All year, Carl and I have been meaning to spend a day making proper compost. Finally, we settled on yesterday. It was a really gorgeous summery day, probably a bit hot to be working outside but we were shaded by big Prunus africanus and Celtis africana trees and had a wonderful time.
I learnt to make compost at Dovehouse Organic Farm on a cold, mizzly day a few years ago. Paul Duncan assured us it was a perfect day to build a good compost heap as we dripped pitifully, up to our elbows in manure. Since then, I have participated in creating a number of heaps and every time it is enormous fun! I have attended numerous workshops at Dovehouse Organic Farm and can highly recommend them. Mary Mlambo and Paul have such an approachable way of sharing their extensive knowledge and make learning a pleasure. I have learnt so much from them. www.dovehouse.co.za
We had been gathering ‘ingredients’ for a while. There is always plenty of old hay available on Old Kilgobbin farm and lots and lots of horse manure too. At this time of year the weeds are rampant and the comfrey is plentiful, so we had no excuse. Alina, Nobuhle, Bongi, John, Umta and Nombuizelo joined in. We decided the best description of the process was like making a trifle and gave each layer of organic matter a ‘trifle’ name. The fresh green material was jelly of course, the straw was the custard and the manure became the biscuit or cake layer. Lots of colourful layers adding up to something extra special.
We loosened the soil to enable the micro-organisms to gain easy access to our heap, with everyone most amused at how the earthworms (umsundu) work for ‘mahala’! Well it is true, they are are our best allies in food gardening, doing an amazing amount of work for free. First we layered branches and twigs for improved air circulation at the bottom of the pile. Then all the old cabbages and brussel sprouts we had just pulled out of the veggie garden nearby, went on top. The next layer was the brown stuff – dried leaves and hay – for the carbon layer. A layer of manure really speeds things up, so this was added next and then all the layers were repeated. After each layer we watered lightly (and occasionally sprayed one another too as the day heated up). In the centre, we had stuck two wattle poles to act as chimneys and also improve air circulation.
The green layer is rich in nitrogen and consists of weeds, grass clippings, comfrey, old veggies and kitchen waste. It is best to tear or chop up the components of the green layer to speed things up (more laughter – ‘worms have small mouths!’). Comfrey is known as a ‘dynamic accumulator’ meaning that it is able to draw minerals/nutrients from deep in the soil, making them available on the surface. Growing comfrey around your food garden or near your compost area means you always have plenty of green stuff to add when you need to. Comfrey is particularly rich in Potassium, Mangenese, Calcium, Iron, and Boron. It has loads of medicinal uses too and is used for excema, wounds, sprains and aching joints. Young leaves can be eaten as spinach. Many people give their horses and chickens a leaf everyday as a tonic. Remember, that because of the very long tap root, you will never get rid of once you have planted it, so choose the spot carefully! I use comfrey as a mulch too.
The brown layer can include cardboard and newspaper, mielie cobs, untreated sawdust, wood chippings and wood ash. We had some intereting discussions about making compost in Lesotho (where Alina and Nombuizelo are from). They have so little green biomass, and any vegetable waste is fed to the animals. Also the animal manure is used as fuel. Nobuizelo suggested the mielies stalks could be composted and I mentioned that urine could be used to speed up the process and a small amount of animal manure should be mixed with water and sprinkled on each layer.
You shouldn’t add cooked food, treated sawdust, plastic, coal ash or coloured cardboard. Also, Bluegum leaves are not attractive to micro organisms and citrus is anti-bacterial, so defeats the object. I learnt from “Grow to Live’ by Pat Featherstone, that one should not add potato leaves either. I also learned recently, that earthworms love to eat mushrooms, so adding a couple of those mushroom growing blocks would really speed things up. I have heard a few interesting examples in America where they turn wood chips into soil using the mushroom idea and also compost whole huge cows by covering with straw and micro organisms. Composting really is completely magic.
We covered our very large heap with with a thick layer of straw (you could use leaves, newspapers or an old carpet). To ensure your heap heats up properly, it shouldn’t be smaller than 1mx1m square. Hopefully in about 3-4 months we will have some fabulous compost to use in our gardens.
Should you not have space to build a ‘proper’ heap, dig a hole in your garden and toss in all your kitchen waste, leaves, clippings adding a little of the removed soil every now and again. Once full, cover with the soil and leave the earthworms to do the work for you. These holes are, according to my friend Eidin, ‘vitamin pills for your garden’, so as soon as one is full, dig another beside it.
We relaxed on my verandah with tea and biscuits after a very rewarding day. I wish I had thought to make an interesting layed cake or trifle which would have been the perfect finishing touch.