I once burned my finger by poking it into a compost pile. It was winter and the fermenting heap was in the middle of an allotment in the north of England. Apart from a few plumes of steam escaping from the top, it looked for all intents and purposes like a haystack. The chap whose pile it was seemed very pleased with himself and, burned finger aside, I have to admit I was impressed with his style. When I returned to New Zealand a few months later, I set myself the challenge of constructing a compost pile as hot as his – and pretty much succeeded. It certainly got to the point where a potato, buried in the middle of it, cooked over a period of a couple of days. The thing is, though, between all the gathering, stacking, shredding, layering, stomping, and insulating required, constructing the pile took up just about all of my time so that my actual veggie garden became neglected. Family relationships took a turn for the worse, too, as I required everyone to pee on the pile.
In a nutshell, perfectionist composting can become an obsession, and well-meaning but ardent composters can send you a little over the edge with their lists of dos and don'ts when, in fact, there's not a lot that go wrong with a compost heap, even when you break most of the rules! I, for instance, toss the forbidden citrus skins in with gay abandon (the worms will soon dodge them while they rot). I almost never chop up woody brassica stalks (I haven't got time and, besides, when I turn the pile I can biff into the fresh bin what doesn't compost the first time round). I include fish scraps, and invite my meat-eating neighbours to ditch their gristle and bone in the heap (flies will keep away if the scraps are covered with some vegetation, and rats are usually nesting in the warmth of the pile regardless of what does or doesn't go into it). If perennial weeds and seeds sneak in and the pile never heats up enough to destroy them, my garden mulch will soon supress them to the point where they give up the ghost.
The things is, compost piles are there to serve us, not the other way around, which is why I never, ever waste time shredding newspapers before I toss them in. The clumpier they become, the more the tiger worms adore them. Sometimes, the worms form a mat between the newspapers so thick that even my chooks tire of eating them. But my all-time favourite compost rule to break is the "never include non-compostables". Whoever made that one up obviously had more time on their hands than I do. Faced with a pile of cardboard cartons like the one I received this weekend when our new neighbours moved in, I didn't even bother to flatten them, let alone rip them into pieces. In they went, one after the other, plastic tape and all. Vegetation added later will weigh them down and, before you know it, the worms will be out in force.
If you're wondering what happens to all that plastic tape – that's the easy part. After a few months of composting, the cartons are reduced to crumbly soil . As I turn the pile or simply load the mature compost into my wheelbarrow, it takes only a few seconds to whip out the still-intact tape and throw it into the bucket I keep beside the compost bin for just that purpose. It couldn't be simpler, and it couldn't be more satisfying to see waste packaging reduced to nothing but good earth and a few shreds of tape. Go for it, gardeners, break a few rules!
Total basics for composting (if you choose to follow them!)
- Line the base of your pile with a few solid sticks to let in the air.
- If you're having a lot of rain, cover the pile. If you're going through a dry spell, turn the hose onto it for a few minutes.
- Grass clippings help heat up a pile. So do layers of straw or baylage.
- If you have time to flip the pile (put the fresh material on the bottom and the old material on top) go for it. If not, just cover it while it all breaks down.