Compost can be a great messy pile onto which, haphazardly, you throw everything you pull out of the garden, sweep off the path, or mow off the lawn. Keep adding to the pile and, eventually, it will begin to generate some heat, and with the help of worms which almost always find their own way into the stack, begin to decompose. This is what I call ‘free-composting’ – a process that doesn’t require much thinking about. However, there’s a lot more ‘playing around’ you can do with compost if you have the time or inclination.
You can, for instance, by following just a few basic principals, choose how much heat the pile will generate. To increase the temperature, forget the haphazard approach and concentrate on ‘layering’ fresh green material (such as lawn clippings and well-chopped vegetable leaves) with brown material (such as dead leaves, straw, and seaweed), and animal manure. If you want to create heat in a more serious way, choose particular manures such as that from chickens or pigs (and make it as fresh as possible). For an extra heat burst, cover the pile with insulating material such as black plastic or old carpet.
With a little manipulation, you can control the extent to which your compost cooks (and therefore kills-off) unwanted weeds and garden pests (such as slugs and snails). The greatest heat in the pile is in the middle (because the outer vegetation insulates the centre). The outer walls of the pile may never heat up to the point where vegetation and pests are killed-off. Your mission, therefore, is to ‘turn’ the compost. After 3-4 weeks of the compost heating up, fork the outer walls of the pile into a neat heap and fork material from the centre of the compost over it. Cover and leave the pile to heat up again. In this way, all the vegetation and all the pests in the compost are eventually ‘cooked’.
You’re also in charge of the nutrient density of your compost pile. It’s perfectly possible, for instance, to compost without any animal manure or seaweed. Vegetation will still heat up without this material. But when it comes to providing your garden with all the nutrients it needs, you will find that your compost is short of nitrogen and potassium. On the other hand, if you live far from the sea, you could compensate for a lack of seaweed by using comfrey leaves instead. Of course, some plants will not thank you for nitrogen in which case you will want to leave out the animal manure from the compost pile.
The point I’m making is that compost doesn’t have to simply ‘happen’. Just as with baking, there are many different ‘recipes’ when it comes to creating the finished product. Layering finely chopped materials will create a ‘seed raising mix’ texture of compost. Roughly chopped vegetation and lots of woody material (such as wood chips or fallen leaves) will create open textured compost which is good for allowing air into the ground.
Once you realise that compost is what you make it, you can experiment in many different ways in order to create just what your individual gardens require. For this reason, some people choose to have several smaller compost bins rather than one large pile. Whatever you do, I guarantee that taking an ‘active’ part in composting will soon become as enjoyable as any of your favourite hobbies – and may even take over from gardening itself!