James BeattieMaking muck

I recently finished an excellent book entitled, Resurrection in a Bucket: the Rich and Fertile Story of Compost, by Margaret Simons. It’s a light-hearted journey through the biological processes and social history of compost. I highly recommend it! Its arrival on my study desk was timely because I’ve been busy building large compost piles in preparation for reclaiming large areas of driveway for growing plants. By winter’s end I should have half a dozen large piles of compost ready for building up my existing soil.

Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade

The only problem is the piles are large and somewhat unsightly, and up until now I’ve avoided making compost this way precisely because it takes up space and isn’t particularly pleasing to look at. However, having just finished Simons’ book, I’ve been born again when it comes to compost – I now love the fact my piles are in plain sight for all to see!

The Piles

The Piles

Planning to make compost en masse requires both sufficient space and ingredients. Having ripped out a lot of tired hebes to make space for an impending party, I was left with large area of bare soil that would have been weed city if I’d left it so. My solution was to heavily mulch the whole area with straw that was left over after the party (straw bales make excellent seating!). But I still had eight bales of straw to deal with, and even the fact I recently got three chooks didn’t quell the notion I still had a lot of bales to deal with! My solution was to use the bales as walling to make compost piles over winter, with the bales providing an excellent buffer against Melbourne’s impending winter. The largest measures about 1.2m2, with a smaller 1m2 heap beside it. Such large heaps need a lot of material to get them cranking, and luckily my local markets have provided me with a convenient (and free) solution.

Our chooks

Our chooks

For the last four weeks my market grocer has been loading me up with boxes of vegetable off cuts whenever I do my weekly shop. The material is mostly cabbage leaves and cauliflower stalks, but there’s a pretty good variety of other stuff like beetroot leaves, lettuce leaves, carrots, radicchio, and the odd bit of bruised stone fruit, which the chooks love! My limit is four large boxes because it’s all I can fit in the car, though if I made a separate trip to do the shopping I could stretch it to five, possibly six. I also use grass clippings in the heap, which come from the neighbour’s green waste bin. I even take the mower up to the end of the street and mow a long strip of railway easement when the piles need a quick fix of clippings. I’m sure some of the neighbours must think I’m a bit loopy. But it’s there – and it’s free.

Pulling apart

Pulling apart

The dry material I’ve been using for the heap is straw, but autumn’s dulcet tones let me know that a plethora of leaves will soon be at hand. My grape arbour and two large ornamental pears see me flush with leaves all winter long, but with this year’s aim of six compost piles I’ll need more. I’ve hatched a cunning plan to frequent the alleyways around our suburb and collect the autumn leaves as they fall – a car load a week should see a collection of leaves sufficient for my purposes.

Coop poo

Coop poo

When it comes to assembling a compost heap, it pains me to use the lasagne analogy because I think it sells the transformation from waste into compost short, but it’s apt. Building successive layers of dry and fresh material is key, and wet the layers as you go. I also add chicken manure from the weekly coop clean out to get the whole process cranking, with additional animal manures when I can get it free (country friends have sheep and horses). Striking the right balance between fresh and dry ingredients is essential for speedy decomposition and keeping unwanted smells at bay. If your heap is too dry it won’t break down, but if it’s too wet it will become a sludgy, stinky mess. I generally aim for a half-and-half ratio with compost piles because it never results in wet conditions, in fact quite the contrary. If anything it’s a bit on the dry side, but keep in mind it’s much easier to correct a dry heap by watering it than it is to pull apart a wet, smelly heap to get air into it.

Reassembled and wetted

Reassembled and wetted

It also helps to chop up ingredients into smaller pieces; if you do this, the end product will be of an even consistency – no lumps! I cut up all my off cuts from pruning into smaller bits before adding them to the pile, but have dreams of buying a mulcher one day, though it does seem a bit extravagant. I’m making do at the moment with larger vegetable scraps like cauliflower stalks by smashing them with a mallet before adding them to the heap – it works a treat. Covering the top of the heap is also a good idea – it helps to keep heat and moisture in, as well as birds out. Some people use hessian but I just use leftover wine boxes overlapped and wetted down. They get to a point where they fall apart, at which time I just turn them into the heap.

Smashing

My first pile was over a cubic meter in size when I built it – in under a month it has reduced by half, no turning required! As the piles cook down, though, it’s a good idea to give them a turn because it helps to get more air in and hasten the decomposition process. Normally I’d leave the piles a couple of months before their first turn, but today I just could help myself. It had been just shy of three weeks since I’d built it and I wanted to see how it was getting on. As I stuck a fork into it and lifted it, steam came out and the smell was pleasant: dank, but earthy and somehow wholesome. Despite the heat the compost has still not broken down significantly in appearance, only volume. It’s definitely cooking away happily though. I often find myself staring it at it, in awe, through the lounge room window.

In most cases the reason for tucking the compost pile out of site is because the process is essentially about making muck. When it goes badly the smell can be putrid, as well as a source of shame for a lot of gardeners. But when you get it right it can be a source of joy and pride, and placing it in full view forces you to take care of it. The end product is also the greatest source of soil fertility known to man. For that reason alone the compost pile deserves to be put on a pedestal and take centre stage in any young garden (at least in the early years!). With locally sourced materials, building mountains of compost can be done for the most minimal of costs. Mine is practically free, it’s dynamite for the soil and, best of all, it doesn’t come wrapped in plastic!

Until next time, happy gardening.

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James Beattie

About James Beattie

James is a horticulturist working in the Melbourne area. His work in the industry has included landscape planting design, hard landscaping, bushland management, garden consulting as well as extensive experience in the horticultural media. He worked for four years as one of the horticultural guns for hire behind the scenes at ABC TV's Gardening Australia program and has been a semi-regular guest on Melbourne's 3CR Gardening Show (855 AM). You can follow his whimsical garden musings at Horticologist

2 thoughts on “Making muck

  1. Love your post, James. I am still on learning curve with compost heap making…many of mine end up in the stinky, sludgy state you describe. I think turning them is the answer, but find that difficult with the black plastic upright tubs I use. I get lots of worms, though, so think something must be working. I might concentrate on the open air heap I set up some years back, although trees have grown up nearby and shaded it too much.
    You have inspired me to restart and the cardboard is a great idea for covering.
    We get a lot of ash from burning in the paddock. How much is OK to put on the compost heap?

  2. James Beattie on said:

    Hi Julie,

    The cardboard covering works a treat. It lasts a couple of months – some bits break off here and there, but it saves me ripping it up! And the fungi (mycelium) that grows on the underside touching the heap is fascinating to watch develop.

    As far as the wood ash goes I know it’s quite alkaline, so I wouldn’t advise heaping it on in any large quantities. It can be used in place of lime to make the heap less acidic, reducing unpleasant odours (the sludgy outcome with compost is usually acidic). If it’s fine ash you can even use it instead of lime in the vegetable garden.

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