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Making and using organic compost

(This page was originally published on www.nugget.demon.co.uk)

Alan and Joan Gould garden two acres at Woodrising in North Lincolnshire. In this u.r.g. FAQ Alan outlines their compost method.

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I'll begin with some terms as I use them in practising and describing organic gardening. I will keep them as short as possible. They all have other meanings, hotly disputed at times by people who have more time for semantics than for spadework.


We operate a three heap system: one making; one maturing; one using. Heaps progress through the three stages concurrently. The length of time taken for maturing is the time from making a heap until it is opened after maturing, which is when we have used up the previous heap. It time varies according to the size of the heaps and the rate of use of compost. In our system, maturation is around 12-24 months. Sometimes maturing material is moved from one heap to another, or extra new material may be added to a maturing heap.


Our compost boxes are constructed from railway sleepers. The sleepers are placed in a square on edge, one sleeper to each side, which makes the base 10 ft. x 10 ft. inside. The sides are built 6-8 sleepers (5-7 ft.) high, and are supported on the outside by wooden battens or metal poles driven into the ground. The sleepers are also fixed to each other at the corners by 6" nails or battens because maturing compost can create a lot of outward pressure, especially at the bottom of the heap. Three sides are built to full height, but the front is not begun until the material building up in the box requires to be kept in place. The front is built up as the heap rises until it is the same height as the sides.

Compost boxes can be of any size or construction providing they will hold up in use. Wooden pallettes are often used, and a compost heap can be built adjacent to a wall or fence. Heaps can be any size and can be made without boxes if it suits the gardener, but smaller and free standing heaps do not heat up or stay heated as long a the larger ones.


As soon as material is applied to a heap it should begin to heat up (work). Heating up is essential to begin the process of maturing and to kill out any weeds parts or diseases which may have entered the heap. If it does not heat up it may be because it is too dry, and needs to be moistened. If material still has not satisfactorily worked, it should be turned as well as moistened. We seldom need to turn our heaps and we never use accelerators or additives in our system. Moistening is often helped by rain, but nutrients in a heap can be leached out if it is left open to too much rain. We cover finished heaps with a tarpaulin unless they need more moisture. As the heap is built, it rises with the addition of new material, but sinks again as heating occurs and softens the contents. We continue adding to the heap until it is either too high to reach the top with a haypike, (9-10ft.) or it is flowing over the edges.


When a heap is finally as high as we can take it, we cover it with a tarpaulin. That accelerates the working process until the tarpaulin is too hot to put a hand onto. A maturing heap should remain covered most of the time unless it needs moisture or additional making material on it. Within six months, the height will have dropped to 4-5 ft and the box can take extra material if that seems appropriate depending on the progress of the other heaps.


When we start a new compost heap, we like to start with a good thick base of strawy material. That acts as a buffer between the heap and the ground on which it stands. We have an ongoing supply of stable manure delivered, containing bedding straw which I put to one side for use as compost bases. The base absorbs any leaching nutrients and becomes compost like the rest of the heap, One of our organic principles is that what comes out of the soil should be returned to it as far as possible. Thus we use all our grown plant material apart from actual harvested crops. We compost raw vegetable trimmings from the kitchen. The shortfall of natural resources caused by taking crops is made up in our case by using delivered horse manure, the only imported thing which goes into our soil. All grass clippings, weed strimmings and softer prunings go on our compost, deeper rooting plants like nettles and comfrey being especially useful. Stronger plant material like rhubarb leaves should be applied sparingly. We put on the contents of plant plugs, pots, tubs, trays, troughs, planters, hanging baskets etc. and any material from a finished heap which is not matured. Soil from exhausted flower and vegetable beds recuperates in the heap. We add fire ash, bonfire ash and soot in moderate quantities, spreading it well around, or diluting it with soil. If a layer of green material has become very thick on the heap, usually in summertime, I will apply a mulch of horse manure to balance the contents. We do not possess a shredder but the use of one can mash down coarser material for quicker composting.


Because we have plenty of matter to put on our compost heaps, we can be a little more selective than some gardeners. We do not put any cooked kitchen waste on, or leftover purchased foodstuffs. (Moorhens on the island of our pond have no scruples about eating up our kitchen waste!) Any diseased plant material should not be used, especially blighted potato or tomato haulms. Nor do we use any foodstuff, soil or plant material which might contain herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, manufactured chemicals, antibiotics or GMOs. We have spent a lot of effort eradicating couch grass from several growing areas of our garden so we do not compost the roots or tops of that. Human or other carniverous animal excrement should not be used on compost heaps, neither should hard or woody parts of plants which may take several years to bio-degrade into compost unless it can be shredded. We put on very little printed or glossy paper due to the chemicals in them. Nor do we use cardboard or other wrapping materials, natural or man-made textiles, vacuum cleaner contents etc. though these things are keenly used by other compost makers. Organic compost needs no added peat because it creates its own fibre.


When the compost from a finished heap is used up it is time to open the one which has been maturing. That might happen a little earlier if the currently making heap is becoming over-full and the nearly empty box is needed to start another one. Then any remaining compost can be added to the next one to be used, or stored in sacks for use. The top couple of inches of a newly opened compost heap may be unmatured or sprouting a variety of green shoots. That top skin is added to the straw base of the next heap. Finished material will have sunk from its original 7-8 ft. to about 36"- 4 high, probably higher in the centre. It will have some twiggy bits in it, small pieces of stone, brick, odd bits of foreign matter and some unbiodegraded material, but most of it will be good compost ready to use. Its general texture should be similar to purchased potting compost. After many months of composting, the heap will be tightly packed, so a little forking will help to remove some of the contents when wanted. I put a wheelbarrow beside the box and shovel compost into it through a half inch screen, lightly riddling it through, then throwing any lumpy bits back on the heap. A finished heap in use should be kept covered most of the time, that will keep it at a good level of moisture also prevent too much wildlife making a home in it or crops of weed sprouting.


We use our compost for all outdoor and indoor garden purposes other than tray seeding. Small seeds need a very low nutrient and near sterile medium in which to germinate. Home made organic compost has a good balance of plant nutrients and may carry a few live weed seeds in it. We are not prepared to carry out sterilising, which kills all other living soil organisms, so we work with it as it is. Weed seeds are easy enough to deal with in most applications and can often be detected as small shoots when the compost is taken from the heap.

If we have a FLOWER BED which has become plant tired and weed ridden, I take out all the old soil to the depth where unused subsoil can be seen. The old soil goes onto the current compost heap, spreading it over the whole area a little at a time. I rotovate the bottom of the bed area to aerate the subsoil removing any weed roots, rocks etc. When I riddle compost from the heap for this job, I save the riddlings into another barrow and put those in the base of the area to act a roughage under the finer growing medium. I top the bed well up and leave it to settle down for a while. Any growth from seeds in the compost is easy to take out of the loose soil. The bed will need to be topped up after a few months.

We use our compost in TROUGHS, OLD SINKS, PLANTERS, HANGING BASKETS and TUBS. Those are given new sieved compost, fresh each year. The compost is high in fibrous matter, but if we think any particular application is prone to drying out we may add a little vermiculite to it. This job is mostly done in the spring, the prime time for weed germination, so when the compost is taken from the heap and riddled into the wheelbarrow, I keep a close eye open for small green shoots.

We like to freshen up the soil in PLANT POTS every so often. For that purpose, we add just a little sharp sand, and a sprinkling of charcoal chippings or oyster-shell to help keep the soil fresh.

A big use for the compost is POTTING UP seedlings to grow on ready for planting out. The seedlings are taken gently from their seed tray once they are ready to handle and are either potted on into individual modules, or black polythene polypots. The compost for that is taken through a finer, normal garden size sieve and a little sharp sand added.

Compost can be used for EARTHING UP around established plants which have become a bit exposed at the roots, it is also a very good medium to put into a hole dug for a new TREE or SHRUB to be planted into. I have used it to bank up a row of early potatoes when the weather had turned too wet for the usual ridging to be done. Small dells and bare patched in LAWNS can be repaired with compost, sand and grass seed. It can also be very handy for adding to the height of RAISED BEDS without any necessity for cultivation or treading on the surface.

Another outside application is for preparing row crop SEED BEDS. When the soil has been cultivated ready for crops like carrot, turnip, parsnip, radish etc., a drill can be drawn then a mixture of 50/50 compost and sharp sand put in for the seed to be sown into. This will give a better germination rate and a good start to their cropping life.



The use of good healthy compost is fundamental to organic gardening. Equally fundamental is principle of returning to the soil what has been taken from it by cropping. By making their own, gardeners can save the cost and the risks of buying manufactured compost, which often contain fertilisers, growth promoters and peat. Composting becomes an integral part of the gardening process, making, maturing and using it complementing the natural actions of the soil and the plants.

To see rays of early morning sun breaking through gently rising steam from a compost heap; to catch the sweet richness of its odour; to feel its internal warmth and softness on your hand; to watch little robins taking their repast from its summit, is to know that nature and the garden are working in harmony.

Enquiries about any aspect of our composting system are welcome by email to: Alan or to the usenet group uk.rec.gardening AG: April 12th. 1999

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