>>>why nobody needs to use peat

There are now a lot of compost products that do not use peat available from most garden centres. If your local garden centre does not stock them, then it should. That said there is an even better solution that is free and easy to do. What's more it solves another environmental problem. This is the problem of what we do with the waste our civilisation insists on throwing away on a daily basis.

Depending on which statistic you go for, between 30 to 50% of the contents of an average domestic waste bin are organic in origin. The higher statistics tend to include paper, card and organic materials like cotton and wool along side vegetable peelings and garden waste. All of these are compostable.

Home Composting

There is no excuse for anybody with a garden, not to have some form of compost bin. Many local authorities are selling compost bins at cost price. Placing three wooden pallets on their side, as three sides of a square, with some posts securing the corners, make an easy DIY alternative. The best option is to have two heaps or bins, so that you can be filling one while the other matures.

The actual process is very simple. The most successful heaps are layered which happens quite naturally, given the way we chuck things out. The only thing to watch out for is the balance of carbon and nitrogen in your heap.

This might sound complicated but basically if you are putting in a lot of 'wet wastes' like vegetable peelings and grass cuttings that are nitrogen rich, you need to balance them with woodier wastes or cardboard. If you keep some kind of cover over your heap (plastic sheeting is more than adequate) to keep the rain out you will easily be able to tell the balance of your heap by whether it is too wet or dry. You don't want it sludgy and you don't want it to look like a pile of twigs. The more you break up twigs and woody wastes the quicker they will compost.

By adding some wood (not coal) ash to the heap you will neutralise acid and add potassium. Alternatively you could use garden lime for this, but it has to be quarried from somewhere. It is important to neutralise acid though as it will effect the growing conditions for plants when you use the compost.

To speed the process up you can turn the heap. This means moving the heap so that the stuff on the outside edges of the heap goes into the centre. This is important as the composting process is thermophilic, which means it produces heat. By turning the heap everything gets a chance to warm up in the centre. If you don't do this it will still work, but take longer.

Once the heap has stopped heating up it enters the maturation period, where you will start to see lots of worms in your heap. At this point the compost can be used as mulch but it is better to leave it for about three months and you should have a lovely crumbly friable (yes that really is the technical term!!) compost. Simply sieve out the remaining twigs and put them back into another heap. One thing to note is that this may be too strong (high in nitrogen) for some plants. To make a good potting mixture for houseplants you need to add some sand and some leaf mould (see section below).

There are some things that you should avoid putting on a heap. Particularly in urban areas, where our Victorian sewers mean we are never more than a hundred meters from a rat, it is a good idea not to put cooked meat on to a heap. Some commercial bins are rat proof, but if you are not sure avoid cooked food, as I know from personal experience that rats will then move from the heap into your house given half a chance. It is also good to think about what weeds you might put on a heap. Some weed roots and seeds like bindweed will survive the process as will tomato seeds but I don't really think of tomato plants springing up as being a problem.

Worm Composting (Vermiculture)

Another popular method of home composting is vermiculture or worm composting. There are two main types of worm bin that you can buy. One is like a glorified kitchen swing bin with a tap at the bottom. The other is a system of stacking trays. The advantage of the latter is they are easier to harvest, but you must make sure that as the organic matter breaks down, gaps do not develop between the layers of the bin as the worms will not be able to pass through these. Any container like a kitchen swing bin or dustbin or clean storage drum will make a good DIY option. In this case you must ensure good drainage at the bottom and air holes at the top.

To start a worm bin off you need to have a bedding layer of finished compost, leaves or cardboard for the worms. When you add the worms to this layer give them a couple of weeks to settle in, before you add any organic waste. It is also important to have good drainage in your bin. If you have a tap at the bottom you can use the liquid as your own homemade baby bio, type plant food.

Once the bin is in full swing, there are two main things to watch out for. As with more traditional composting, you have to look after the carbon: nitrogen ratio and ensure that you neutralise acid (see home composting section).

The second is how much organic waste you put in the bin. The larger the surface area of the top surface of your worm bin the more you can compost as worms work quite slowly. A large surface area means you will end up with more worms. As they are slow workers, you can easily put too much in a worm bin. The more perishable this is the more problems you will get. When you start out with worm composting keep an eye on your bin to check what's happening. You will soon get a feel for how much you should add on a weekly basis. They will not necessarily deal with all your weekly output of green waste. They also work at different rates over the winter and summer. Worms will hardly compost anything in the cold, so it is a good idea to insulate your bins or bring them indoors and put them in the cellar for the winter.

It will take about a year for your first worm compost to be ready. To harvest you simply lift off the uncomposted top layer and take out the rich compost from below. This will be very nitrogen rich and needs dilution with leaf mould for use.

Community Composting

Not everybody has a garden, and the next best option for organic waste is community composting. This can take many forms, but generally involves local schemes collecting from their surrounding area and composting the waste on their site. Most of these projects do a wide variety of other activities from working with adults with learning difficulties to organic gardening. There is no real formula for what a community composting project entails but there are some fantastic projects around the country.

If you are interested in setting up a community project or would like to find out if there is one in your area contact the Community Composting Network. They can provide you with lots of information on the subject.

Commercial Composting

Although there are some shining examples of this such as organic farmers composting municipal green waste to use it on their land, this is often a poor third option. The big waste companies are starting to move in on this and sustainability has never been one of their strong points. Why bother driving things around in big petrol guzzling trucks when you can do it locally.

Leaf Mould

So far I have not really talked about peat alternatives. Peat is only part of what you buy as commercial compost in the garden centre. The reason they use peat is for its water retention and its use as a rooting medium. Peat is low in nutrients, which means plants grow big healthy roots to look for food.

A much better alternative to this is to use all the leaves that fall from the trees every autumn. Simply pile them up separately to your compost heap and turn the heap occasionally. After a year or so, depending on the type of leaves (which tree they come from) you will have beautiful leaf mould. This like peat is low in nutrients, and great for rooting.

Growth trials have been done which prove the worth of leaf mould, yet it is a vastly unused resource. Brasica seeds were planted at the same time in trays using peat, coir (a fibrous stuff of coconut origin used in many commercial peat free products) and leaf mould. The leaf mould grown plants were much bigger after a matter of weeks.

The secret to using leaf mould is to alter the ratio of leaf mould to compost in your potting mix. For seed germination use a mix that is low in compost to get a good start to root structure and then increase the amount of compost in the mix for each successive stage of planting on. This will lead to big healthy plants.

Do Your Soil A Favour

By using some form of organic waste composting you will be doing your soil a favour. You will be helping to turn around the damage caused by years of chemical based horticulture and farming practices. Various studies have proved that soil structure is vastly improved by the addition of compost. This is true whether you have a heavy soil with poor drainage or a light sandy soil. Either way compost will give you a good soil structure and it will feed your plants. What is more it will help protect your plants from disease.

Publications

There are many publications on gardening, recycling and general environmental issues that will feature composting such as CAT's 'Clean Slate', the Community Recycling Networks 'Waste Paper', 'Permaculture Magazine' and all the gardening magazines in the newsagent, but the two below are the only magazines that are purely about composting published nationally in this country.

Composting News
Newsletter of The Composting Association

The Growing Heap
Quarterly newsletter of the Community Composting Network

Books

While there are many books on the subject and an even greater wealth of books on organic gardening and Permaculture, these are my favourites on composting.

All About Compost - Pauline Pears
Published by the HDRA, this is a great starter book, full of pictures and easy to follow.

Backyard Composting - John Roulac (UK ed Nicky Scott)
This is an American book edited for Britain that provides a comprehensive guide to the subject.

The Rodale Book of Composting - Rodale Press
This is the in depth book for your budding compost expert. All the scientific details relating to composting from soil structure to mineral composition of compost are covered in depth.

Worms Eat My Garbage - Mary Appelhof Great guide to vermiculture and the art of worm composting

Videos

Composting For All - Nicky Scott
As far I know this is the only video available on composting, and very good it is too covering every aspect of composting in a fun and easy to understand way.

Composting Links

There is lots of composting on the web and most of these sites have their own links section but here is a good selection to get you started.

The Community Composting Network The national support network for community composting schemes around the country. They provide help and advice for groups that want to set up a composting project.
0114 258 0483
ccn@gn.apc.org
http://www.othas.org.uk/ccn/

The Centre for Alternative Technology Famous and well established visitor centre in Wales that has info on everything from composting to solar panels. They also have lots of books available through the bookshop. If you get a chance to go, check out the sauna!!!
01654 705950
http://www.cat.org.uk/indexnf.tmpl

The Composting Association They work with both commercial and community composters and organise 'Compost Awareness Week'. Their website is a very good up to date source of information on issues surrounding composting.
membership@compost.org.uk
http://www.compost.org.uk/

The City Farmer Interesting American site with all sorts of stuff on urban farming and composting.
http://www.cityfarmer.org/

The Compost Resource Page Another great American site with all sorts of stuff on composting, strangely enough!
http://www.oldgrowth.org/compost/

Greenpeace They are currently doing a lot of campaigning on waste incineration so their website has information on waste reduction and recycling.
http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/

HDRA Good info on all things organic.
http://www.hdra.org.uk/

The RSPB They run a campaign called 'Peatering Out' and have produced an excellent survey on how gardeners don't want peat. Go to the web link below and look under the policy heading for the peat section. It is quite hard to find.
http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/default.asp

Wiggley Wigglers Everything you could possibly want to know about worms and vermiculture.
http://www.wigglywigglers.co.uk/