Friday, 29 February 2008

The alchemy of compost

It’s the time of year when, seeds ready, buds swelling and air warming, the growing season beckons. The ancestral memory stirs in our bones, drawing us outside into the garden. Though our ancestors would never have grown lupins or petunias – silly floozy bedding flowers that have no use at all. Being a permaculturalist, I like to eat my garden.

Each year before I plant I go through the ritual of emptying the compost heap on to the beds, to add to the soil that will feed my food this season. I’ve been hooked on composting since my twenties. It’s the ultimate closing of the life cycle loop, death feeding life. Like most living things, compost improves with age. What goes in the compost heap a mess of waste - vegbox peelings, Guardians, hair, hooverings, wood ash, old clothes, cardboard and whatnots from the bathroom - comes out sweet smelling, crumbly, fine soil.

My preference is for an open bin, about a metre cubed capacity. The compost doesn’t turn sour or smelly and you can make the bin out of natural things like pallets. As a result, I have a rat issue. I don’t say, Problem, because the rat is brilliant at turning the compost. But my neighbour’s son saw the rat climbing their back steps the other day. Sorry rat; you will have to die.

Insider information: for free composting advice contact the Compost Doctor


James said...

After trying and failing to make our compost bin rat-proof, I've just finished my most rat-resistant effort. Timber slats with 1.5cm gaps on the sides, galvanised expanding builders' mesh undermeath and a lid on top. No doubt the rats are huddled planning their break-in as I type, but it seems worth trying to keep them and their food supply separate. Not all wildlife is cuddly and endangered.

I don't know what the compost doctor advises but beware local authority dalek-style plastic bins with no air holes. They make mostly methane not compost - a disaster for both your tomatoes and the climate.

adriennecampbell said...

The rat man tells me that it's best to kill off rats as they turn up and keep going with the compost. This is the route I'm taking. Meanwhile, his box of poison sits, untouched, by the heap.

jamesgreyson said...

I'm not against killing rats but it's easier said than done. Seems that between us, you and I have tried four different (unsuccessful) methods. We could say the 'score' is 4-0 with the rats winning!

If the choice is between 'killing' rats and running an insecure heap, or not killing rats and running a secure heap then the second option is working for me. No rat invaders in the new design.

Over time it's the rat population that matters, not individual rats. Keeping them and their food supply separate will cut their breeding and their numbers. If all food waste was securely composted or anaerobically digested the rat problem would shrink massively.

The plastic in local authority-promoted so-called 'compost' bins offers just 5 minutes delay to a tunnelling gnawing rat. The bin often stays in place for years without householders knowing about their rodent residents. People who have been conned into buying these can drill holes all around to make them aerobic and raise them up 8" off the ground. Use 1/2" (or thicker) plywood or fine builders mesh underneath. (Chicken wire or wide mesh would allow them to reach through to their food supply.)

If anyone has found a rat killing method that actually works I'd be glad to know!

jamesgreyson said...
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adriennecampbell said...

We've been rat free for a month now. The rat man did the job. I'm now on daily patrol for signs of rat (burrowing) and will call him out first thing next time. He said that there's no use trying to enclose compost against rats - but to ring him out immediately. He is a free service from Lewes District Council, nice man.

jamesgreyson said...

The free rat man service sounds great. As you say, easier than making a rat proof bin.

Over here our compost is still rat-proof but there are rats on the farm next door so usually have traps left set. Caught one two weeks ago.

This is what worked for us... Make a rat-run near the compost bin; a plank against a wall is good. It should be fairly dark inside. Place two spring traps end to end inside baited with fish paste. Leave the traps unset until the rats have eaten the baits 3 times. Then set the traps and keep kids and pets away.

BTW have now started composting all card and cardboard. Leave it soaking for 3 weeks in a bin or butt filled with water then fork into a compost bin interleaved with grass clippings. Aim for equal weights of wet cardboard and fresh grass. Keep layers of wet cardboard to under an inch and layers of grass to under 6". Mix each week if you'd like it ready to use in 8 weeks.

adriennecampbell said...

Good wheeze. Brown stuff keeps the heap from going slimy doesn't it? I don't think people realise quite how much can be composted. When we lived in a place with big heaps I even once composted a cotton futon. I still regularly compost ruined clothes, rags etc. Which is one good reason to aim to only buy natural, non-fossil-fuel based ie compostable, materials wherever possible. I'm glad people are on the case of compostable food bags though - that seemed rather a mad use of land, to grow bioplastics for that use.

On another matter, I used to line my kitchen waste bin with compostable Ecover bags, but have foudn that a couple of layers of newspapers in a bucket, and coming out the top does quite well. Especially the Financial Times, that rather tickles me!

jamesgreyson said...

Yes the brown stuff is carbon rich and needed to encourage friendly aerobic bacteria rather than slimy anaerobic bugs (which make methane rather than compost). Mix browns half and half by weight with greens (including kitchen waste). Cardboard is the easiest source of greens for most people but you can also use dried leaves, dried grass (the nitrogen goes off harmlessly into the air) straw, newspaper, sawdust or wood shavings. I guess you could use biodegradable clothes and futons too though another good use would be the base layer of a deep permaculture bed.

Good idea using newspaper instead to line your kitchen compost bucket. Compostable plastic bags are a decoy 'solution'. They contaminate plastic recycling schemes, which is one of the reasons there isn't much plastic recycling.

Occurs to me that the free rat service means that people could start to use the cheapest easiest composting system in used builder's bulk bags (for delivering gravel etc). When the compost in one is ready you can even plant into it as a raised bed. Not many people realise how urgently they need to grow food and hence to make compost. Would help if Councils start to compost lawn clippings and cardboard. Currently the clippings are returned to the lawn which just encourages it to grow faster and need more cutting!