The joy of compost: Mary Lovell-Smith reckons recycling garden waste is pure pleasure
Little fills me with as much wonder in my garden as the rotund black plastic Tardis that is my compost bin.
It seems no matter how much I throw in, it always gobbles it down, leaving room for more. That it converts my kitchen scraps, weeds, clippings, mowings and more into a glorious, sweet-smelling humus is almost a bonus.
As a hoarder, environmentalist and bargain hunter, I love that so little organic material need leave my property and that composting supplies me with endless goodies. If any plant or part thereof reaches beyond its use-by date, into the system it goes.
Recently, trying to be more scientific, I've been balancing the fresh, green, damp layers in my bins with dry material. Thus the piles of pea straw and drying hedge prunings and clippings, ready to be added when need be. Old leaves are stripped off branches and thrown into the bins. Once, in the days of our open fire, these branches would have been saved for kindling. Now they're chopped up with secateurs and put into the bins, or piled at the edge of the garden to break down at their leisure, meanwhile providing a home to creatures from skinks to spiders.'
Bigger branches get similar treatment. Stripped of the twigs, they'll be chopped for firewood or piled in a far corner. Until it broke irreparably, a chipper converted them into fabulous mulch.
Trunks, such as the giant ironwood acacia that defied our attempts to cut it into firewood, have been used to support the terraces on our sloping site. Twenty-five years on, the acacia is crumbling back into the soil, but also providing a home to hundreds of happy woodlice.
Other things I compost include old cotton dish cloths, and cotton, silk and woollen rags (in small quantities). Wooden scrubbing brushes, newspaper, seaweed, soap slivers, paper towels, floor sweepings, ashes, candle and pencil stubs, hair, vase flowers (those that have not been removed and rooted) get the same treatment. If the likes of these aren't fully broken down when a bin is emptied and sieved, they go back in to finish the job, or are placed at the margins of the garden under the hedges and trees.
As much as I love my bins, they're not the sole repository of organic matter. Many weeds are returned to decompose under plants in the beds from which they came; drier grasses and prunings may be cut and laid as a mulch around shrubs and trees, much like one would use pea straw. Twiggy twigs are saved for the vegetable garden to be used as supports for peas; long, straight branches are ideal for tomato stakes or bean teepees.
Coffee grounds and tea leaves bypass the kitchen scrap bucket and are poured straight on the beds nearest the kitchen door – or onto any plants growing in pots outside, which always seem in need of a drink. Milk cartons are rinsed out with water and poured likewise; I don't know if it works, but I read once this was good in combatting powdery mildew. The cartons themselves are used for seedlings – and when I'm feeling particularly virtuous, I do the same with cans, piercing holes in them with a hammer and nail.
Cardboard, newspaper and woollen carpet make ideal weed suppressants in beds – far better in my opinion than synthetic weed mat, which when it breaks down leaves a nasty snarl of nylon fibres.
Some things I never add to the compost. Dog and cat excrement, for example; I prefer the droppings of herbivores, such as cows, sheep and horses.
Only if I had extreme confidence in my composting skills would I ever add convolvulus to my heaps, as this invasive weed seems to have a cockroach-like ability to survive and will grow from the tiniest fragment. So this I add to my 40-gallon drum of compost tea, a potent brew of seaweed, horse manure and comfrey steeping in plenty of water.
So much for so little, yet so many gardens don't have even a compost bin, and it's their soil more often than not that's in need of compost. It's such an easy and rewarding thing to do.
- NZ Gardener