Making a Compost Heap

MANURE from farmyard or stable is very scarce these days and like most commodities, is subject to the laws of supply and demand. In consequence. Whatever is obtainable is dear and that sold in sacks at the door by itinerant vendors is liable to be of very poor quality indeed. However, well-made garden compost is a good substitute. It is an excellent source of plant food and, as it is bulky. It helps to improve the physical quality of the soil when it is dug in or used as a surface mulch.

Practically any plant material that is not too woody, not diseased and is not infested with pests, may be composted with good results. This includes such materials as grass clippings, soft hedge-trimmings, weeds, chad or dying plants, soft prunings, cabbage stems and leaves, pea. Bean and potato haulms. The bonfire should be reserved for woody, diseased and pest-infested material. Even then, if the ash from the bonfire cannot be kept dry for later use. It should be scattered through the compost heap, as the potash it contains will help to make the compost a more balanced plant food.

In addition to the ordinal} waste material from the garden. Much valuable material for composting may be obtained from the kitchen waste. Potato peelings, vegetable trimmings, tea leaves, coffee grounds, egg-shells and the like should all be placed in a bucket kept by the kitchen sink and emptied daily. It is surprising how much material can be obtained in this way even from a small household. Even newspapers may be composted if they are soaked with water first. If weeds are composted, the heat generated in a properly made compost should be sufficient to kill any seeds so that there should be no fear that the compost heap will become a source of weed seedlings. However, the heat is not always enough to kill the lough roots of such perennial weeds as dandelions. Thistles, docks, couch grass and bindweed. The top growth of these may certainly be composted if time can be found to twist it off. But the roots should be burned. The stems of cabbages and similar plants are tough and woody and take a long time to rot clown if they are placed on the compost heap as they are. It is best to chop them up with the spade and beat them with the back of the spade before adding them to the heap. Leaves from trees, swept from the lawn and pathways in the autumn, may also be composted but they are best kept in a heap themselves to rot down and make leafmould, another valuable plant food. Lawn trimmings, rough grass cuttings and waste pieces of turf from lawn edging operations will rot down well. But if the lawn has been treated with one of the hormone weedkillers containing 2:4D, 214:5-T or MCPA, then the cuttings from the first three mowings following the application of the weedkiller should not be composted but should be burned.

Although a properly made compost heap should not give off an offensive smell, it is not a particularly decorative feature in the garden and it is best sited in an out of the way spot. The site should, however, be accessible in wet weather. If it is still obtrusive it is usually possible to screen it temporarily by growing tall hardy perennials in front of it. A leafy summer screen may be provided by growing Jerusalem artichokes round the heap. The stems of these will provide more material for rotting down in autumn when the tubers are harvested. A more permanent screen may be provided by planting a hedge such as privet or Lonicera nitida, the trimmings from both of which will rot down. Lengths of wattle fencing may also be used.

A start may be made on building the compost heap at any time of the year. If the garden is a large one, able to yield much material for rotting down, it is best to allow sufficient space for the heap. A plot 9 or 10 ft. long by 4 ft. wide should be marked out with posts at each corner. Any grass or weeds should be skimmed off the surface of the ground with the spade and may be used on the heap. The soil should be well trodden or rolled to make it firm before the heap is begun. A small garden will need a smaller heap and it will be sufficient to make the site about 3 or 4 ft. square. Some gardeners prefer partially to enclose the site with wire-netting, boards or sheets of corrugated iron, leaving only the front open for case of access. If boards or sheets of iron are usled, gaps should be left between them to let the air in. It is occasionally-possible to pick up cheaply at country sales large galvanised boot scrapers. Three of these may be wired together, to posts driven into the ground, and make an excellent container for the compost heap. Air can get in freely yet the heap is kept neat and tidy. The next step in making the heap is to put down a loose layer of material about 9-12 in. deep. This is then trodden down, but not compressed too much, otherwise air will be excluded and proper decomposition will not take place. Quicker rotting is achieved by using a compost accelerator. Proprietary products may be bought for this purpose, or a light dusting of sulphate of ammonia may be used on alternate layers, with a light dusting of hydrated lime on the other layers. Otherwise a sprinkling of super-phosphate or calcium cyanamide on each + + layer will do the job very well. Any available wood ashes may also be sprinkled on each layer of material. But even better than all these is a thin layer of animal manure if it is available. Poultry droppings and the strawy refuse from rabbit hutches are very useful for this purpose.

After the first layer is put down and the accelerator sprinkled on it, it is capped with an inch-thick layer of soil. The operation is then repeated. If enough material is available the heap may then be built up until it is about 4 ft. high. If not, it can be left with its final capping of soil until more material is available from the garden or the kitchen. If, during the building of the heap, any parts of it appear to be dry they should be thoroughly watered.

After a month or so, during which time decomposition will have been going on rapidly and the heap will have sunk a good deal, it will be necessary to turn it. The drier outside parts should be turned into the centre and again wetted, but the rotting material should not be consolidated too much and should not be sodden with water. Further turnings will be necessary at monthly intervals. In summer the rotted compost should be ready for use after about three months, but in autumn and, winter it may be six months or more before the material has rotted down to a dark brown, manure-like substance, clean and friable to handle.


Heaps become more difficult to turn if over 3 ft. wide and high to start with. As they rot. The height will decrease considerably. The rotting is caused by the action of bacteria and fungi. Most of the beneficial (decay) bacteria need plenty of nitrogen so if this is added, the rate of decay can be speeded -sulphate of ammonia, nitrochalk and other nitrogenous fertilisers can be used as well as fresh animal manure. Some lime is useful to prevent the heap becoming too acid as a result of the decay. Chalk, limestone and again nitro-chalk are beneficial here.

Most garden heaps are composed of weeds, stumps and other garden refuse as well as waste from the kitchen, and all these usually contain sufficient moisture to ensure that the heap will be well decayed. But if dried bracken leaves or straw are added, it is a wise precaution to moisten the heap.

There is no hard and fast rule about the frequency with which the heap should be turned, but every month can be taken as a reasonable guide. To ensure a good mix and an evening-up of decay conditions it is best to turn the heap so that the centre is brought to the outside and the edges turned in.

Warmth speeds decay so do not expect rotting to be so rapid in winter time – but don’t expose the heap to full sun in summer, as it may be partially dried out and so prevent rotting.

When the individual constituents or ingredients of’the heap are no longer distinguishable – the compost is ready for use – this is the time to dig it in to enrich the soil or use as a light mulch round plants which require moisture round them in borders or for the extra protection a mulch can afford.

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