How to Use Garden Compost
Using Garden Compost
Well-rotted gardencertainly does work wonders; all plants derive enormous benefit from the improving effect that it has on the . Having looked at its manufacture, therefore, what are we to do with it once it is ready for the garden? There are four main ways in which it can be used. The most common, and probably the one that springs immediately to mind, is digging it into the soil to a depth of about 1 ft (30cm) to improve the structure and to add to the plant foods already there. The normal, yet quite wrong, method of doing this is to dig out the first trench on the plot, spread the compost in the bottom of it and then turn the next lot over on to it.
Why this is quite wrong is because the compost is buried out of sight and completely out of reach of young plants’ roots. The plant has to be well-established and growing strongly before it can reach and benefit from the compost. This destroys the whole object of the exercise, which is to help plants to grow from the moment they are put in the ground. Clearly, therefore, the compost has to be spread through as great a depth of soil as possible.
The way to achieve this is not to throw it into the bottom of the trench but to spread it in front of you over the face of the trench so that the full depth of soil benefits. Only in that way will the plants be helped immediately they germinate or are planted. There is also a right and a wrong way of doing the actual digging; we will be looking at that later
Another common use for garden compost is as a mulch instead of peat or bark. For anyone new to gardening, this is the practice of covering the ground between plants with a layer of organic material 4-6in (10-15cm) deep. This has a number of beneficial effects. Firstly, it helps to prevent the soil from drying out and capping in the summer. The compost forms a blanket on the soil surface so that much less water is lost by evaporation. For this reason, it should be obvious that the mulch must be put down at a time when the ground is thoroughly moist. If it goes on when the ground is dry, it simply acts as a mackintosh and stops any rain from soaking in. April is a good time to mulch.
Mulching will also help to keep thedown. Weed seeds operate in the same way as any other seeds do — they have to be near the surface to germinate and grow properly. Unfortunately, mulching does not affect established ; they have to be killed by other means.
The other important job performed by a mulch is, hardly surprisingly, the addition ofto the soil. Apart from digging it in and using it as a mulch, garden compost can be used in the making of seed and potting composts. Here we come to a big snag — weeds, again. Unless the compost is particularly well rotted or great care has been taken to exclude weed seeds, the most awful mess can result. Weeds will spring up everywhere and the proper seeds will be smothered in the resulting forest. One way round this is to heat-sterilise the seed or potting compost after it has been made, rather than just the loam.
On the whole, it is wiser not to rely on home-made seed and potting composts but to buy proprietary ones. When you are spending quite a lot of money on seeds, the possible saving in the cost of compost is too high a price to pay on the off-chance that things will turn out satisfactorily — they seldom do.
For preparing your own liquid plant food, however, there is little better than well-rotted garden compost. Farmyard manure has been used for this purpose for years, so why not compost; the nutrient values are similar?
The process is exactly the same as for manure-water in that a bag of garden compost is hung in a water tub so that the goodness seeps into the water. This is then used to feed plants. There are no weeds, no pests, no diseases and, unlike manure-water, no smell — well, not as much!
The process is that some sacking is filled with well-rotted compost and tied at the top. The whole thing is then sunk into a container of water, preferably rainwater. Make sure, if possible, that the sacking is tied to something outside the container. If a 40 gallon drum is used it can present difficulties when you want to retrieve the bag if you simply dropped it in.
In about a week, the liquid should be ready to use. The way to work out how much compost to use is to allow about 1 lb (1 / 2kg) for every gallon (4-½ litres) of water. No dilution is required when the infusion is drawn off. When any liquid is taken out, top up the container with more water. A bag of compost should last for 5-6 weeks, after which time most of the nutrients will have gone and a fresh start will have to be made. The spent compost can be used on the garden.
Before leaving the subject of garden compost and, it would be worthwhile having a quick look at one or two materials that are available for improving the soil, some of which purport to do away with the need for bulky organic matter. Probably the most readily available is ground-calcified seaweed. This is a perfectly natural material and is derived from a seaweed that is more like a coral than a plant. It has a very high calcium carbonate content and, as such, a high pH as well. In all honesty, it is an expensive way of buying chalk or limestone but it does have the advantage of containing trace elements. It is used in the same way as lime in that it is applied to the ground after digging, when it helps to create a good tilth for sowing or planting in.
Another form of seaweed that is of more value in improving the soil is also a completely natural material. It is what we think of as normal seaweed that has been harvested, composted and ground up. This also has the trace elements but by far its greatest virtue is that it is rich in alginates, the material mentioned earlier as being first rate at improving the structure of all soils be they heavy, medium or light.
Both these products are natural, genuine and work, within limits. Neither profess to do away with the need for bulky organic matter but certainly the composted seaweed is a great help in creating a good tilth. As the manufacturers say, it speeds up what nature takes rather a long time to do if left to itself.
There are a number of other so-called ‘soil conditioners’ on the market but most are of purely chemical origin and have no lasting effect.
As a final word on composting, we must not forget shredders. There are two kinds —noisy ones and quiet ones; I have owned both. However, for the last five years or so I have had a quiet one and I would’t be without it for the world. Shredders make a smashing job of breaking up bits of vegetation (thick roots, small branches, etc.) that are far too big to put into the compost heap without grinding them up.
Where bins are being used, shredders are useful because they chop up everything into the sort of size that will decompose in reasonable time. Obviously there is no point in putting soft vegetation through a shredder but, for chopping up all manner of prunings, brassica stalks, thick hedge clippings, the tougher flower stems and even newspaper, they’re well worth using as virtually nothing of vegetative origin need be wasted.
A good shredder will make short work even of branches up to 1 in (2-3cm) across. Do, though, get a powered model; hand cranked ones are very hard work and not awfully effective. Remember, though, that the more woody material you put into a heap or bin, the more need there is for an activator.
A good shredder can be a bit pricey but, if there is a lot of work for it to do or if the cost can be shared with a friend, it is well worth considering.
A word of warning to finish off with, though, and this applies to all sectors of gardening. Every gardener should guard against becoming over-mechanised. Not only can machines be expensive and noisy things but they also have the annoying habit of going wrong at the critical moment and also of needing either electricity or petrol to operate them. Consider carefully, therefore, if a particular machine is really worth having before you commit yourself.