Our resident gardening guru, Niall McKrill, shares his secrets to creating crème de la crème compost.
As winter approaches and piles of leaves begin to accumulate, now’s the perfect time to start making your own compost. So let’s get down and somewhat dirty…
You can simply begin to make a pile, or buy a compost bin. They are compact and perfect for smaller gardens. Pick the right spot for your heap or bin. It should be a level site that’s well drained, this will help worms to break down the content faster.
Speaking of worms, the best worm in our area is the tiger worm (Eisenia Fetida for those who speak Latin amongst us). These little wigglers are the most efficient in breaking down the matter and can be bought at most good nurseries in and around Cape Town.
They love the dark and moist atmosphere of the heap or bin and take what you put in and convert it into compost or liquid feed.
Putting the right stuff in is now crucial. Include kitchen waste like veggie peelings, fruit waste, used tea bags and coffee grinds. From your gardening, swept up leaves, plant prunings and grass cuttings can also be thrown in. These all breakdown pretty swiftly and provide nitrogen as well as moisture. A few crushed eggshells are also rather good to add, these add important minerals into the mix.
Never, never, never put dairy, meat, diseased plant matter, or dog, cat or human waste into your compost. These won’t just make your compost smelly, but can bring harmful bacteria into the system as well. Any solids like glass, stones or plastic should be left out too, and of course, don’t add any weeds for obvious reasons.
Getting the balance right is the next trick – keeping the greens (garden off-cuts) and browns (kitchen waste) properly balanced. If the compost is too wet, add more brown matter, if too dry, then some green is good.
To make sure there is enough air in the system, add some egg boxes, pine shavings and scrunched up paper. These break down slower, provide more fibre and carbon, and allow air in.
Then the magic ingredient: a compost activator. I use either Bokashi powder or the accelerator available at most good nurseries. This should be added to water, and poured into the heap. Why? To kick in the enzymes and start to heat things up, making the compost ready to use in about 10 weeks.
Next, it’s time to turn it all over. Long handled forks are great tools for this job. Get right into the pile and turn as much as you can over to aerate it and get the microbes and worms working harder, resulting in compost quicker. How often should you turn? I put a piece of plastic tubing into the middle of the heap and watch for steam coming out of it, that’s when I know it’s time to turn. One should turn the heap about every month.
Time to test your compost. After turning again, the matter should be well mixed and dark brown with a spongy texture. It should smell good and earthy, but don’t sniff too deeply, you might sneeze!
Now off you go, spreading the good stuff around… into the beds and lawn. This will definitely improve the soil and add new vigour to it, helping it to retain moisture and suppress weeds.
A note about leaves:
Leaves are good, but not too many, and some really do not break down well, such as the camphor, oak and poplar leaves which might have black mould or spore on them that you do not want to introduce into the compost heap. Bags of leaves can be left to break down on their own and then added slowly and turned into your mix, so as not to make it too clumpy.
At Uitsig, we have four heaps that will each take about 4 tons. Imagine turning all of that!