How to Make a Compost Heap to Improve Soil Fertility

How to Make a Compost Heap

The days when gardeners could obtain all the farmyard and other natural manures they needed for maintaining soil fertility are long past. Fortunately a first class substitute is available to those willing to and who want to know how to make a compost heap and so convert garden and kitchen waste material into really good compost.

how to make a compost heap

If the soil is to remain fertile, we must replace the natural foods that crops take from it and also improve its physical condition by incorporating plenty of organic matter. Well made compost is a very satisfactory substitute for farmyard and other animal manures, and provides natural food whilst improving soil condition.

Decayed organic matter or compost provides humus which performs natural soil functions. It maintains the soil texture and provides plant foods such as nitrogen, phosphates and potash. Humus darkens the soil and so increases its power to absorb the sun’s rays, so that it warms up more quickly in spring. It also opens up the soil allowing moisture and air to penetrate more quickly—most important points in the case of heavy or clay soils. In addition it improves the moisture holding capacity of light soils while it holds surplus nutrients for the future use of plants.

Fortunately a very wide range of materials are suitable for adding to a compost heap, not only the normal garden refuse, but vegetable peelings and other kitchen waste, tea leaves, household slops and the contents of the carpet sweeper. Tree leaves, straw, hay and bracken, green or dry can all be used. Woody material including cabbage and other brassica stumps should be well chopped or sliced before being placed on the heap, otherwise they will be very very slow in becoming decomposed.

The site for the compost heap should not be exposed to the sun, wind or rain, and under trees should be avoided. Where low ground is the only position available, it is unnecessary to dig a hole, otherwise water will collect and hinder decomposition.

How to make a compost heap – on ordinary levels, make a shallow excavation for the base of the heap, and in very dry areas where rainfall is always low, pits of 18 to 30 inches (45 to 75 cm) may be taken out. Fork over the foundation and if brush wood, cabbage stalks, coarse hedge trimmings or bricks are first laid into position, they will provide valuable aeration and drainage. Over these, place a layer of peat and well-rotted manure or even ripe compost.

The various materials are then placed upon the base in layers, and it is best to mix the material well, so that decay is quicker and even.

The shape and size of the heap affects the rate of decomposition and the ultimate quality of the compost. For preference, make the heap in the shape of a pyramid without the apex or a rectangle avoiding a flat shapeless mass. For the average garden, a heap with a 10 foot (3 metre) base tapering to 6 feet (1.80 metres) and 5 or 6 feet (1.50 to 1.80 metres) high is about right.

The ideal in building up the heap is to spread a layer of manure or soil, or to sprinkle dried blood or fish material or some other organic manure on each layer of waste matter, while a valuable addition to each layer is a good sprinkling of soil and ground chalk. Once completed leave the heap for three weeks then turn the material placing the outside in the middle. Then cover the heap with a layer of soil which will increase fermentation. In the case of bins, place straw or wood on the top.

how to make a compost heap Depending on the materials used, a compost heap takes anything from three to six months to mature. Heat from a well made compost heap is sufficient to destroy many weed seeds. Generally speaking, perennial plants which are producing their seed pods should not be used.

Symphytum peregrinum, better known as Russian Comfrey or simply ‘comfrey’ is an excellent compost crop, providing several cuts a year. It has a high potash, protein and fibre content. It is also used as poultry and pig food, while it has medicinal and veterinary uses.

This deep rooted crop should be grown on a separate permanent bed, in a sunny position. Deep rooting, it can become a nuisance if placed near ornamental subjects. Space the plants 60 to 90 cm apart, the richer the soil the wider the spacing. On good land and mulched with dried poultry manure, established plants will yield ten or more pounds at each cut, especially if given a dusting of slaked lime while dormant. Cut the stems when 60 cm high and before they flower.

Before placing Comfrey on the compost heap, say one layer to four or five of garden rubbish, allow it to wilt overnight unless the material on the heap is already very dry. Comfrey can also be placed at the bottom of trenches made for planting potatoes, covering it with a little soil before setting the tubers.

Compost Activators

Left to itself, any accumulation of the organic remains of dead plants or animals will gradually decompose into humus and plant foods. The quality of such material will naturally vary according to the actual organic remains used, while some of the nutrients contained will be lost through the atmosphere or washed out or leached by rains and other weather conditions. In nature, the breaking down process is often slow, so that if the material can be converted more quickly the richer will be the resultant compost in humus and feeding matter. Fortunately, decomposition can be assisted by adding an activator or accelerator to the stacked material.

To work properly, the breaking down organisms need both moisture and aeration; nitrogen being another necessity. In theory, anything of an organic origin can be composted, but some discrimination should be used. Young material breaks down more quickly and is richer in nitrogen than older matter. Coarser plants, cabbage stalks and similar material should be chopped up and shredded and are best placed at the bottom of the compost heap.

The best way to hasten decomposition is to add an activator or accelerator to the stacked and moistened material. The decomposition is of a biological nature, accomplished chiefly by bacteria and fungi attacking and feeding on the organic matter which is then greatly reduced in bulk so that it easily mixes with, and feeds the soil. The rate at which this process occurs, partly depends on the presence of the right amount of heat and of nitrogen.

Sometimes the breakdown is slow which is the reason compost activators are frequently used. These lead to a rapid increase in bacteria which break down organic matter quickly. There are a number of suitable activators and although inorganic substances such as sulphate of ammonia, nitro-chalk and nitrogen-rich fertilisers are sometimes employed, organic activators are much better.

They are more gradual and gentle in the way they work, the resultant compost being better to handle. Animal manures can be placed in 2 inches (5 cm) layers between layers of plant material, as the heap is being built up. Poultry manure can be used more thickly. A dusting of powdered lime will be helpful in this case, since it will encourage worms and other beneficial soil inhabitants.

The Quick Return Method was developed by Miss Maye Bruce. For this, a herbal solution is added to the heap in accordance with instructions. This leads to the production of good quality compost which is ready for use in from six to eight weeks in summer, or twelve weeks in winter. The success of this method depends on the use of a wooden bin. The base should always be of earth which if of heavy soil, should have drainage improved with a good sprinkling of charcoal applied to provide sweetness.

All long material should be chopped up. For this method, do not use animal flesh, bones, dry sticks or tough kitchen waste. Tread down the material. Thin layers of manure can be used, but are not essential and light dressings of ground lime should be applied at each foot of the heap but do not apply manure and lime in the same layer. Keep the top of the bin covered with a sack, which will keep in the dry heat as well as killing weed seeds and preventing the top layer being dried out by wind and sun.

No turning of the material is needed and the Quick Return solution is applied, as layer by layer is built up. The lndore method of composting as originated by Sir Albert Howard, consists of making a heap 4 feet (l.20m) by 4ft (1.20m) and 3 1/2 ft (1.08m) high. This should be enclosed by a timber ‘box’ made by nailing boards to uprights, leaving gaps each side between the boards for ventilation purposes.

Mixed vegetable waste should be placed in the box with up to a quarter of the same volume of manure. Add to this a little soil. Where fresh manure, which can be pig, poultry, rabbit or mixed is not available, fish manure, dried blood or hoof and horn meal can be used. Once the box is full, make several vertical holes in the heap to ensure a supply of air, then cover the top with boards or corrugated iron to keep out rain.

When fermentation commences, the heap will begin to sink. Add more material for rotting down and keep doing this until the box will not take any more. Leave the packed box for six weeks then take out and stack the material, leaving it to ripen for a further six weeks turning the heap twice during this period.

Seaweed extracts including Marinure can be used as efficient activators since they encourage bacteria that are particularly active in attacking fibrous organic matter and produce micro-organic activity in the compost heap. Maxicrop in liquid form and Bio Compost maker are also good.

Fertosan is a bacterial activator for use in solution with water, while Garotta and Adco are other dependable organic activators applied in dry form. All of these are supplied with full directions for use and none attract house-flies, vermin or other pests.

Learn how to make a compost heap and you can keep your garden and vegetable patch tidy, whilst improving the fertility and quality of your soil at the same time.

20. August 2010 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Garden Management, Manures and Fertilisers, Soil Cultivation | Tags: , | Comments Off on How to Make a Compost Heap to Improve Soil Fertility


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