Old pallets, as long as they’re in reasonably good nick, are a great boon to the allotmenteer. Especially if you need to knock together a few small raised beds. Such as these four, which I set up yesterday for the trial of four different soil mixes that I’m running this year for the folks at Soilfixer.co.uk.
I nipped back down to Plot #59 this morning, lugging a tub of Soilfixer’s SF60 along with me, and back-filled the four beds. In all four cases, I’ve re-used the soil from last year’s carrot bed, which I know is of a reasonably uniform texture and plain composition, as it was all sieved through last year and didn’t have any fertilisers or other amendments added to it.
Here are comparison pics of the contents of the four beds (as above, clockwise from top-left) just after the relevant amendment had been added (or not), before final raking in and levelling.
The pics were all taken at roughly the same time of day, in similar light conditions (direct sun, little or no cloud cover) so I think we can safely conclude that the C.H.A.-enhanced compost is a little darker in colour than the non-C.H.A. compost. Whether that’s down to an increased amount of colloidal humus or simply the darkening effect of the C.H.A. (a charcoal-dust-like black powder) I’m not able to say. But the darker colour might help the soil to warm marginally quicker.
I’m going to leave the beds to rest for a few days, then I’ll be back at the weekend to plant out the first crops: a couple of broad bean ‘The Sutton’ plants in each bed, for starters. I’ll also be sowing a few seeds that I think will be reliable germinators: beetroot and turnip. Later on I’ll add some more veg plants, maybe a tomato and a kale, and probably a couple of flowers as well, perhaps some Tagetes or French marigolds, and possibly a mignonette Dahlia or three.
Then it’ll be a case of observing and recording any observations as often as I’m able to, including rates of germination, any noticeable differences in growth patterns, the degree of weed infestation, and anything else that I notice.
This year I’m trialling two soil improvement products on behalf of the folks at SoilFixer.co.uk. The first, a Compost Humification Agent, was added to a bagful of compostable material back in December. A second bag of compostables was set aside at the same time, to act as a control.
This past weekend, I checked in on the two proto-compost samples to see how they were getting along. The bags have been sitting around on plot #59 over the winter, so I wasn’t expecting anything to have changed massively, what with the lack of heat to kick-start the decomposition process. But as I dumped each sample out into a plastic bucket, I was pleased to see that actually there had been a fair bit of break-down, even in the colder winter conditions
Hard to tell at this stage whether the addition of the C.H.A. has significantly accelerated the decomposition process, but the second sample did seem a little darker in colour. But of course, the proof will be in whether or not the trial crops actually perform better in C.H.A. compost enhanced soil.
Each sample was churned around, to get some air into the organic matter, before being re-bagged. I removed a couple of handfuls of tough, grassy stems from each sample. The stuff didn’t seem to have broken down at all – some shoots were even showing signs of re-sprouting – and it’s not the sort of material I want to add to the trial beds in due course. I then added a few scoopfuls of home compost from our recently-emptied bin and added more C.H.A. to the relevant mix.
Each bag will be re-aired and re-mixed a couple of times over the next week or two. Ten, before too long, it will be time to start the trial proper by setting up the four trial beds, adding the appropriate amendments (or not) to each, and planting out some of the seedlings that are already coming along in the greenhouse.
I’ll tell you what crops I’m planning to grow in the next Trial update.
Compost, rich in organic matter, is one of the essential building blocks of good soil. It helps retain moisture and adds nutrients as well as binding mineral particles into a lovely crumb structure. It’s great to add to sandy soils to help them clump together, and clay soils to help them break down. Or any soil, for that matter, to improve its overall condition.
Making compost at home is incredibly easy. Not all of us have room for the sort of multi-bay composting setups that Monty Don or Charles Dowding have access to, but the good news is you don’t need a huge amount of space to run a really efficient composting system.
Having experimented over the past few years, I can highly recommend a rotation system using either two or three of the standard black compost bins. They’re available from most DIY stores and garden centres, but you should definitely check online with GetComposting.com to see if your local authority has a subsidy scheme that could get you a couple of standard bins at a very good price.
We have enough room in the utility corner behind our shed for a three-bin setup. The two bins on the right at the ‘current’ and ‘resting’ bins. The ‘current’ bin is the one we’re adding new material to at the moment. They’re open-bottomed, placed on bare soil (or in our case, sand) to allow worms and other organisms easy access to the contents. They’re technically ‘cold’ bins, as they’re not insulated to retain internal heat (like the pricier but more efficient HotBin composter), but they are sited in a spot that catches the sun (as you can see) so they do heat up pretty quickly on a warm day.
There’s a vast amount of information and advice available as to the right mix of nitrogen rich ‘green’ (living or recently-deceased plant matter) and carbon-rich ‘brown’ (long-dead plants, cardboard, paper that isn’t too glossy or heavily inked) material to add your your compost. The RHS advice page on composting suggests a 25% – 50% ratio of greens topped up with browns.
We add all our kitchen peelings, including eggshells, and garden clippings, but not perennial weed roots1 or potato tubers, as well as the contents of our shredder, ripped up egg-boxes and cardboard tubes, along with regular sluices of water. We aim for a 50/50 mix, but it probably skews towards green due to the large amounts of veg trimmings we produce, even though we’re just cooking for the two of us.
The ‘current’ bin is gradually filled over the course of a year. Then it becomes the ‘resting’ bin for the next year. Nothing new is added to the ‘resting’ bin, and the mix is checked monthly, to make sure it’s moist enough and to give it a good stir around with the garden fork to get plenty of air in.
The switch-over between the two happens any time between now and the end of April, whenever I can find the time to scoop out last year’s compost and bag it up until it’s ready to use on the garden. I started on the job yesterday, and this is the sort of thing I found at the bottom of the bin:
As you can see, everything has broken down quite nicely over the past 12 months, into a dark, crumbly, odour-less mix that will make a great soil improver. There are a few clumps of egg-shell that haven’t fully disintegrated yet, but they can be plucked out and dropped back into the newly-designated ‘resting’ bin before the lid goes on for 12 months.
I think there’s between 120 and 150 litres of compost in just the one bin. Whilst that might not represent a huge monetary saving over bought compost, it’s still the value of a couple of potted up perennials or a few packets of seeds. So in terms of the return on the cost of the initial investment in plastic bins, I’d reckon it will pay for itself in around three or four years.
The third, left-hand, bin is for woody waste: tougher plant stems, clumps of grass, anything that you know will take a longer time to break down. This bin will be left to do its thing for at least three years, allowing as much time as possible for the thicker plant material to break down. At the end of three years the contents will be scooped out and sieved. Any usable compost will be extracted and the rest of the material will go back in the bin for further decomposition.
The main advantage of running two bins side-by-side is that you can ensure a full breakdown of the contents of the ‘resting’ bin over the course of twelve months – especially if you switch at the start of Spring, to really get the temperature up over the summer – without the problem of having to add fresh new material on top of the compost you’re trying to extract from the bottom. That’s always a messy, smelly way to do things, not really recommended if you can avoid it. And you can manage perfectly well without the third bin, but you may have to spend a bit more time picking woody chunks out of your ‘resting’ bin at switch-over time.
Finally, a quick pro-tip re: tea-bags. It’s very tempting to assume that they’re entirely biodegradable, but experience – and much sieving – has taught me that’s not the case, as many tea-bags contain artificial fibres. I’d rather not spend extra time picking chunks of half-rotted bag out of the finished compost before it can be used, so instead I invest a smaller amount of time in splitting the tea-bags open and collecting the spent tea leaves before they go in the compost:
I dump them in the sink to rinse, then squeeze them out and leave them to dry in a dish on the side before ripping them open when they’re reasonably dry. It doesn’t take too long to do – you can always split a few while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil or your next cuppa to brew – and it’s a lot less fiddly than all that picking-out.
Either that or you could always drink more loose leaf tea, which always seems to taste better anyway.
What are your experiences with composting at home? Do you have any suggested improvements on the way we’re doing things? Please do let me know via the comments, below.
1 Kevin at epicgardening.com subsequently got in touch (Nov ’17) to point me at an article on his site on composting weeds, if you’re interested in trying a method or two.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by the folks at soilfixer.co.uk who wanted to know if I’d be interested in trialling their soil improvers.
“We’d like to send you some of a new product we’ve been working on,” they said, “a compost humification agent.”
Humification, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is the process by which organic matter decays into humus, a dark-coloured, sticky substance that’s an extremely important part of the organic fraction of the soil. Humus increases the soil’s water holding capacity and improves nutrient retention, whilst also helping fine, sandy soil particles to clump together into just the sort of lovely, crumb-like granules that provide really good growing conditions for a wide range of allotment crops.
I’m always up for a spot of experimentation, especially if the results are likely to involve improved soil health and/or crop yield – Soilfixer’s notes estimate a 20% – 100% improvement is achievable – so I readily agreed, with thanks.
I was expecting a 500g-ish pack, so was rather surprised when an 18 litre bucket of Soilfixer C.H.A. arrived a week or so later. “Blimey,” I said to meself, “how much compost are they expecting me to humificate..?”
As it turns out, just enough for a 1m x 1m trial plot. I’ll be setting up four such plots on the allotment next year. One will remain untreated, another will have the C.H.A.-enhanced compost incorporated, one likewise with regular (garden) compost, and the fourth with a second product that they’ll be sending me early next year. I’ll then aim to grow the same crops in all four plots – I’m thinking a selection of broad beans, kale, beetroot and turnip, to give a bit of variety – and record the results to see what, if any, noticeable improvements occur.
In the meantime though, I needed to set myself up with a trial batch of C.H.A. compost. Which I sorted out on Saturday, like so:
1) Mix up a blend of fresh green material, dry woody material, half-composted grass waste and nearly-done (one year old) compost in two trugs:
2) Open the C.H.A. tub and see what it is I’ve been sent:
3) Add a measure of C.H.A. to one of the trugs at the roughly-prescribed rate and mix well:
4) Bag up the two mixes in old compost sacks, label the appropriate one, add half a watering can of water, punch drainage holes in the bottom of the bags and then store to let the composting process do its thing:
That’s pretty much it for now. I’ve not made up a full sack of each as I only need enough for that 1x1m plot to begin with, so I’ll keep an eye on the volume of material in each sack – which will reduce over time – and top them both up if required.
Hopefully by April or May I’ll have two lots of ready-to-use compost and a selection of seeds and/or seedlings to sow/plant out. Then we’ll see what we shall see.
I spent a couple of sessions earlier this month clearing out an old compost heap that we inherited when we took on the plot. After a couple of years of neglect by us it was rife with bindweed and cleavers, plus the occasional deep-rooted dock, but I was sure there must be something worth salvaging in there, too.
Nothing for it but to fork it all loose and dig it all out. I went at it methodically, rough-sieving each spadeful through an old bread crate into the wheelbarrow:
The compost was quite dry and broke up easily, so this sort of rough sieving was fine for picking out the larger lengths of bindweed root. A quick fingertip-search through the contents of the wheelbarrow then turned up any smaller bits and pieces that had made the grade.
You can see what I was up against:
Whichever previous tenant built the heap had done their best, putting down polythene sheeting and a couple of old flags at the bottom. But they hadn’t quite reckoned on the amazing (and frankly terrifying) power of bindweed to go over, around, under or (if all else fails) through whatever barrier you try to put in its way.
Once I’d finished rough-sieving I dug over the area of the heap to get at as much more of the bindweed root as I could find, then levelled it off. I moved in the black plastic compost bins that I’ll be using as the final stage of my own compost rotation (more on that in another post) and set up what an old bath that will eventually become a worm farm (all being well).
After all that sieving and sorting, I was left also with a large pile of good soil improver. Most of it went on the courgette patch and the rest was used to earth up the potato rows.
I knew it was a job that was going to be worth the effort.
“April is the cruellest month,” said T. S. Eliot, in the opening line of his epic poem ‘The Wasteland’. He could well have been referring to the tricks that April seems to enjoy playing with the weather. Last year April served up a prolonged, scorching heatwave, followed by a thoroughly miserable, damp cold-snap. This year the month started out typically grey and wet, switched to a few days of August-like temperatures, then conjured storms for the South, dropped hail, snow and sleet on us here in the North, and now seems to have settled back to a steady, spluttering, mucky mizzle.
As a result, Plot #59 has gone from a sodden mud patch to a parched, cracked hard pan and back to a sort of dank dreariness that’s keeping air and ground temperatures well below useful ranges. Recent overnight frosts have meant that seedlings germinated earlier in the month have been kept greenhouse-bound, taking up space that I should be using to sow the next batch of edibles: beans and cabbages in particular. But then I remind myself that last year, due to the house move, we were even later getting most things into the ground and everything quite happily caught up. So there’s really no need to panic. I just have to be patient, keep everything ticking over and moving along when possible. It’ll all come good in the end.
The jobs I have managed to do this month have all been useful ones though. The month started with signs of life in the fruit section and since then the gooseberry bushes have all been given a further pruning and the whole section has been fertilised and then thoroughly mulched with leaf mould. Jo has hacked back a lot of last year’s dead or dying strawberry foliage and it looks like the plants stopped just short of actually putting out blossom in the recent hot spell – the buds have formed but not opened yet – so I’m hopeful that they’ll come along later this year and won’t suffer as badly. We might actually get more than three berries, all being well.
I finished another one of this year’s Big Jobs when I planted out asparagus crowns on the ridges that I prepared last month. I’m happy to report that they’ve nearly all sent up their first shoots, so I’m confident that they’ll establish well this growing season. I also finished off this year’s potato planting, with main-crop ‘pink fir apple’ joining first-early ‘swift’ and second-early (or main-crop) ‘saxon’. We’re growing around half the number of potato rows that we deliberately over-grew this year. Hopefully this time around we’ll be able to use up all our stored tubers without this sort of thing happening again:
I’ve put a bit more thought and effort than usual into this year’s carrot and root veg beds after a few years’ of disappointing results in the carrot department and hit-and-miss cropping elsewhere. Here’s hoping all the digging and sieving pays off later in the year. One notable failure already is the Garden Organic clover experiment that I started last month. The combination of scorching heat and cold, dry winds has blasted the seedlings and they’ve all-but died off completely. Garden Organic have sent me a fresh batch of seed, and I’ll be re-sowing just as soon as conditions improve a little.
With sowing and planting largely off the agenda, I did take the opportunity to do some maintenance work on the composting section at the back of the plot. The two compost beds that Jo and I built in our first couple of months, way back in 2014, were cleared of stored pallets, plastic piping and water butts, then turned one into the other and well watered; the first time I’d done that for a good while. A lot of the material was bone-dry, so I gave it a good soaking as I turned it, then covered it all over with empty bin bags, dumped a pallet back on top and I’ll leave that lot to break down for a couple of weeks before I turn it back again. And so on, through the summer and into the Autumn, when the bulk of the fresh material will be ready to add in again.
Elsewhere there are promising signs of blossoming fruit trees, and the over-wintered garlic and Spring-planted onion sets continue to grow strongly. The rhubarb patch has finally woken up and our eight crowns are sending up some good, thick, stems. But there’s not a lot else going on, just yet. I get the feeling that it’s all poised and ready to explode into activity just as soon as the temperatures come up a bit and then stay there. We can never rule out late frosts in May, of course, but with any luck we’ll get enough of a run of decent weather to start the process of hardening off and planting out in earnest. I can’t wait to share the summer updates.
By the by, I found time in April to share my recommendations for top bits of allotment kit that you might not immediately think of. Please feel free to take a look and let me know if there’s anything else you’d recommend, via the comments on that post.