Archive for the ‘COMPOST’ Category

This month’s entry is a version of the June article written for the BL Magazine.

Summer, in theory, has arrived. However, June, in reality has been a tad on the disappointing side; May wasn’t that great either. I don’t, obviously, refer to the South but the North West. A couple of days ago the daytime temperature here was just over 9˚C followed by a rather chilly evening; we ended up lighting the wood burner [the one in the lounge, not in the garden]. Doesn’t sound much like June does it.

Earlier this year, around Easter, the North West was blessed with some dry weather; we certainly deserve it after four consecutive years of wash out summers. I often joke about how the wetter summers being entirely my fault… they arrived the first season I set about the gardening round. But they are no laughing matter; gardening in the rain is certainly no fun; postponing jobs means postponing your income; and, more worryingly, they allude to a more sinister underlying fear that our climate really is changing.

The delicately balanced world we inhabit is being bombarded by all manner of ecological assaults [pollution, depleting resources like oil, mass farming, GM crops…etc]; it is inevitable that there will be consequences somewhere down the line. You only need to watch Professor Brian Cox’s ‘Wonders of the Universe’ to realise how humanity hinges on a myriad of scientific laws, subtleties and what seem like incredibly random coincidences. Our world is sensitive and even the smallest changes are bound to make a difference at some point; it is only logical.

Living more sustainably [eyes rolling or not] is gaining in momentum and is something I’m having a go at; from making a conscious effort to buying British to growing my own fruit [and harping on to everyone else how great and easy it is to grow]; to buying the kids chickens instead of rabbits [got to have something that earns its keep].

As gardeners we tend to be patient and appreciate the seasons, we will plant bulbs in the autumn and look forward to their colourful blooms six or seven months later. We will plant young fruit trees and happily wait a few years for the first fruits, we can plant an acorn with the thought that we probably won’t see it in its maturity…but our children will. I love this about gardening and have realised that living sustainably commands the same kind of patience and forward thinking.

There are many things that we can do in the garden to reduce our impact on the environment. Recycling water, from collecting rain in butts to re-using our grey water from our sinks or baths is an obvious step… although up here in the North West we seem to have enough rainfall during the supposedly dry summer months to not have to do this…at all. Next would be the organic way by avoiding the use of pesticides and harnessing nature’s natural predators and remedies to do the work. Growing-your-own is a sustainable choice and the idea of using our gardens more resourcefully is without doubt becoming even more popular.

However, there is a darker side to gardeners. One of the most contentious issues facing the horticultural world and the home gardener is the use of peat. Peat is in demand as a growing medium for our plants because it possesses a number of qualities; it has the capacity to hold good amounts of air and water and has naturally low pH and nutrients… which suits a diverse range of plant species. The problem is peat is a natural material formed by the decay of the sphagnum moss, found growing in wetland bogs, taking hundreds of years to form. Peat lands also have the ability to store carbon [CO2] rather than releasing it all into the atmosphere, making them incredibly important habitats to help balance our increasingly warming climate.

The horticultural demand for peat to fill our hanging baskets, containers and seed trays has resulted in the loss of an incredible 94% of the UK’s lowland peat bogs since the beginning of the 19th century [according to figures from The Wildlife Trust]. What are left are fragmented areas struggling to regenerate. No garden, no matter how spectacular, should knowingly be at the expense of our natural habitat.

There are numerous peat ‘alternatives’ available made from a range of different by-products like coir [coconut fibre], leaf mould, green compost [council compost], garden compost, composted bracken, wood based residues, worm compost and other natural manures. If you live up North, check out Dalefoot Composts in Cumbria www.dalefootcomposts.co.uk for some very interesting sustainable alternatives.

Another option, and a very cost-effective one, is making your own compost. One thing I would add to this previous post [gained from my recent experiences of becoming a chicken keeper] is that chicken poop plus the biodegradable bedding I use [Bliss Bedding] has created the hottest and steamiest compost heap I have ever had! It’s incredible! Within five weeks of having the chickens I noticed the change in the heap; the brown and green stuff ratio is obviously perfectly balanced now and with the regular decanting of chicken droppings into the bin it also gets more of a mix…speeding up the whole decomposing process. All-in-all…chickens rock!

Since writing this article for BL Magazine back in May, Mark Diacono has written a brilliant article for the Daily Telegraph ‘Do we need to use peat?’ which goes into more depth about the alternatives and is accompanied by Monty Don’s peat-free compost recipes.

So, the next time you’re planning to fill up your hanging baskets look out for compost with the Peat Free label on the bag; if they don’t stock any…don’t stand for it, complain and demand the alternatives. By 2020 all growing media products for home gardeners are to be Peat Free… if new Government targets are reached…

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Adapted from December article for BL Magazine.

The thought of pottering about in the chilly, damp [sometimes frozen] old garden is probably the last thing on our minds at the moment. Most normal people will quiver at the prospect and opt for the cosy, Christmasy warmth of our homes. If you are bold and mad enough [and glamorously wadded in thermal layers  + earmuffs] to venture out on one of the least harshest days, there is still stuff to be getting on with at this time of year… from de-cluttering the side of the house [mine especially] to attempting to sharpen tools and if you’re really keen, re-organising borders.

Lately, as growth in the gardens has slowed, I’ve found myself  being pre-occupied with composts. Looking at cheap ways to create a stonking 3-binned system; renovation ideas for a rather hap-hazard one that lives in one of my customer’s gardens; and a mental note to make more effort at turning them all [including mine]! Consequently, I’ve been doing a bit of research, refreshing memories and literally delving into crumbly composts, nearly [but not quite] spearing frogs and scaring away families of mice. Lovely.

Despite all the creepy crawlies, composts are the supreme powerhouses for our gardens and no true gardener should be without one. If by some incredible reason you don’t possess one, getting one should be at the top of your to-do list [or Christmas wish-list!].

Composts are remarkable eco-systems of decomposition. Billions of micro-organism [bacteria, fungi, yeast] along with the humble earthworm will transform all your garden clippings and vegetative kitchen waste into beautiful luxurious, dark, nutritious-rich soil.

The whole process is free [apart from the initial buy of the bins if you don’t go down the do-it-yourself route] and it is the best form of soil enricher. Garden compost is the equivalent of our five-a-day balanced diet. It provides plants with all the essential nutrients [nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium] in a form that is easy for them to take up. What’s more the expert decomposers, the miniscule microbes, come with the compost and continue the breaking down of organic [and inorganic] materials…providing the best slow release fertiliser you can possibly have!

And there’s one other thing…because of the light and airy texture of garden compost it helps to improve the structure of your soil at the same time – aiding the drainage of clay soils and bulking up sandy soils to help them retain more moisture. Perfect.

Ok RHS notes to the side. Onto the bins, which can be very cheap and easy to make…with a little bit of imagination and, in some cases, muscle. Wooden pallets are one option, which can be sourced [with a lovely cheeky smile – sorry girls I admit to using it every now and then] from your local builder’s merchant or scavenged from skips [if you like doing that sort of thing]. Three pallets would set you up with one decent-sized, open-fronted ‘bin’ and five will give you two, which is essential when you come to ‘turn’ the heap. With seven pallets you’ll have an impressive three-bin composting system that would make your neighbour’s [and me] jealous. Tip: to secure the sides together, super quick and fuss-free, use some extra extra large zip-ties or rope [go for natural brown coloured rope not the bright blue towing rope I did].

For another cheap and easy-to-make compost bin get yourself four posts and a stylish roll of chicken wire, aim for a square around 3ftx3ft. Or, if you want something that actually does exude real style and sophistication and you don’t mind paying a few quid, there are lots of gorgeous, purpose-built, FSC wooden compost bins available. Check out http://www.recycleworks.co.uk/ for some beautiful top-of-the-range examples like the one pictured below [and if you’re feeling flush order one for me too]. You can also buy plastic compost bins [I have one of these], usually at a discounted rate, from your local council so it might be worth checking them out too.


So, you have your compost bin insitu and are eager to start filling with lots of yummy organic material to jump-start that nifty decomposing eco-system? [Picks up RHS notes again], without getting too scientific about it all there are a few things that will help determine what should be put in. It is best remembered as ‘green stuff’ [green leaves, plant/grass clippings, raw vegetables/fruit] and ‘brown stuff’ [chipped wood, dry grass/plant stems, sawdust, shredded newspaper, egg boxes]. The ‘green stuff’ provides the protein and nitrogen for the little micro-organism guys, while the ‘brown stuff’ gives them the carbon and energy they need to do their magic.

As in life, you are aiming for a balance. Work in a layer of greens, then a layer of browns and keep alternating…if the heap heats up and you can see the steam rising, whoop whoo. If not, add more green stuff! Should your heap start smelling [like cat wee they say], do the opposite and add more of the brown stuff. 

Like us, microbes also like a bit of water and some fresh air. Water sparingly to keep moist and be careful not to over water – they don’t like it too wet. For the aeration part, turning the heap every few days will really speed up the rotting process…keeping you fit and fresh aired too. Turning everyday is unlikely and completely unrealistic, I know. You could do it every few weeks instead. Or if you’re really lazy/busy and don’t turn it at all you’ll still get some crumbly compost … you’ll just have to wait about a year and a half for it! If, however, you can’t wait to get your hands on some of this golden compost… doing the deed every few days will speed up the process so much so that, hey presto, 3-4 weeks and it’s there! Now that’s fast food for plants.

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