Of all the material that can be added to the soil, including chemicals, the most valuable is properly decayed organic matter, or compost. It not only adds valuable nutrients, it also provides fibrous humus which helps to improve the soil’s texture, or structure. It helps to break down the heavier soils, at the same time providing lighter soils with a medium that will retain moisture. It holds just enough for the plants’ needs without causing them to be surrounded by stagnant water, a condition few plants will tolerate.
Compost can be made from crops deliberately grown for that purpose, comfrey (Syrnphytum X uplandicurn) being a very good example, or from waste organic material from the garden. It is surprising how much vegetable and fruit waste can come from the kitchen.
At its simplest the compost heap is just a pile of weeds, lawn cuttings, and soft prunings, with perhaps some farmyard manure added. This heap will warm up, providing the nice warm arid moist. environment that will encourage bacteria to get to work, breaking it clown into a crumbly consistency.
A compost container can make this process happen more efficiently. The container will not only keep all the material neat, it will also help to maintain its temperature and prevent too much rain from penetrating the layers. A compost bin can be made of any material as long as there are holes to allow air to penetrate and a lid to keep the heat in and the rain out, an old carpet or sheet of plastic can be suitable for this.
The composting material is best added to the heap in layers: a layer of grass cuttings followed by a layer of vegetable waste, followed in turn by weeds and so on, each layer being about 6in (15cm) thick. Any material, such as grass cuttings, that could mat together and make a solid lump, preventing the circulation of air, should be mixed with another material to lighten it. The bacteria are a vital part in the making of the compost that needs nitrogen as a “starter” to get the process going. Farmyard manure is the ideal nitrogen material, but compost activators can be bought if manure is not available. If there is not much soil on the weeds, a covering of good topsoil between every four or five layers is beneficial. A sprinkling of lime should be added every few layers to keep the heap from becoming too acid. A compost heap needs water, and in a dry season a few buckets of water might be added.
Weeds that are in seed should not be added to the heap, as the compost rarely gets hot enough to kill them off. Avoid using any disease-infested material or anything, cabbage stalks for instance, that is too thick or woody to break down.
Different composts possess different qualities. Some have a high nutritional value, while others are negligible in terms of the goodness they put into the soil.
Composted bark has become more readily available in recent years. Contains little nutrient value but is high in humus. It is particularly good as mulch.
Chicken manure is very strong manure that should be stored for several months before use. It is useful for adding as an activator in a compost heap.
Farmyard manure is a well-rotted farmyard manure, containing clung from cattle, horses, sheep, or pigs, is excellent for conditioning soil. Contains a high level of’ nutrients and the straw provides plenty of humus. Often contains weed seed, as doubtful as mulch.
Leafmold is slower to decompose than normal garden compost, but valuable both for its nutrients and humus. It is very good as mulch.
Peat has no nutritional value. It is useful in adding humus to the soil or as mulch, but breaks down quickly.
Seaweed is a very good soil conditioner containing nutrients including valuable trace elements. Best dug into the soil, but can be used as mulch.
Various mixtures used in growing mushrooms, usually including farmyard manure. Good value in both nutrients and bulk. Good for conditioning soil or as mulch. It also includes chalk so do not use on plants that dislike lime.