Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Never-ending Harvest – Compost

Finally got out of the house at the weekend.  Howard hired a small van and we went to a couple of garden centres that hire out wheelchairs to customers.  We also got over to the allotment.  There wasn’t anything I could do, but I sat and watched as Howard topped up our compost bins and leaf mould bin with what has accumulated over the past month.

This time last year, the weather was not conducive to gardening.  Last November was one of the wettest on record, then in December, we froze.  I had a long list of things to do over the Christmas and New Year break, but the weather put paid to that.

But at least we were able to complete one task at the allotment which has reaped rewards – constructed a new set of compost bins.

If soil health is the key to good gardening, then good compost is crucial to ensuring soil health.  One of the keys to good compost is getting a good balance between carbon rich (brown) material (dry material, such as shredded paper & cardboard and straw) and nitrogen rich (green) material (most other plant material, including kitchen waste and manures).  Having the hens has provided us with a near perfect mix – their bedding providing the “brown” material to add to garden and kitchen material.  The chicken manure boosts the nitrogen level and is also a perfect “activator” – helping everything break down quicker.  As Howard likes to make sure the hens are clean, he changes the bedding at least once a week, and removes soiled areas daily.  This means that, when combined with vegetable peelings and garden trimmings, we have a substantial amount to compost each month.

When we started at the new allotment, we made a stop gap composting system from wooden stakes and chicken wire.  But this wasn’t robust enough to cope with the amount of material we were adding once the chickens arrived.  The time had come to make a properly built composting system – solid, decent sized (cubic metre or so), three bay traditional compost bins.  A few years before, we had bought a couple of redundant potato crates with a view to such a project, but the opportunity never presented itself.  At the old site, a system of two bins made from pallets and wire was adequate.  But the time had come for the vision to be realised. 

If you ever get offered potato crates to re-use, accept them with gusto, providing you have the space to store them.  They have a volume of over a cubic metre, are made of strong, good quality, long lasting wood, and they are very securely constructed.  You know how you can break down a pallet to useable wood in a matter of minutes using a mallet and a cold chisel?  Well, not so a potato crate.  You’ll need heavy duty tools, including a saw and a drill.  And allow a whole day to complete the job.

So dismantling the bins was day one of the project.  Once we had four intact sides from the crates, these were put aside to be the sides of the compost bins.  The back was made mostly from feather edge planking, with more sturdy gravel board along the base, plus a batten over the top of each bay for added stability and to provide something for a cover for the bins to rest on.  The front slats were again feather edge, tacked in place, with the less perfect boards from the crates used for the lowest slats.

Deciding where to site the bins is always an issue – they need to be somewhere accessible without eating up too much growing space.  We had the perfect spot – at the very top of the plot, against the fence, near where we store the wheelbarrow, but not too close to the shed.  The fence would act as additional support at the back of the bins, and once we removed the lowest branches of the oak and sycamore trees, it would also get enough light, heat and rain.

Moving the bins to their new site also provided a better view from the shed window, better space to work in (we paved the area in front of the shed with slabs we’ve reclaimed and reused at the old plot) and more growing space for my rhubarb and comfrey.

Having taken final measurements, I have calculated that once fully operational, the bins will hold up to  5 cubic litres at any one time.  That, along with the compost and manure delivered to the site, and any leaf mould we make, will provide a good amount of mulch and compost to build up the raised beds through the year, for a minimal outlay.

1 comment:

Anna said...

Glad to hear that you are on the mend and have been able to visit garden centre, lottie etc. You can start looking forward to restored mobility, spring and doing again :) Although it is much warmer this December I have made little progress at the lottie - we have had so much rain of late that all the access paths are either under water or quite slippery : ( An excellent post on the subject of compost and a good reminder to me to add more 'browns' to my compost heaps and wormery.