How does a compost heap disintegrate? If you know the answer to this question, you will be a hundred per cent successful in the making of one.
The compost heap is one great co-operative workshop of living entities. Heat, the natural heat of disintegration, plays an important part. It comes from the quick breaking down of living tissues, leaves, stems and flowers; intense heat for a few days; then, with the release of the plant juices, it tempers to a moist pleasant warmth, ideal for the life and action of countless millions of microscopic soil workers. I repeat, countless millions, in the space of one teaspoon; bacteria, fungi, microbes, microflora, each one working at the further transformation of the vegetable matter, dying themselves, adding their minute beings to the sum total of the humus in the heap. They are supplemented by larger life maggots, insects, and above all, worms, each with its own individual task; all working to turn the vegetable matter into food for new plant life. These beings need air. They must breathe; therefore, both aeration and the retention of heat are essentials for a successful heap.
To achieve this, we use a simple wooden bin: a box with four sides and no bottom. It stands directly on the soil.
Why wood? Because it is warm, alive, generally obtainable, and easily erected. But there are substitutes, and in these wartime days we may have to use them:
- Oak staves of old barrels
- Brick walls, with spaces for aeration, say five a side.
- Turf placed grass downward, and freed of squitch.
- Bales of straw built round the heap.
- If no protection is available, build the heap like a haystack with straight firm sides. The inside will become compost. The outside six inches will act as protection; it will not decompose, but you can use it in the next heap.
Size of the Bin
Suit it to the size of your garden. Aim at filling it within two months -- the quicker the better; the fresh material shrinks tremendously, and a bin holds far more than you would think. Everyone is apt to start too big! It is far better to have two smaller bins than one large one, though you can always sub-divide a large one with light movable boards. A good general size is:
For a small garden: 18 in. x 18 in. x 2 ft. high.
For a medium garden: 3 ft. x 4 ft. x 3 ft. high.
For a large garden: 6 ft. x 6 ft. x 3 ft. high.
Site of the bin -- any aspect except north.
Protection Against Rain
This is important because:
- Heavy rain will douse the heat.
- A sodden and confined heap cannot breathe. It is the aerobic (i.e., air-breathing) microbes that produce compost; the anaerobic microbes exist without air, and the result of their activities is putrefaction. Therefore, it is important to have adcquate shelter to ensure both heat and air. Place a sheet of corrugated iron at a slant, so that air can pass under and rain run off it: or, as an alternative, make a shelter of stretched canvas or strong sacking.. Rubber is not advisable, as it is an insulator.
Good drainage is essential. If your soil is light, place the bin directly on it. If it is heavy, dig down about six inches and fill the space with rubble and a cover of soil on top. Why? Because the heap produces a lot of moisture, especially when plants are succulent. This must be able to disperse, or it would saturate the compost and exclude the air.
It is advisable, though not essential, to scatter a few handfuls of charcoal on the floor of the bin. Why? Because charcoal absorbs unpleasant gases, and remains itself unchanged. For this reason, it is given in the form of charcoal biscuits to relieve indigestion. It is also used in filters, and, in increasing quantities, in gardens, especially as drainage for pots and seed boxes. It is easy to make. Build a small bonfire, with brash wood (old pea sticks) and when it is red hot, pour some water on it -- you will get charcoal.
Plate 2. In the compost yard: The main range of bins
Building the Heap (Materials)
Use any vegetable matter. Weeds, clearings of beds and borders, lawn mowings, cabbage leaves, vegetable peelings, tea leaves, coffee grounds, straw, old hay: animal. manure, if you can get it. Don't use meat refuse, skin, bones, fat, or cooked stuff. Why? Because if kitchen refuse other than vegetables, are admitted to the heap, you will get greasy water, greasy remains, in short--swill. Such grease makes a scum and keeps out the air, and that will lead to putrefaction. Also a daily libation of this refuse will over-balance your heap, and the result, again, will be putrefaction, smell and flies. In a large farm heap with manure, kitchen refuse might be risked, but I strongly advise against it.
People may say: 'But animals that die go back to soil!' Yes, of course they do, but most wild animals do not die a natural death. They are the prey of others, right down the scale. Hunt for the body of a dead beastie, hunt through an acre of woodland -- you may find one, possibly two, but I doubt it, and we are dealing with an area of a few square feet!
Following this line of thought, I have heard of people getting offal and remains from the butcher's refuse, as a weekly offering to the compost heap; but again, to do so would be to over-balance the heap, and go beyond Nature's own scheme. One or two odd mice or birds buried in the heap will disappear, and be absorbed by the mass of vegetable matter and the work of the micro-organisms, but for a garden heap, I counsel no weekly offerings of flesh and no metal. Don't call it a rubbish heap, or it will be treated as one!
Plate 3. In a town garden: 'Lightly treading it down'
Use all weeds, even seeding and rampant ones. Place seeding weeds in the centre where the heat will destroy their power of germination. Have no fear of rampant weeds. The more they ramp, the more vitality they have to give to the heap. Better not put them near the top; in late autumn, they may grow to the light, but they will not root, and can easily be pulled out and used on the next heap. I am thinking of bind-weed, a bad ramper, but it disappears entirely in the heat of a heap. The only plants to avoid are heavy tough evergreens, i.e. old ivy leaves, old privet, and yew.
Use the green stuff as fresh as possible. The fresher it is the more vitality it holds. If you can't use it at once, throw a sack over it, to prevent sun and wind drying it up. If it seems shrivelled, spray it before adding it to the heap; cut your long stems into short lengths, six to twelve inches. Why? It releases the juices and the short bits pack better. Use a sharp heavy spade for this job, which is soon done. Incidentally, if a stem is too tough to be severed with a spade, it is too tough for the heap. Burn it.
Building the Heap
Build in layers four inches thick. Alternate layers of tough stuff with soft green weeds or grass, the one will help the other. If you have anima1 manure, or poultry manure, put a two-inch layer or less, in every foot. If you have none, throw in a scattering of soil. Introduce three dustings of lime. I repeat dustings only, at twelve, twenty-four, thirty-six inches.
Keep the heap level. It will tend to build up in the centre and sink at the sides; a light treading or packing with a spade will correct this. It will also break down crossing stems, which make air pockets.
Always keep some sacking on the last layer. This is very important. Why? Because sun and wind dry up and shrivel the exposed area, and heat, moisture and vitality escape from the heap. This heat can be intense, it reaches 160 to 180 degrees F. (71-82 deg C) for a short time, then dies down; it rises again when fresh material is added. To maintain a steady heat make new additions as often as possible. Decomposition is quicker, and the intense heat destroys weed seeds and disease.
The heap will shrink tremendously as you build it. As long as there is heat in it, you can go on adding fresh material. When it is full and firm, cover it with four inches of soil, let it settle for two or three days, then treat it with the 'activator'.
The activator comes in the form of a herbal powder (formulae, Appendix 2). Drop one grain (a pinch, as much as will cover a sixpence or an American cent) into a pint bottle of rain-water. Shake it well; let it stand for twenty-four hours. Shake again before using it. It will keep in solution for about a month or three weeks. If it smells sweet it is all right.
Make holes with a crowbar from approximately twelve to twenty-four inches apart, and to within three to six inches of the bottom of the heap; pour three ounces of the liquid into each hole. Fill them up with dry soil, and ram it down to prevent air pockets. Cover the heap with a sack, and forget it for a month.
When you open it, burrow into it with a trowel. If it smells sweet (and it has a lovely smell) it is all right: dig further, breaking it up as you go. If rightly built it will be very rich dark soil.
Remember, it is impossible to give a definite date for the ripening of any heap. There are so many differing factors: season, weather, building materials -- one can only give an average and approximate time. Roughly speaking:
A spring and early summer heap takes four to six weeks. A summer heap six to eight weeks. An autumn heap eight to twelve weeks.
A winter heap moves very little if at all. The earth sleeps in winter and this seems to affect both growth and decay. You may make a wonderful heap of winter weeds, between 21 December and March: it develops no heat, it just remains as you put it in. But when you get some fresh spring growth, or, best of all, the first lawn-mowings, remove the top half of your winter collection, introduce a four-inch layer of the living green, and build. up the heap in alternate layers of winter weeds and fresh growth. That heap will decompose in about a month, and you will get the advantage of increased bulk with the help of the winter collection.
If, when you open your heaps, you find they are not entirely soil, there is usually a reason, and always a remedy.
1. You my find a sodden corner, or possibly a sodden layer. Why? Probably rain has seeped in, or it may be after a wet spell your plants were full of moisture which could not drain away. Remedy: Let it remain in the air for a few hours, it will soon disintegrate.
2. It may be that some stems or tough grass have not broken down. Why? Probably they were too wiry, too dried up; dry old grass is difficult. Remedy: Fork them into a loose pile in the open, and pour some compost or manure water (see below, The Manure Tub) over them; in a couple of days they will be fit to put on the garden.
Storing Ripe Compost
When the compost is ripe and you need the bin, you can stack it in a compact heap, with steeply sloped sides, covered with soil, so that rain will run off. It will go on ripening and come to no harm.
Do not use fallen leaves in a mixed heap. A few odd ones don't matter, but a thick layer makes an impenetrable barrier and holds up the heap. Why?
- Because their flat surfaces press tight together and exclude air.
- Because they have already lost much of their vitality. They are half dead, or they would not have fallen, therefore they decompose more slowly than living green matter and they slow down the decomposition of the whole heap. They make first-rate humus, but it is better to make a separate leaf-stack, in the open. A surround of wire netting keeps it tidy. An occasional scattering of soil is all to the good -- do not tread it down. Leave it for six to nine months. Then turn it out, and treat it. In two months it will turn to a very rich black mould, like 100-years'-old leaf mould. Once you start a rotation, you need never be without it. It carries not only its own leafy smell, but the added aroma and richness of the Q.R. compost.
Some compost makers believe that animal manure is essential to making a good compost. I do not agree. I have tested entirely vegetable compost, against compost made with manure, and found no difference in its effect.
After all, cow manure is just plants, composted by the cow. She is the best compost-making machine in the world! She breaks up the herbage by the combined heat of her body and the incessant chewing of the cud. She withdraws the vitality of the plants into herself, for her own needs (and ours), bones, blood, flesh and milk. She has seven stomachs to complete this work and should do it thoroughly. What she cannot assimilate, she returns to the earth as dung, i.e. composted plants. (Note that the smell of cow dung, and the smell of rotting lawn-mowings are almost identical.) But this cow-made compost is full of very strong animal digestive juices; if it is used in the garden when it is fresh, it burns plants, and introduces pests into the soil; but, if you wait two or three years, it turns to a beautiful black soil, like the best compost.
Now in the vegetable compost, we use the entire plant, with its vitality whole and unimpaired. We have learnt from the cow! We use both pressure and heat, but instead of the digestive juices we, use the herbal activator containing the chief plant elements, in living plant form. Moreover we beat the cow at her own game, as regards time! Instead of having to wait for two or more years, the vegetable compost is ready for the garden in six weeks -- or less!
If it were true that animal manure is essential to good compost it would be a tragic outlook for millions of gardeners and smallholders. Even before the war, I found that between 85 and 90 per cent of gardeners were unable to get farmyard manure for their holdings.
I arrived at these statistics by questioning the audience, at every meeting I addressed. I called for 'Hands-up' from all who could get farmyard manure for their gardens. The average was always the same, with one exception -- a private meeting for farmers' wives in an entirely dairy country.
The lack of farmyard manure was so universal, that I decided on a drastic test.
I excluded all manure from the compost heaps designed for the flower garden, using only vegetable compost for four years, and I found that soil, health, and beauty of growth and colour were not impaired in any way. I further know from reports that purely vegetable compost has had, and is having, splendid results in all parts of England; and it is the greatest comfort to garden lovers, to know that they need not be dependent on something they can't get!
Instead of liquid manure, they can soak a trowelful of ripe compost in a pail of water, dilute it to tea colour and use it as a feed for the plants that need it. The response is amazing.
At the same time, while not essential, manure is a help. It has wonderful heating and activating qualities and once it is ripe it is the finest natural humus that exists. A farmyard manure heap treated with Q.R. activator becomes ripe and friable in a few weeks (again we help the cow!). For those who cannot get it in bulk, it is possible to make a little go a very long way. Thus:
The Manure Tub
Sink a tub, barrel, or box, in the soil, to within six inches of its rim. Fill it to earth level with fresh cow dung. (Most farmers will allow you to collect a few pailfuls, from gateways and byres.) Treat the manure with three ounces of the diluted solution; cover it with a wooden lid to keep out the rain. It will be fit to use in about three weeks, and you use it for liquid manure. A trowelful in a gallon pail of water makes a strong brew. One pint of this to one gallon of water is the best strength for tomatoes or any plant needing food. Further, a bucketful of this, or the stronger liquid, can be poured into a ripe compost heap and will add to its richness.
A curious point about manure treated this way is that though it loses its rank smell, it preserves its fresh appearance for years, and one barrelful will last a very long time.
Another method is to fill the sunk tub with dry cow-pats; treat them in the same way; cover them, and forget them for three months. When you go back to them they will have crumbled into the finest black soil, perfect for top dressing, but not for liquid manure.
This was a purely chance discovery. An order was misunderstood, and a tub, meant for fresh manure, was filled with these dry pats. Labour was scarce, time scarcer, so I left it, and treated the tub, just to see what would happen, and a miracle happened! Several experts who saw the results this summer pronounced it some of the best stuff they had ever handled and could not guess what its origin had been.
Poultry and Rabbit Manure
With the war, there has been a tremendous increase in domestic poultry and rabbit keeping; consequently many appeals come from compost makers for advice in handling poultry and rabbit manure.
While very light layers of poultry manure can be used directly on the compost heap, we find the most satisfactory way is to make a separate small heap, like a miniature dung heap. We use the droppings, the litter, straw and hay. The dry straw is thoroughly wetted before building it into the heap. For this we use the strong manure or compost water. We build the heap up to two and a half feet, protect it from heavy rain, throw a spadeful of soil over it at intervals, and treat it with the solution. It breaks down in less than a month, and looks like farmyard manure. We put this on to the compost heap in two-inch layers. It makes good stuff. Rabbit manure could be treated in the same way, either in a separate heap, or with the poultry droppings.
It is obviously impossible to have bins all over the farm; therefore, farm heaps must be built in the open, and, as farm material is brought in by the cart-load, instead of the barrowful, they must be of larger dimensions. A section eight feet long by six feet wide and six feet high is a useful size. One section can be completed before going on to the next; the sections can touch, and so make an ever-lengthening clamp. If the top is sharply ridged rain will not seep in. The procedure of building is the same as for the garden heap. Good drainage is necessary. Build in layers of four inches. If there is a mass of one material, break it by narrow layers of soil, or better still, manure. This should be available on the farm and can be used in two-inch layers throughout the heap. Material like old dry hay, tough grass, and above all, dry straw, should be saturated with treated manure water.
In Eire the Ministry of Agriculture advises soaking straw for twenty-four hours. A nursery gardener, who runs an 'intensive' garden with Q.R. compost, told me recently that he used a quantity of straw in his heaps, and soaked it overnight in a long bath filled with manure water. The results were first-rate.
If a farm is equipped with a urine tank, the tank itself can be treated. Soak some sand, or dry soil, in the diluted Q.R. solution, allowing one pint to each six cubic feet of tank space. Scatter the soaked sand over the surface. The sand will sink, and free the solution to do its work from the bottom. Straw soaked, or even sprayed with this urine, would make valuable compost, and break down very quickly.
In an all straw heap, include if possible two-inch layers of fresh green nettles or bracken. The green gives vitality; nettles, wetted and bruised, will raise heat more quickly than anything! Manure, if possible, otherwise soil in narrow layers, will steady the heap. Treat it; it will go to rich black mould, without turning, in from four to six months. It can then be spread with a shovel.
The method is very elastic and open to infinite variations. The three chief rules are:
- Keep heat in.
- Keep rain out.
- Let the heap breathe.
While the foregoing is about compost making by the more ordinary materials, there are some people who may have unusual, yet priceless raw matter, within easy reach -- perhaps thousands of tons of possible compost -- going to waste.
An interesting example is the story of a friend who lives near the New River, the chief water supply for London. Twice a year water-men clean the river of water weed, mud and the heavy growth of its banks. The water weed, green and crinkly, has untold vitality. It cannot be used on the land for seven years, or it would start growing! It smells like pig manure; the river mud smells worse. The water-men pile it up in huge dumps and leave it. No one thought of using it, till my friend, a keen 'composter' and gardener, had the inspiration to try it.
The first heaps were made entirely of the water weed, in various stages:
- The fresh weed as it came out of the river.
- The slimy stuff, a week old from the bank; and
- A very small proportion of the dry seven-year-old rotted stuff.
With these ingredients, a layer of lime, and some layers of soil, several heaps were made, covered with earth and treated with the Q.R. 'solution'. In fourteen weeks, they had rotted to a friable dung, not good enough for top dressing, but good for putting into trenches to retain moisture for peas.
The next experiments were an even greater success.
The heaps were made with water weed, straw, and chipwood bedding from a large stable. The water weed wetted the straw, while the chipwood bedding, which had horse manure in it, made a dry, steadying layer.
Several such heaps were built and treated, and in three to four months had turned to a rich black compost, of first-rate quality. It produced one and a half tons of onions, and six cwt. of fine peas on one-half acre of poor land, and this in a very dry season, a universally bad one for peas.
The original heaps of treated water weed are now, after fifteen months, good black compost, described as 'like Lincolnshire silt'. The untreated water weed dumps seven years old are not compost, but described as 'a useful rather dirty muck'.
Thousands of tons of this first-class potential manure are wasted -- and the land is hungry for it.
In every country there must be waste products, tremendous growths, overwhelming weeds, which could be turned to compost, with imagination and a little care. Anything within the vegetable kingdom will turn to soil, with pressure, heat and aeration -- and the earth needs all we can give her.
4. The Compost and the Garden
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