A steaming pile of goodness
WHEN the fi rst really savage frost struck in our garden last week, I wasn’t a bit worried. Even the sight of a blackened, shrivelled pumpkin patch and bleached- white sweetcorn plants signalled nothing more than the end of our warmest growing season and the start of another.
In fact, they inspired me to get stuck into clearing away every bit of half- dead, frosted and withered garden debris and converting it into compost.
As I dragged the pumpkin, cucumber, tomato and zucchini debris into a great heap I was astonished to fi nd a small harvest of wellconcealed, fat pumpkins and even a few kilos of reasonably- good tomatoes.
The fi nest fuel for a working compost heap is any kind of high- nitrogen fertiliser. So as I forked the still- green debris into a huge pile, I occasionally added generous amounts of pelletised chook manure and watered it in with heavily- diluted fi sh emulsion.
This is the stuff that gets the microorganisms that break down organic matter working furiously. After hacking out the sweet corn stalks – still green – I used a sharp spade to chop them into small pieces. It is easy, pleasant work and all the bits were then shovelled on to the growing heap.
In fact it became enormous – occupying about 4m2 of ground and by the time I had fi nished was almost 2m high and slightly tapered towards the top. It was the trash from a large bed of summer bean plants and a few barrow- loads of decaying hay that added much of the bulk.
Looking for even more, I went around all our still- growing cabbage kale, caulifl ower, silverbeet and broccoli plants to snap off all old, tough outer leaves and they too were added to the pile.
This activity exposed a surprising number of snails and some very fat slugs lurking in moist crevices near the roots.
Naturally they were immediately squashed at the scene of their crimes.
I even chucked in a couple of heavy buckets of sloppy kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and wet tea leaves, spreading the stuff widely so it soaked into the other ingredients.
It’s hard to believe, but by the time I had completed this giant heap of decomposing green debris, it was already starting to warm up, deep inside.
Home- made compost is the fi nest, most nutritious of all fertilisers. It is also the greatest of all soil conditioners
I shoved a pointed stake into its heart and it came out steaming slightly.
Home- made compost is the fi nest, most nutritious of all fertilisers. It is also the greatest of all soil conditioners.
And if it has been made properly and has been allowed to heat up – due to the intense, frantic activity of the micro- organisms – the internal temperature eventually rises so high it kills all weed seeds, pests and disease organisms.
The only part of a free- standing compost heap that does not get hot is the outside.
This is one reason why the most successful heaps are fairly large. It is also necessary to “turn” a compost heap about three times.
Once the interior begins to cool down – after about a week, depending on the weather – the un- decayed outer and top parts can be scraped off, made into a smaller pile and the rest then forked over the top to create another heap.
It is also watered and fertilised again during each turning process and each time heat is generated, but to a lesser extent.
During this entire process the pile of organic matter shrinks dramatically, fi nishing up about one third its original bulk. However, what is left is the ultimate garden treasure, magnifi cent compost with a sweet, earthy smell.
If compost cannot be used immediately, throw a big sheet of black plastic over it, weighing down the edges with bricks or stones. This prevents heavy rainfall from leaching out most of the nutrients.
The best way to use compost is to either dig it in, or place lots of the stuff deep in any planting holes. Never waste this valuable, natural fertiliser by spreading it over the surface because it simply dries out and loses much of its value.