From Plant Waste to Plant Loving Compost in as Little as Four Weeks
Here's the third instalment of wisdom from compost expert Andy Davenport who's also available to answer your compost questions - just post them in comments and he'll respond!
Spring is probably the best time of year for making compost. After the long winter rest, nature begins to wake up; the sap starts to rise, bulbs throw up their shoots, seeds germinate everywhere and life returns to the garden. The fresh leafy spring growth is full of the vitality, energy and nutrients that plants have been slowly storing up over winter and is especially good at kick starting the compost heap. The first batches of weeds and grass clippings are full of life and vigour and contain high amounts of simple sugars and nutrients which are the perfect food for the bacteria in the compost heap. They soon get to work quickly breaking it down and their frenetic feeding, breathing and rapid reproduction soon gets the temperature up in the compost heap.
Compost heaps that were built last autumn will have come to a standstill over winter. These can be re-energised and finished off by taking the compost heap down to about half its height and rebuilding the top half of the heap, alternating layers of fresh green materials, such as grass clippings and weeds, with the old compost. It is very important that these materials are fresh otherwise they won’t raise the heat and will have little impact. Nettles are particularly good because they are full of iron and other minerals - they also make an excellent activator and can generate high temperatures in the heap. The layers should be no more than 4” (10cm) deep and should be built by placing handfuls of material working from the outside towards the centre of the heap. Sprinkle QR activator on the heap prior to the addition of each layer and remember to place some hessian sacking or old carpet on top of the rebuilt heap to retain the precious heat. If the bin isn’t fitted with a lid, place some rainproof sheeting over the heap to keep out the rain. A heap rebuilt in this way will make excellent compost in about 4 to 6 weeks.
Alternate layers of fresh green materials, such as grass clippings and weeds, with the old compost
All those dry winter stems and clearings from the borders can be used to build a new heap but they need some preparation first. They need to be shredded or broken up into small pieces which can easily be done by chopping them with a spade in one of those floppy plastic buckets. If they are dry then give them a good soaking overnight. Rainwater with some soil added, urine or rain water mixed with some well rotted manure are all good for the job and will also add valuable minerals, nutrients and enzymes to the heap which will assist in the breakdown of tough materials . After soaking, leave them to drain off for a couple of hours so that they are not too wet. They can then be used to build into layers of the heap alternated with layers of fresh greens. Add the QR activator, heat retention and shelter as explained earlier. A heap built like this in the spring can make great compost in about 6 to 8 weeks. As the seasons progress the vitality and nutrients in the plant materials gradually reduces and so the time to ripen slowly increases, despite warmer summer temperatures. The summer compost heap usually takes about 8 to 12 weeks to reach maturity and an autumn heap about 12 to 16 weeks. However these timings are still very fast compared to other methods - it is no wonder that Miss Bruce called her system the ‘Quick Return’ method.
Allotment haul 29 March
Dodged the showers to grab this haul. Now I can't decide between purple-sprouting broccoli in cheese sauce, or broccoli stir-fry. Either way it's going to be delicious!
Germination and soil temperature
This is 201 today. Looks okay, doesn’t it? Himself’s bean frame looks very perky, I think.
I’ve just popped up to the plot in my lunch break and been deeply disappointed. I wasn’t expecting any parsnip seed to have germinated, nor any carrots or beetroot (well, maybe I was a bit hopeful on the carrot and beetroot front) but I was genuinely pretty confident that the radishes would be on their way. They are not. All these seeds are going into raised beds, which have been covered by glass for a week or ten days before planting, to get the soil warmed up a bit. And maybe six days is too soon for even radish, but I shall be really peeved if the first of them isn’t up by the end of the weekend!
By and large, it’s said to be better to sow a little bit late than a little bit early because if the soil temperature is too low for the seeds you’re sowing it will rot before it germinates.
For the first time I can remember, I’ve had seeds rot in the greenhouse, and it seems I am not alone, Gill at My Tiny Plot has had exactly the same problem. So fingers crossed that my outdoor sowings will work better than my greenhouse ones.
Hot Composting - without turning the heap!
Another article from Andy Davenport on the joys and secrets of Quick Return Composting
There are many different methods of composting but generally they can be divided into two main types – hot composting and cold composting.
Cold composting is very popular because it doesn’t take much work or preparation of materials before they are added to the heap and is quite a relaxed approach, the drawback is that the results can be a bit hit or miss and it can take a quite a while – up to a couple of years which is obviously a long time to wait. This can also mean having lots of compost heaps everywhere or compost bins tied up for long periods whilst waiting for compost to mature.
The great thing about hot composting is that it can bring results much more quickly – in a matter of weeks or months rather than years! The catch is that with most hot composting techniques they usually require the arduous task of turning the heap in order to get sufficient aeration to the organisms to enable thorough breakdown of the waste materials. Of course, you could go out and spend a lot of money on a compost tumbler – but these have the drawback that they do not allow beneficial creatures or organisms to enter the heap once temperatures have dropped. If they are in the compost bin when it’s hot, where temperatures can reach up to 70oC, then they will be killed off. When the Quick Return (QR) method was invented by Maye E Bruce back in the 1930’s, she discovered that the herbal activator that the method uses actually removes the requirement to turn the compost. This can save a dramatic amount of work given that a compost heap may normally have to be turned at least 3 times to get good compost. For large heaps with up to a tonne of material that’s a lot of work! It also saves on having extra enclosures or space available to turn the compost into.
The QR method does take a little extra care and time to construct but this does not increase the build time by a massive amount. The heap has to be built in layers of alternating materials, greens alternated with browns, coarse alternated with soft etc. These layers should be built quite firmly with the material placed in by hand, working around the bin from the outside towards the centre. The QR herbal activator solution is sprinkled into the heap (a bit like putting vinegar on your chips!) prior to the addition of each layer. A careful and gentle treading after a few layers allows the activator to permeate through the waste material, spreading through the pile with the moist warm heat created when the bacteria start to breakdown nitrogen. Keeping the heap covered with some sacking or old carpet will keep this valuable heat within the compost. A rainproof lid or sheet on top of the bin is also essential or rain may seep in which will cause cooling off and will mean rebuilding the heap. ‘It is after all just common sense’ as Miss Bruce used to say!
A careful and gentle treading after a few layers allows the activator to permeate through the waste material
Allotment raised beds in March
Yesterday, while our neighbours got on with their own spring cleaning (see how the graffiti has disappeared from this window?) we spent three hours getting raised beds ready for planting, or actually planting them.
While Himself planted the first row of second earlies, I lifted the glass from one raised bed, in which we’d put sand and compost a couple of weeks ago, and planted two rows of parsnips and one row of radish. The idea is that the radish are all used up long before they can get in the way of the parsnips. The bed had got really dry with the glass over it, so I watered the mix well, then laid the seed rows on the damp surface, and sieved well-aged compost over the top. I prefer this method to drills or holes for parsnip seed, which doesn’t like to be too cold or too deeply planted. It means the seed has ‘wet feet and a dry head’ because it goes onto damp soil but is covered by warm dry matter which should speed germination. Everybody knows that parsnips are fussy germinators, but usually (fingers crossed) I’m pretty lucky with my seed.
The glass went back over the top, because our last frost date in 2009 was 29th March, so our glass stays on tender crops until at least then!
Himself moved on to putting up pea supports while I dug manure into two raised beds that will hold baby leeks, when they are ready, and one for a courgette or pumpkin (haven’t decided yet) and dug over a sandier bed for beetroots and carrots and sowed the first two rows of each – Early Nantes 2 carrots and Chioggia beetroot – I’ll make successional sowings every two weeks or so. That bed also has a glass cover.
I picked an entire bag of purple sprouting broccoli – enough for three meals for two hungry adults at least, and once that was done we suddenly realised we were so exhausted we could barely crawl home!
Allotment planting season
Our neighbours have been busy planting out potatoes and carrots and you name it … it’s always lovely to see the rows of seed, carefully inspected on a daily basis to check if ‘anything’s coming up’ and the excitement – especially in new allotment holders – when something actually does.
There’s been an awful lot of digging going on this week, as the weather has been really suitable for the first time in about a fortnight, so just about everybody at our end of the site has been turning over the soil, which makes the starlings very happy indeed. Greenhouses have gone from empty to full in a single weekend too, which is always a good sign. We have sweet peas and peas, tomatoes, broccoli, leeks, dahlias and herbs underway in ours.
But this bed is a bit grim to my eyes. I’m all in favour of raised beds but this on looks like a coffin to me … kiss of death to anything planted in it, perhaps?
Getting the Most from Your Compost Heap
You may remember that a few months ago, I flirted with the idea of QR composting (am still flirting with it, in fact) and was fascinated by the whole concept. Well, Andy Davenport who wrote Quick Return Compost Making has agreed to write some guest posts for me!
So the next six weeks will be Compost Wednesday on allotment blog - and if you send in questions I'll pass them to Andy to answer, or you can just make a comment and he'll give us some feedback. Here's post number one!
Making a successful compost heap is probably one of the gardening activities that most conscientious gardeners have high on their list of priorities. After the necessary efforts, there is a certain sense of pride and triumph when you finally get to run your fingers through lovely, cool, dark compost. It is especially rewarding when you think about what went into the compost bin and how you have worked with nature to produce such a wonderful commodity – and it’s totally free!
But this really is just the tip of the iceberg. Good fertile compost such as that made using the Quick Return (QR) method, can literally transform the nature of a garden. By adding the compost to our soils many radical changes can take place benefiting every living creature that exists in the garden (including us) and every plant that has the good fortune to grow there.
The soil in our garden is predominantly heavy clay and when we first arrived there about 8 years ago the borders were pretty difficult to work. However, with the addition of a yearly mulch of QR compost the soil has become loose and friable and this penetrates many inches down - and that is without digging. All manner of creatures including birds, small mammals and worms all help by doing the job for us. Our soil doesn’t get heavy anymore and is very free draining and yet it doesn’t need as much watering. Not only does the soil have greater water holding properties but plant roots are able to penetrate the soil more easily and thoroughly allowing them to extract greater reserves of moisture during drought conditions. We all know that water drains down through soils but compost fed soils also allow water to move laterally through the soil- this can be a tremendous help to plants under cloches for example which can take up moisture without the need for lifting the cloche to water.
Weeding must be the most disliked job in the garden – sometimes enough to actually put people off gardening. But with the nice loose soil structure created by the addition of compost the weeds can be pulled out with ease – roots and all. Suddenly, weeding becomes quite a pleasure, especially when you add them to the compost heap, knowing that they are full of minerals that will be returned to the soil in the future. If the compost is applied as a nice thick mulch and renewed on a regular basis then weed seeds are suppressed and don’t get the chance to germinate. Mulching also has the added benefit of helping to retain moisture within the soil.
As more compost is applied to the soil over the years it becomes darker and darker. This helps the soil to warm up and can extend the growing season. Dark soil acts like a big heat sink - particularly under glass. Cloches and compost fed soil go hand in hand.
Probably the most important thing we can get from compost is our health. Bacteria and other micro organisms abound and flourish in the compost and in turn in the soil where it is added. These organisms are the building blocks of life and the beginnings of the food webs that exist in the soil. Their abundance, health and vitality is paramount to the health and vitality of all the plants and animals that exist within the ecosystem in the garden. Quite simply this health means greater resistance to pests and disease. In our own interest, we can inherit this health and robustness when we eat the fruit, vegetables and herbs grown in our compost garden.
March allotment weather: lions and lambs
Not many words necessary for these pictures. We managed to wangle an afternoon off together, Himself and I, to get as much manure onto the potato bed as possible. The division of labour was simple – he would dig and I would wheel the barrow from the shop to the plot.
We still haven't resolved the potato argument, although I think we might be equal winners - he managed to get another line planted on 201, so we now have three rows of first earlies, while I managed to snitch eight potatoes and put them in big tubs in the greenhouse, so that we have early-earlies on the go (and only incidentally reducing the amount of first earlies available to be put in the ground, that definitely wasn't my ulterior motive!) and we knew that potatoes and garlic had to be planted, and that the beanpole frame needed to be moved to its new location so that we could work out the rest of our crop rotation, but before all that - manure!
I managed three barrows, along with stopping to talk to neighbours and to take photographs before everything changed.
Yes, that’s hail. And yes, it settled. From brilliant sunshine to winter wonderland in five minutes. Isn’t life wonderful?
First earlies in the ground at last!
We finally got to plant out our first earlies on Monday, or at least the first batch – we got two rows in the ground, running North to South, where the peas were planted last year. Our crop rotation, given that we’re still bringing areas of the plot into cultivation, is that the potatoes and the peas/beans have essentially swapped places from where they were last year, our brassicas will be going into the area of the plot which was rotovated in November and nearly everything else is going into raised beds.
I’m happy to have made a start on the spuds, although I can tell that Himself and I will fall out over the rest of the planting because I want to make sure we have enough room in the best soil for our maincrops, which were a dismal failure last year through running out of room and having to plant them in relatively unimproved soil that hadn’t been used for several years as far as we can tell.
Himself, on the other hand, has confidence that we’ll get all the potatoes: first earlies, second earlies and maincrops into well prepared soil in good time. As earlies don’t keep as well as maincrops, I’m willing to throw away a row of first earlies that are ready to be planted, in favour of getting a row of maincrops into that spot in a few weeks. He isn’t.
My argument is a good one, I think. It’s that we actually only got 8lb of maincrop potatoes for our 5lb sowing – which is a truly pathetic result by anybody’s measure! His argument is that we’re better organised this year, which is year 2 on plot 201; the soil is in better nick; and we won’t be co-working on another plot so our energies won’t be divided.
I wonder who will win?
Purple-sprouting broccoli update
So here’s a picture that I really don’t understand. Pigeons eat our broccoli – that I understand. They denude the entire leaves of the plant right down to the ribs, like feathery caterpillars – that I understand. But not eating the glorious purple florets – that I simply do not understand at all!
But there it is – having eaten the leaves, the pigeons appear to have buggered off and left the broccoli itself to us. This is the unprotected broccoli which I genuinely thought would not produce a crop at all – the broccoli in the cage is about five to seven days behind this stuff, and has all its leaves. Anyway, I’m grateful to the pigeons for leaving us this delicious feast.
And I was also wrong about the parsnips – we hadn’t eaten them all, we had two monsters lurking in the raised bed, so we lifted them yesterday and today we’re having them as part of a lamb stew cooked in the slow cooker – what a bonanza! And so, we're harvesting the last of the parsnips in the same week that I'm digging manure into the bed in which I'll be planting this year's parsnip seed - isn't that wonderful?
The ground is frozen though, so I don’t think we’ll get our spuds in until the weekend.
Heavy winters make for a hectic allotment spring
I’m so very panicked and depressed when I look at this photograph from a year ago – the peas were almost ready to hit the ground running, the rhubarb was bursting from its pots, we had wallflowers ready to be planted, trays and trays of leeks that were already a couple of inches tall …
And so far, this year, we have absolutely nothing in the cold frame at all. Even the greenhouse isn’t quite entirely full yet (90% full maybe – which is okay, perhaps, although it feels like some kind of moral failure) and all we have in the ground is some shallots.
This weekend I must get some garlic planted, as well as rest of the manure into the soil for the potatoes which are now showing lovely dark shoots. I just hope that the weather cooperates!
March allotment greenhouse
Here are the Big Red tomato seedlings, which I have, since this photo was taken, transplanted into individual three and a half inch pots. There were fourteen seeds in the packet and ten of them germinated, which I think is a pretty good rate of return – I shall keep three seedlings for myself, and once the others are four inches tall I’ll take them down to the allotment shop to be sold to raise funds.
The leeks are springing out of their compost, but I still think I’m not going to have enough of them – I probably need to start another tray of seeds. The Nantes carrots are showing pretty well now, and I’ve got some more nasturtium seeds on the go. The peas have almost all germinated – about thirty have appeared between 8am and midday!
I need to be starting other tomatoes, and deciding if I’m going to grow peppers from seed or wait until I can get plants from either another allotment holder or a nursery – we’ve not grown them from seed ourselves before, not having had a greenhouse. And the cucumbers should go in next week too … it’s all getting rather hectic!
And last night the frost was this heavy … I feel quite depressed when I think about it.
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