find that little decomposition had occurred. It should have felt like a squeezed-out sponge – instead some layers were too wet, others too dry. And my precious piss had not been able to ignite the process, during the close-to-zero mid-winter months. I had to think again – and start over with a better system if there was to be enough ready for the new beds this spring.


I have reverted to a previous design that worked well enough in the past, but is not quite so neat-looking as the plastic bins [fecked into the background there] and the mesh cages. The pallets came from a building site in the village. The hose is ready to wet the dry leaves.


I reasoned that the pallet-construction gave the heap the greater volume needed to ensure sufficient insulation and combustion. In this last compartment I cut up the lino into 1 metre squares and nailed them to each inside face, to conserve heat and moisture. Each of the four compartments has a front door, hinged with a twist of wire. If compost is to be turned once a month – as recommended for a faster production – then this should make it much easier. As does the four-tined hay-fork I found in a friend’s barn: it’s light and the stuff slips easily off the prongs, where it would tend to stick on the heavier thicker gardening fork. If you’re making lots of compost then even at  40 euros[!] it’s still a good investment. You’re the head chef and alchemist of the garden – and you’re worth it.

There seems to be two schools of thought about whether to put your material directly in contact with the soil – it allows worms access to the heap – or to make a thick latticed bed of sticks beneath the material – to gain aeration. I have alternated with mine – and will report the results. Aeration is vital: an anaerobic compost heap will take 2 or 3 times as long to work -and you can end up with a smelly sludge which has simply rotted – without achieving the temperature needed to kill weeds and seeds, or producing the ‘brown gold’ of crumbly loam.

The other ingredients in the photo above are the milk-bottle of my ‘humanitrogen’ and a 20 kg. bag of sulfate de fer – ferrous sulphate – costing 10 euros from the farmers’ co-op in the village. It was recommended by a village horticulturalist – two handsfull to a bushel of material, particularly if there’s more brown-matter than fresh wet green plant stuff. It releases nitrogen [and promotes lawn growth etc.]I sprinkled it over every barrow-load of mixed-up material that I forked in, giving it all a spray from the hose [the water here is very hard/alkaline] to both dissolve the crystals and get the sponge-consistency.

Finally, I stuck a sharp rod down vertically through the heap to the base, and wiggled it about, and then drove a stake into these holes to make a wider vent-shaft. The compartments were then covered with plastic sacks with the last of the lino over everything to shed rain. Air must be allowed in but not water.

The whole enterprise took up some time – but I hope that I have set up a structure and a system that can run for some years with only the occasional replacement of rotting pallets. The aim is to have one whole year’s compost in hand. Because compost is where a garden begins.

What we are making is additional humus. In soil science, humus means any organic matter which has reached a point of stability, where it will break down no further and might, if conditions do not change, remain essentially as it is for centuries, if not millennia. The process of “humification” can occur naturally in soil, or in the production of compost. Chemically stable humus is thought to be important to the fertility of soils in both a physical and chemical sense. Physically, it helps the soil retain moisture, and encourages the formation of good soil structure. Chemically, it has many active sites which bind to ions of plant nutrients, making them more available. Humus can be described as the ‘life-force’ of the soil though it is difficult to define it in precise terms; it is a highly complex substance, the full nature of which is still not fully understood. Physically, humus can be differentiated from organic matter in that the latter is rough looking material, with coarse plant remains still visible, while once fully humified it becomes more uniform in appearance (a dark, spongy, jelly-like substance) and amorphous in structure. That is, it has no determinate shape, structure or character.

I think it’s time now to hear from a world-famous horticultural expert :-

“My whole life had been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that lets you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first compost heap.” Bette Midler [no kidding] New York. 2006

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