Makin’ Compost

I have a love affair with compost heaps, don’t laugh I’m serious. I’ve been known to wait at our local municipal dump on Saturday mornings in early spring with a high-side trailer and getting the locals to dump their spring clean-up matter into the trailer. This then goes home to start a few compost heaps for my summer requirements.

The manufacture of compost is a task that can approximate alchemy if you so desire. There are so many complex formulas and combinations that many people fear the process of starting a heap. Unlike what many would have you believe, composting is not rocket science. It’s a simple, natural process that starts off by itself anyway. All you need to do is give it the best environment to do its work. For me composting is a pleasure, mainly as I have found a foolproof method that works. This method is one that I picked up from the Jacksons of Wensleydale. Up until that point I just threw everything into a heap and once a year passed the heap through a sieve to filter out the larger chunks, which went pack into the heap. The sifted compost was added to my beds. This was a long process and did not yield the required amount of compost. Now we use the chimney stack method and I have found an increased production, shorter composting time, higher /faster breakdown and better quality compost.

This method is without a doubt the best way to make compost and does not rely on specific mixes of ingredients like some people would tend to advocate. I have never built a heap that uses calculated amounts of anything, I don’t have the time, nor the inclination. Also, one never has the same ‘compost inputs’ available anyway, so each one has a slightly different composition. Trying to get the composition ‘right’ is just too finicky for me, we use what we have and have never had a flop. The worst that can go wrong with this method is that the heap wont heat-up. No worries there, just turn again and add some manure. Chicken is best, but cow, sheep, horse and pig will also do, basically in that order of preference. I personally try not to use horse manure as I find it too full of weed seed, but your experience may differ.

We use 3 poles and a frame to lift the heap off the ground.
We use 3 poles and a frame to lift the heap off the ground.

Start with a base that is raised off the ground. You can use branches, wooden pallets or basically anything that will allow air to gain access into the base of the heap. (I’m using an old metal frame resting on 3 wooden fence posts.) The initial layer should be made up of some coarse material. I prefer to use long veld grass or thin branch trimmings. The heap is then built in layers with whatever is available, lawn mower clippings, stable sweepings, pig and chicken sweepings, and generally anything left around that is organic. You can use you kitchen scraps (ours go to the pigs) just leave out fats and animal proteins. Basically a safe rule is this: If it once grew in the ground it’s safe to add to the compost heap. This includes, egg cartons, newspaper and natural fibers. Each layer must be thoroughly wetted as you build. Don’t try to wet the whole heap once it’s finished, as you will have dry spots that won’t break down, or slow down the process as they are not contributing heat.

As you build your heap, have two or more fence posts (or similar) inserted so that you create two chimneys. Our heaps start out at about 1,6 m high and over a week or two they reduce in height as the insides start to break down and compact. You can check the heat of your heap by inserting your hand into the chimney hole and feel how the heat is doing. As the heap cools down you will need to start planning to turn it. Make a similar base or frame set-up and transfer the heap, top down onto the next platform. Using the same format of watering and again creating two chimneys to assist the aerobic breakdown to take place. Once you have turned your heap 2 or 3 times the compost is ready. This can be seen by the composition of what’s left, if it has a dark brown or black look, smells earthy and is moist and crumbly it’s ready. Just take that as is and spread it over the top of your beds and let the little critters take it into the soil.

Turing compost is a great way to warm-up on a winters day
Turing compost is a great way to warm-up on a winters day

We find that to outsides tend to be slower at breaking down than the insides, but that’s no issue. The outsides get transferred into the center at each turning and whatever has not broken down gets added to the next heap. The nice thing about this is that the new heap gets seeded with bacteria and other goggas from the old heap to help it on its way. No need to buy a compost starter. With this method of composting there is no risk of anaerobic decomposition taking place, there is no smell and best of all it just works.

2 days later, the pile is steaming at sunrise.
2 days later, the pile is steaming at sunrise.

We also find it beneficial to water the heap once a week from the top while it’s in the heating process, as the breakdown and heat escaping will draw a fair amount of moisture from you heap.

That’s it for compost making. Enjoy.


Starting a Veggie Patch

Veggie Patch 101

So Winter is officially here, with the whole world looking brown and grey, not much is growing. If you are lucky enough to have an existing veggie patch, all your planting is now done. You are slowly enjoying the harvests of winter veggies. However, in just 3 months time Spring will be on it’s way. If you are thinking of planting a veggie patch, now is the time to plan one. You might have one or more of many reasons for starting a veggie patch.

You may be looking to save some money on your monthly expenses. You may want to eat healthier foods, where you know what’s gone into the ground and on the plants. You might be looking at upping the local content of your diet and cutting out food miles in your diet. Or you just like the idea of growing your own food. Whether you are in a flat, complex or your own house, or if you are really lucky you might even live on a smallholding or farm. Growing your own vegetables is entirely possible.

I’m going to concentrate on starting a conventional vegetable garden, as that is where I have the most experience. If there is anyone out there that can give advice on small scale gardening please feel free to email me and I’ll be glad to post your input. (or Questions for that matter)

So where do you start? Logically, first you would choose the site for your veggie patch. The best place would be a north facing piece of ground that gets at least 6 or more hours of full sunlight per day. In order of preference, the garden aspects are as follows. North, West, East and finally South. Every property will have differing circumstances, which you need to capitalize to your best advantage. For example, a bit of lateral thinking can greatly improve the productivity of a garden that is tucked away behind a south facing double story. Firstly paint the southern wall of the house stark white, and then do the same for the opposite wall (north facing). This will introduce a lot of light to your garden that would otherwise be a very poor gardening area, and turn a mediocre at best garden into worthwhile endeavor.

Now getting onto planning your garden. First you would remove any grass or other surface covering (paving, gravel etc) that may be in the way of your plans. (One friend of mine in the Cape, Wendy Young has turned her entire garden into a veggie patch) Lay out your beds preferably in an east-west configuration to allow for the best sun exposure on all of the beds. Plan your beds with the ideal spacing for yourself. I personally use minimal spacing of about 30cm between beds, but I know of a lot of gardeners that use a wider spacing to allow for easy kneeling or equipment traffic. The best person to decide this is yourself. As for the width of the individual beds, I find that about 1 meter or slightly less is ideal, this will allow you to step over the beds without damaging any of the plants in the bed.

Now, we come to the idea of how to fertilize your beds. I’ll explain how I improve my vegetable gardens, and I’ll leave any other options open for your own investigation. Personally I do not use any synthetic fertilizers on my property. If it’s a new bed, then it gets formed and planted with seed almost immediately. We do not dig the vegetable garden over, we just form the edges of the bed. Then seed gets planted almost immediately. Once the seeds have germinated a layer of compost is added onto the surface, we keep adding compost throughout the growing season as the surface compost is broken down or taken in by earthworms. What you will find with this method is that over a period of years the humus content of your soil will dramatically increase. This in-turn improves the moisture holding content of your soil, gives the plants a much higher level of health and reduces and even eliminates the need to use pesticides in your garden. I recently visited a friends extensive operation where he has used No-Till for a number of years and you can clearly see the difference in the no till beds and the soil that surrounds his garden. The beds have a deep friable rich black soil, that you can plunge your hand into and lift a big handful of sweet smelling soil. Next to the beds you find the typical red soil found in Gauteng, hard and difficult to penetrate.

My best advice, and advice that I have seen work in my garden and in others is never to dig your beds over. (have a look at No Till farming for more information) Always add your compost, mulch or organic matter to the top of your beds, and let God’s amazing creatures go to work improving your soil the natural way.

If you are looking for a great book to help you plan and grow your first successful vegetable garden have a look at this book. Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times (Mother Earth News Wiser Living Series) Although this book provides full coverage on every aspect of gardening that many well established gardeners will find useful. It also provides extensive information on starting a veggie patch for newcomers to the art of vegetable gardening. It is a very worthwhile addition for your library on self-sustainability.

Once you have started your veggie patch your will need to decide on what you are going to plant. This all depends on the amount of space you have available and what you families requirements are. There are many vegetable varieties available, have a look through our catalogue and order a few heirloom seeds for your garden, you will not regret tasting real vegetables that were growing and sustaining families before your grandparents were born.

Whats in my Garden?

This evening as a write this my kids are in the lounge shelling peas. We have just come in from picking peas, a job that will get done every 3 or 4 days from now on. We will get about 4 kgs of peas every week for the next 4-6 weeks. I must admit that I’m very happy with the pea plants. They are lush and dark green. One thing that I have noticed is that the pods are looking a bit frost damaged, but the plants are not showing any ill effects. Once shelled, the peas are perfect. Yum those will go straight into the freezer and will be used later in the winter as a sweet side to one of my wife’s dishes.

The Cauliflower is also looking good, we have been eating 2 or 3 heads a week for the last month and now only have about 12 plants left. I should have planted more!!! The Broccoli is basically done, we are pulling up the remaining plants for the pigs on a daily basis. We are also keeping a few plants aside that are for seed. The cabbages are also doing great, we pick a head every other day and my kids love to eat it raw, so it never lasts longer than a day. My only perpetual irritation are Brussel Sprouts, I planted about 60 plants out this year and I’m hoping for a respectable harvest, I’ve never had a good harvest so I’m waiting in anticipation. I’ll let you know.

The Edible Quote

This is a quote that scares me. Try to imagine the ramifications of the thinking behind this statement?

“Food is power. We use it to change behavior. Some may call that bribery. We do not apologize.”

Catherine Bertini, UN World Food Program Executive Director. 1997