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Soil, being more than just ‘dirt’, is actually a complex eco-system in it’s own right, and compost is often the lifeblood of soil. The millions of bacteria and organisms working in just one handful of soil is mind-boggling and magnificent. In most cases, well conditioned and nutrient-rich soil will help most plants to flourish.

Heavy clay soils and poor sandy soils in particular often need a helping hand when it comes to soil condition and nutrition. Compost as a soil conditioner adds structure to the soil. This is where a good quality compost comes in handy.

Make Your Own Organic Compost

Making your own organic compost will not only save you money on having to buy in commercially produced compost (and the inevitable petrol costs), but it also has many ecological benefits. For instance, many composts include peat. Peat deposits are becoming increasingly rare, and as a wildlife habitat are considered extremely important. Making your own compost will help to avoid the continued destruction of peat wetlands.

Organic compost in particular will help to keep your garden growing as nature intended. Avoiding the use of pesticides in your garden only serves to benefit wildlife, which in turn will encourage pest-controlling creepy crawlies and mammals like hedgehogs to help you. It also means that fruit or veg harvested in your garden will be pesticide free, ensuring that you have a real sense of control over what goes into your body.

There is also the issue of recycling – many kitchen scraps can be used in compost production, thus saving landfill space. General organic waste from the garden can also be used, and in time a garden can, in essence, help to ‘feed’ itself without any help from outside.

Organic Compost Ingredients

Although making compost is relatively easy, it’s a little more involved than simply dumping grass cuttings from the lawn into a heap and leaving them to rot. In order for organic matter to turn into compost, it needs bacteria to break down the matter. And the bacteria need the right conditions in order to survive.
For this reason, a heap of grass cuttings will not turn into useable compost. The likelihood is that they’ll turn into a black mushy, smelly mess that’s no use to anyone. To make a good quality compost you’ll need a variety of ‘ingredients’ that will allow the bacteria to thrive and do their job quickly and efficiently.

Start building layers of different materials to add a variety of nutrients and structure to your compost. Start your first layer of organic compost with coarse material that will prevent the heap becoming waterlogged – twigs and animal bedding such as straw are perfect. The layer should be around 10cm deep. Try to avoid large ‘pockets’ of space, as this can encourage organic matter to dry out and become ‘mummified’ rather than decomposed!

Next you’ll need to start adding another 15cm later of organic material. You could add some lawn cuttings or kitchen scraps. The next layer should be a different organic material, such as leaves or shrub cuttings. Remember, the smaller the organic matter, the faster it will break down. Keeping the compost damp (but not wet) will also help to speed the composting process along. You should continue creating layers until you have at least a cubic metre of matter. Layering is a bit of a lazy alternative to turning the organic matter in your compost heap.

Try and keep a balance between green matter like leaves, grass, weeds and kitchen scraps which are rich in nitrogen with more carbon-rich materials like cardboard, paper, straw and dried leaves. Chicken and cow manure can also be mixed in, as they already contain the bacteria needed to break down the organic matter. But bear in mind that they have a high nitrogen content.

Heat and Cover

Manure is also fantastic for introducing heat – the process of the bacteria and fungi breaking down the matter - to your compost. Heat is vital to compost production, and manure and the sheer mass of the organic matter should be enough to kickstart the process into action.

Covering the compost can also help. If your compost bin doesn’t have a lid, old pieces of carpet or tarpaulin will be more than sufficient. You should then leave your compost heap for around 12 weeks, after which time you can turn the entire pile to aid decomposition. In another 12 weeks you should have a reasonable amount of organic compost ready to use. The compost should be sweet smelling, deliciously crumbly in texture and fairly dark in colour.

Compost Dos and Don’ts

• DON’T put in any meat or bones or kitchen scraps in your compost heap. These can encourage vermin, as well as introduce diseases into your soil, and ultimately, your vegetables and you
• DO put shredded paper into your heap. Why not try putting your unwanted paper bills through a shredder and adding them in?
• DON’T put thick woody material in your compost heap. Anything thicker than twig size may need to go through a garden shredder first
• DO put in natural fibres like cotton and wool
• DON’T put in synthetic fibres
• DO put in annual weeds and perennial weed stems
• DON’T put in weeds that have gone to seed, diseased plants or perennial weed roots
• DO put in animal bedding like straw or hay from rabbits, guinea pigs and chickens
• DON'T put in litter waste from cats and dogs

There are many ways to nourish, condition and improve your soil. Regularly adding compost benefits the soil with nutrition and the added structure aids water drainage. However compost on it's own may not be enough - a regular 'top up' with an organic fertiliser is vital if you want your flowers and vegetables to flourish.

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