Life

The Casual Gardener: Turn your waste into black gold

You don't need to be green-fingered to be compost clever

Use a compost heap for garden waste and bulkier organic items

PEOPLE automatically assume that because I love my garden and gardening – and writing about both – that I must be green-fingered. Regrettably, despite my best efforts, this is not the case – though thankfully my lack of horticultural prowess hasn't diminished my enjoyment of gardening and the desire to create a garden I can be proud of.

As an illustration of my regular shortcomings, I'll describe this year's vegetable beds.

One of the two raised beds – a third is permanently occupied by strawberries, my wife's responsibility – was earmarked for green beans, a crop I'd never grown before as I always opted for the more colourful and generally foolproof runner beans.

In June I'd even built a robust willow and reclaimed fishnet frame for them to clamber up, rubbing my hands in anticipation of a bumper late summer crop. Within minutes of being harvested, they'd be steamed and served in butter topped with Parmesan and seasoned with salt and pepper.

It wasn't to be, however. Failure to give the seedlings support meant they became weak and straggly before becoming entangled with each other and eventually breaking close to the base – and they hadn't even left the house. I managed to salvage a handful but they barely lasted a fortnight before succumbing to whatever it is that kills young weak and straggly green beans. Better luck next year.

In early July in the other bed, my daughter sowed beetroot, lettuce, spring onions and chard under my instruction. They got off to a promising start but were soon subsumed by weeds as we endured a wet August. Some of the scallions were salvageable, and when desperate I managed to harvest a few lettuce leaves, but on the whole yield was poor. By September the bed was overrun with opium poppies – a truly wonderful sight but more nature's triumph than my own.

In mitigation, it's worth pointing out that I was seriously ill earlier in the year and was still on the road to recovery when the growing season was in its prime. Better luck next year.

While my talents as a gardener are limited – to be fair I'm probably a better landscaper than a plantsman – one area where I do happen to excel is in the manufacture of compost, that homemade fertilser and conditioner that is the lifeblood of every healthy garden. Some might argue that I've always been adept at turning out a pile of crap, because essentially that's what compost is, though what you end up with is often compared to black gold.

While the science behind composing can be quite complex there are some basic rules to follow that should yield good results.

Whether you use a (preferably vermin-proof) bin or a heap, the components are pretty much the same, though where space allows it, I'd go for both – a bin for household waste and a heap for garden waste and bulkier organic items that take longer to rot down.

Heat is an vital component so where you don't have a lid use a piece of old carpet or like to help keep your rotting organic material dry and warm.

In terms of ingredients, ideally you want an even mix of ‘green' nitrogen-rich matter, such as grass cuttings and vegetable waste, and ‘brown' carbon-based material like reconstituted cardboard and coffee grounds.

Avoid cooked meat, ash, citrus fruits and perennial weeds and turn regularly with a fork. You're unlikely to end up with a fine, crumbly-textured end product but it can nonetheless be mixed with a commercial compost for containers or utilised as a mulch on your borders. You may even wish to add it to your veg beds – the opium poppies just love it.

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