Tuesday 28th September 2021,
Frontiers Magazine

The magic of compost

Elizabeth Woodcock January 10, 2021 Making and Doing


Black gold. It really is, soft to touch, the smell of the dark earth crumbling through your hands, and the mind-blowing fact that not so long ago it was egg boxes and broccoli stalks. The ultimate process of empowerment, and witnessing life. The cycle of decay and rebirth into fertile earth, where we rely on microcosmic organisms before worms and creepy crawlies even begin.

As a child, I’d walk up the back lane in our village and rummage through compost heaps, finding flowers that were still nice, and make posies. Rummaging in compost is in my bones. That was when people had heaps at the bottom of their gardens and all garden matter would be thrown on. These heaps would be so warm as I’d stick my hand in, steaming in the cold autumn air, smelling of rotting grass and decaying stems. Not hot enough to be uncomfortable, not a hot compost, but a cooler, mellow, longer composting process.

Compost, the glories of compost. Compost, nature’s way of recycling decomposed material into rich soil that is full of organic matter, and nutrients. When I’d collect those not quite faded blooms, end of season dahlias and roses, wallflowers and sweet william that had met an untimely end, I’d pick a dock leaf and use it as a ‘holder’ for the flower posy. Dock leaf was the supporting greenery and the must-have when stung by nettles. Spit on it and rub. Dock and nettle often grow together. Now as a composter and gardener, dock and nettle are still in my life. Like old friends, our relationship has its ups and downs, underpinned by a deep fondness and acceptance.

Ancient processes

It is said that a handful of healthy soil is home to more living organisms than there are people on earth. Soil itself takes thousands of years to form, and our topsoil itself is utterly incredible, those top few centimetres of earth that contain most of the ground’s nutrients and fertility. Its formation is an incredibly slow process, the breaking down of rocks, decaying animals and plants, centuries of cracking and crumbling, turning and changing, taking between 200-400 years to form 1 centimetre of soil. The time taken depends on the environment. But let’s calculate, that’s at least 1000 years for 10 centimetres of soil. Just pause with that. Let’s have a bit of soil appreciation, big it up for soil, be humble before soil, the source of all our healthy food. As the poet Rumi wrote,

The ground’s generosity takes in our compost and grows beauty! Try to be more like the ground.”

Supporting your soil

To value and appreciate your soil, the soil in your care in your garden, and support healthy plant life, composting is a starting point. If you have a lot of garden debris, you can fling it onto a heap to all mush together in a natural, ‘magical’ process of time and creatures or be more of a cook with it, select the ingredients for your compost to finely hone in not for taste, but for nutrient composition. You can also choose your composting vessel, which can be decided on how much and what you want to compost, and how much space and time you have. It can be hot or colder process, digester or dalek bin, wood or plastic, tumbler or static.

Hotel Compost
Green joanna1

A resource of weeds

Back to my old friends, nettle and dock, with a few of their companions. Compost feeds the soil with vital nutrients your plants take out. I like adding nettle, comfrey and dock leaf (avoid all dock seeds and roots). Nettle and dock are considered weeds but they are packed full of nutrients. Dock’s long root gathers nutrients from the bedrock to deposit on the surface as it breaks down. Nettle particularly has much goodness, which it accumulates in its leaves and stem, most potent just before it flowers. These vital nutrients include calcium, copper, iron, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, sulphur, magnesium, cobalt and silicon. In fact, many plants we consider ‘weeds’ and unwanted in our gardens, are the nutrient accumulators that replenish nutrients in our soils. Dandelion, chickweed, mallow and meadowsweet are all wonderful additives to your compost.


What weeds?

What weeds CAN’T I put on my compost?

Certain plants are so tenacious they can live in just about anything, so if you added them to a cool compost pile or bin, they’d happily continue, even if only a part of root was included. Common ‘weeds’ to avoid are dock root and seeds (leaves are great), bindweed, twitch/couch grass, creeping buttercup. Also, avoid putting anything in with a runner, like loosestrife. Instead get a weed bin, a dark place, in which they will breakdown without light or moisture. When they are black sludge, then add them to the compost. If in doubt, ask.

‘Weeds’ can also be used as a tea. Fill a hessian sack with weeds like dandelions and nettles, place in a bucket, cover with water, pop on a cover, stir daily, and leave it for a couple of weeks to produce a wonderfully stinky, nutrient-packed tea. Compost feeds the soil, interacting with the ground’s entire ecosystem, compost tea feeds the plants, keeping your plants healthier for longer. It’ll need diluting before you use it, and compost the sludge in the sack. A good ratio is 1 part weed tea mixture to ten parts water for outdoor plants, but don’t use it on anything you’re about to harvest.

Full wheelbarrow cropped

Common composting problems

These are usually because of an imbalance of Green and Browns. Aim for 50 percent soft green materials (e.g. grass clippings, annual weeds, vegetable kitchen waste, or manure). The remainder should be 50% woody brown material (e.g. prunings, wood chippings, paper, cardboard, straw or dead leaves). If the mix is out you might experience:
• Wet, slimy and smelly compost
Add more browns like shredded paper, cardboard, woody prunings, egg boxes. Turn it for aeration, breakdown, and cover to prevent rainwater getting in.
• Dry and fibrous with little rotting
Add more greens, which hold moisture, and mix to begin the composting process. Nettles are great to start it all composting down.
• Flies
Make sure your green/brown mix is 50:50, that its not slimy, and cover the top layer of kitchen waste with garden waste and/or shredded paper/sawdust. Flies love kitchen waste.

As I compost and meet others who compost through being a Master Composter with Garden Organic, I see the more experience gained composting means you get a ‘feel’ for your waste and how to compost it. You learn that smaller pieces break down and compost more quickly, stirring it and adding air aids the process. You get to understand decay, with time, you are immersed into the cycle of life, death, decay and life. And, for some of us, we love it, stepping onto this magical wheel where all that is useless becomes invaluable, the trash becomes treasure in a powerful process of transformation. As Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk, writes,

The organic gardener does not think of throwing away the rubbish. She knows that she needs the rubbish. She is capable of transforming the rubbish into compost, so that the compost can turn into lettuce, cucumber, radishes, and flowers again… With the energy of mindfulness, you can look into the rubbish and say: I am not afraid. I am capable of transforming the rubbish back into love.”

Each year I visit Orkney, and this year I discovered a man composting on a grand scale with his own methods. John Liptrot is an organic farmer and says:

Apart from my sheep, the thing I am most proud of is my annual compost pile. I clear my high-straw sheep bedding into my cliff field by trailer loads. I make two adjacent rows across the field. Then I phone up Orkney Fishermen’s Society and they come out with one, or sometimes two, lorryloads of crab waste in one-ton tubs. I drop them between my straw rows. So I get 10 or 20 tons delivered free. I also go down to the Bay of Skaill and bring home several trailer loads of kelp ware. My farm has ancient rights to one eighth of the ‘ware’ from the beach. I place that in a row below my pile to allow some of the salt to be washed out. Then I pile it all up and allow it to ferment. For a week or two it does stink. I try to time it for when my neighbours are away. It has to heat up to all break down. This system has kept my farm fertile for over 20 years now with no bought-in soluble fertilisers.

John is composting on a big scale, but even small gardens can compost with the basic ‘rules’. As Master Composters we meet folk who are discouraged in making compost, thinking they can’t ‘get it right’. This is where I can produce the ‘busy, working mum compost’ and show the non-compostable items that have somehow got into my bin. Like an elastic band, a whole onion (it will break down but it’ll take a long time), a ‘disposable’ cup (with its waterproof liner), a small piece of polystyrene, how did that get in there? Observing and using your senses with compost is a great way to see if it’s working. Get involved, get hands-on, get curious and slip into the magical process that inspires so many. And remember; too wet, add more browns; too dry, add more greens. Experiment with size, whole eggshells take longer to break down than crushed ones. Bigger pieces of wood might create air spaces but they will take a long time to break down.

Personal composting techniques reflect your personality, a well-tended, hot compost with everything ‘right’ with take about six months, a ‘lazy’ heap (like mine) can take up to two years where things are piled on top. But I do enjoy piling it high, getting in for a dig and rummage, and reaching in at the end for the black gold. Let’s embrace our waste and compost, see the goodness of our weeds to replenish our soils and be part of the great life cycle playing out everyday, season and year about us.

We are at a turning now when all that is golden goes back into the earth, where the first frosts are here and autumn is receding once again, where the snows of winter may bed us in but remember: deep down in that compost pile is black gold forming, tended by your loving hands, and the unsung heroes of the soil.

Elizabeth Woodcock will give a workshop on compost in this year’s Orkney International Science Festival online on Sunday 5 September at 11.30 am. She will also speak jointly with Anna Canning on A Wealth of Weeds on Monday 6 September at 6 pm.

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About The Author

Elizabeth Woodcock

Elizabeth Woodcock is an RHS horticulturalist with training in regenerative agriculture and permaculture, a garden organic master composter, Lake District National Park walk leader, and is training as a mountain leader. She has been a journalist, science communicator, writer, and adventurer of many high, and low, places. She lives in Cumbria with her daughter, dog and chickens.

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