I think I can safely blame my Dad for my obsession with compost and if he was alive today I know he’d proudly agree.
As far back as I can remember, Dad was always in the garden tinkering away at something. On and off he grew veggies and fruit, raised chickens and bees and over a lifetime of love and interest, created a backyard oasis full of life and vitality. He also made all his own compost.
When it came to gardening, Dad seemed to be a natural. He understood the connection between soil quality and healthy plants and knew that compost had an important role in that link. While I don’t remember the details of his earlier compost making days I can picture him up to his ears in the stuff and it’s only now that I understand how he must have felt as he lifted the final product from it’s dark chamber and spread it around his garden.
By the time I got around to starting my own garden, several decades had passed but those early memories of Dad were still as clear as day. I had learn that compost was important so I got myself a black bin, placed it as far away from the kitchen as I could and got cracking.
My first early experiments with compost were nothing short of complete failures mainly because the entire contents were made up of food scraps, twigs and a few leaves! I continued to add to it whenever I could be bothered and waited and waited for the contents to turn into compost. After a year or so I got sick of waiting, I closed the lid and walked away in disgust. A few more years passed and when I went back to my bin I discovered the materials inside had been reduced to a dark rich soil an although there was a scattering of remnant twigs on the top lurking just beneath the surface was a thick layer of fine silken humus. I knew instantly that this is what Dad had referred to as his ‘Black Gold’.
In the past, the thought of waiting all that time for something I could buy up the street for a few dollars would have seemed ludicrous but something had dramatically changed…our family had made a conscientious shift towards sustainable living and the importance of recycling our on-site food scraps and green waste had suddenly become a top priority.
We’d also started to get serious about growing more of our own veggies, herbs and fruit so I knew I was going to need a lot of compost and would need it soon so I started to read everything I could on the subject. I borrowed books from the library and friends and started researching on the internet and you know what, I ended up more confused than ever! So I threw the books away and went with what I felt was right.
I’ll be honest, it took some time to get the formula right and learning to make compost hasn’t been without it’s problems, but from the failures I’ve learnt how to restore the balance and these days I can usually churn out a good batch of compost in 4 to 6 weeks.
From the teachings of Permaculture, contrary to my previous practices, I’ve learnt that you need to have your compost bins as close to the kitchen as possible so one of the first things I did was to move that black bin to within a few metres of the kitchen door. It’s made the world of difference because I walk past it several times a day on my way to the garden. Now it never gets forgotten or neglected.
As my compost skills grew so did my confidence and now I have a system where I use several bins each at different stages of maturation. This rewards us with a steady supply and these days we rarely run out.
A few months ago I had the opportunity to do a course with another mad composter, Costa Georgiardis. His key message was diversity and over time I’ve built up a system of storing a range of ingredients which are kept at the ready. There are manures, cow, sheep and chook of course, scratched straw from the chook yard, shredded newspaper, mulched leaves and twigs from the garden, green garden cuttings, banana leaves, dead grass, coffee grinds, coffee husks and a supply of dolomite. I grow nitrogen rich comfrey and either use the leaves straight as an accelerator or sometimes make a compost tea which gets added to the mix. I keep a Bokashi Bin in my kitchen where I collect about a month’s worth of kitchen scraps and in the meantime I wait very patiently for our neighbour Carl to drop over a batch of freshly mown grass clippings.
Fresh grass is high in nitrogen and is a key ingredient when making hot compost and that can be a problem if like me, you don’t have a lawn. Enlisting a neighbour who is happy to provide you with grass is a perfect solution and without Carl even knowing he’s helping me tick quite a few Permaculture goals. We aim to ‘produce no waste’ by ‘using and valuing diversity, renewable resources and services’ while the process of making compost allows us to ‘use small and slow solutions’ to ‘catch and store energy’. With the help of our neighbour it’s a winning partnership and he’s happy to receive the odd supply of fresh eggs as a thank you.
Our set-up of having all the ingredients stored on site means that when Carl’s freshly mown grass arrives we’re ready to go. After lining the base of the compost bin with wet newspaper, the ingredients are repeatedly layered until we either run out of materials or the bin is full. I don’t measure anything but know that I have to double the amounts of brown carbon materials compared to the green nitrogen materials I add. Green materials include fresh grass, kitchen scraps, fresh garden cuttings, coffee grinds and manure. As we go I add water or nitrogen-rich teas and a sprinkle of dolomite and on top of the pile I lay a wet hessian sack and lock the lid into position. Apart from checking the core temperature or carrying out the occasional inspection I don’t touch the heap for the next 5 days or so. I’m happy if the temperature has maintained 50 – 60°C for a few days as I know this is the temperature required to kill weed seeds. When things have started to cool a little, I open the lid and turn the pile and I’m always amazed at the heat still at the core and the number of tiny bugs already doing their work. At this stage, there’s no worms, it’s too early and too hot but they’ll come when the temperature and environment are just right. I add a bit more water, put the wet hessian sack back on, close the lid and leave it for another few days. I continue checking and turning every now and then or whenever it looks as though it needs it and after a month or so it’s usually ready to use. Somewhere in the middle of all this I’ve usually received the next batch of grass from Carl so I get another compost bin going. If I’m not quite ready, I save the grass in our cold compost heap where it slowly breaks down to be used as a brown ingredient in another batch of compost down the track.
Good compost made from a diverse range of materials is the most beneficial energy machine and free organic fertiliser you can prepare for your garden. It increases aeration in your soil, helps to retain moisture and suppresses evaporation. It adds organic matter, nutrients, microbes and worms to the soil and improves soil structure where it helps to create a buffer against extreme outside temperatures as we’ve recently witnessed in Sydney. Not one plant was lost in 47°C heat. The practice of recycling your kitchen scraps is also reducing waste and is far more sustainable than sending it off to landfill or a commercial green waste centre where someone else turns it into profit selling it back to plastic bags at the nursery! You’ll not only save money but at the same time, be more kind to the planet through a reduction in transport and energy costs.
Whether you’ve got a full blown veggie patch or just want to grow a few herbs on your balcony, making your own compost makes sense. It’s easy to find materials if you open your eyes and you’ll be amazed at the ingredients you can find for free when you put your compost goggles on, as Costa has so enthusiastically taught me.
There’s been a lot happening in the last couple of months and I hope you’ll join me next time to look at a snap-shot of past events and new things to come at O-2-E.