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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Newsletter of The Composting Association
The Growing Heap
Quarterly newsletter of the Community Composting Network
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
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.
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
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
0114 258 0483
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!!!
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.
The City Farmer Interesting American site with all
sorts of stuff on urban farming and composting.
The Compost Resource Page Another great American
site with all sorts of stuff on composting, strangely enough!
Greenpeace They are currently doing a lot of campaigning
on waste incineration so their website has information on waste
reduction and recycling.
HDRA Good info on all things organic.
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.
Wiggley Wigglers Everything you could possibly want
to know about worms and vermiculture.