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The answer always lies in the soils

Sometimes I can get horribly distracted in the garden. The other day I “repaired” a fence between our property and the neighbours’. By that I mean I lifted a fence that was nearly touching the ground. It is now standing, although it is not in a straight line.

I took out some old posts that had rotted at ground level and replaced them with new ones. I moved the remains of the posts during the week, thinking one may have been long enough to replace one of the corner posts in my large compost bin, which had a terrible lean on it.

I started work on the bin, excavating the corner post, but after half an hour’s digging, realised I could simply adjust it and wouldn’t need a new post. Accordingly, I rammed the rocks and earth back in place.

While I was doing that, I realised that the bottom of the compost heap had turned into rich loamy soil, with a good supply of worms. As I needed to build up the soil in my new flower garden bed, I thought it was a good chance to dig the compost out. So, I spent an afternoon pulling out the compost underneath the many layers of vegetation that had yet to rot. Fortunately, they were quite rigid and did not collapse on me. A good afternoon’s work.

We make lots of compost – I removed 10 barrow-loads from the main stack, and we also have four plastic bins. This summer, things have been in overdrive, as the lawns have not stopped growing [meaning lots of clippings of course], and hedges have also grown exuberantly, giving lots of twiggy material too,

I grew up in a house without a television, and as such became very familiar with the British radio comedy programmes. One, “Beyond our Ken”, featured a country bumkin, Arthur Fallowfield, who had a pat answer to every question: “The answer lies in the soil”.

As funny as it seemed then, poor Arthur was on the mark when it came to any sort of gardening or farming – it all begins with what is under our feet. The correct levels of nutrients in the soil, combined with a generous dose of soil biodiversity, are essential to maintaining a good medium for us to grow our plants, whether they be in our vegetable patch or in the flower border.

For most of us, an economical way to improve our soil texture and fertility is to start composting our garden and household wastes. It saves an awful lot of material from going into landfills, and also provides a free source of fertilizer. No more paying to take green waste to the recycling centre – chop it up and turn it into good soil conditioner.

In an ideal world your compost bins will be in a shaded area, as exposure to the sun will probably dry them out too much. This especially applies if you are using dark, plastic bins, but also applies to wooden structures.

Once established it is simply a matter of adding both nitrogenous and carboniferous material to the bins, in more or less equal measure. For most of us the nitrogenous material is readily at hand, as that includes grass clippings and vegetable waste from the kitchen. The carboniferous material is probably more difficult, but you can use cardboard and paper. However, best of all in my book is straw. I think a few bales of pea straw provide the best carbon to the compost, and it also helps to keep it aerated.

In a perfect world you would turn the various layers once a week with a fork, and probably water it as it gets a bit dry, but most of us are not diligent enough to do this, nor do we have the sort of system that allows it. Well curated compost can be made very rapidly with the right set-up. A tumbler bin that can easily be rotated will make compost in a matter of weeks, whereas a more traditional compost bin will take several months.

There are a few “rules” to watch out for. Make sure you don’t put any meat or dairy into the compost. It will stop the process from working and tends to attract rats as well. Make sure no terrible weeds get into the mix – keep oxalis and convolvulus well away from the system. Just like anything you’re growing, keep an eye on how its going. If it gets too wet, or if there is too much nitrogenous material in the bin, it can start to smell. Add some straw or a similar ingredient, and turn it over if you can. It will hasten the process too.

Then get ready to barrow loads of goodness into your garden.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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