No actual propagation action possible at the moment, we are in the bleak midwinter, as the song goes. 

The term “compost heap” sounds disorganised, like stuff is merely chucked on. I like to think my compost system is a little more organised. I’ve had a few versions of this over the years but the current one is ace. It is concreted in and fully drilled and screwed, very solid. It has three compartments, one for finished compost, one to contain WIP compost and one empty, for the active heap to be turned in to.  I turn it once a week which seems to do the trick, keeping it nicely mixed and aerated. It only takes 5 minutes to do. 

Three bin compost joy. Front panels lift out for access.

What does the pile contain? 

  • Garden waste, prunings, gone-over annuals and the like, ideally put through the shredder first, although I generally only do this for the larger stick-y  stuff
  • Peelings, tea leaves, coffee grounds from the kitchen. No citrus. 
  • Grass clippings (key ingredient)
  • Used soil or compost from containers, grow bags etc
  • Newspaper, ripped into strips. 
  • Shredded paper from the office shredder.
  • Windfall apples (too many for us to use)
  • Leaves, ideally shredded but they will break down anyway, maybe a bit more slowly. 
  • Very occasional bag of horse manure, partly rotted
  • Never cooked food (attracts rats)
  • Never roots of freshly weeded perennial weeds (they are zombie plants, they will come back from the dead). The leaves are ok. 
Layers of composting ingredients
Freshly added kitchen scraps

The paper is important to keep the carbon up, otherwise there’s too much nitrogen from the grass etc. If no carbon is added the mix will go slimey and smelly. Every time I mow the lawn I add a newspaper worth of shredded paper to the heap, mixing it up a bit with the grass mowings. Turning the heap is important too, the oxygen helps the ingredients breakdown.  I also make sure that the heap doesn’t dry out, turning the hose on it for 5 minutes if it looks dry. If you don’t have any other material (hard to imagine) just grass and paper will together give a worthwhile compost. I remember visiting the Eden project in Cornwall when it was still a muddy hole in the ground. At the visitor centre they had a piece on their soil, which they were making from composting grass clippings and the used paper hand towels from their loos. If it’s good enough for what is now one of Cornwall’s top botanical attractions, it’s good enough for us!
The bottom of the heap must be in contact with the bare earth (ie not on paving or concrete). This is so the worms can find their way in. If you start a heap from scratch, a few will quickly find their way in and get munching and breeding. The heap will soon be riddled with them, nice and red and wriggly. It’s the worms that do most of the work, breaking the ingredients down. If it’s not possible for your compost heap to be in contact with the bare ground, order some worms on the interweb (yes, you really can buy anything), they’ll repay the cost many times over.

The resulting compost is black gold. I use it as a mulch on the borders, on the veg beds at the end of the growing season, and I also use it as an ingredient in my potting mix, sieved to remove the big lumps. All that turning and shredding will eventually come in to its own at the tail end of the propagation journey when I should have a whole bunch of young plants to pot on.

I’ll be back…