Soil – grow your own!

I missed the United Nations World Soil Day, 5 December, this year, but by way of compensation I have found this post on making compost from earlier in the year, which never made it beyond draft stage. Don’t worry about the references to Autumn, compost making is a year round activity. Enjoy!

As autumn moves along we are clearing out the last of the summer veg and rejuvenating our soil before we plant new crops for winter. This means digging in some of the lovely compost we’ve been ‘growing’ over the last few months. OK, so we’ve just added the material to the bins and the worms, slaters, and other microorganisms are doing the hard yards at breaking the stuff down.

The  tomatoes have been cleared out and compost and dolomite lime added ready for new plants

The tomatoes have been cleared out and compost and dolomite lime added ready for new plants.

If you have space for a compost bin then setting one up is a no-brainer. It is an excellent way to reduce some of the costs involved with renewing your soil to ensure your plants get plenty of nutrients.
The golden ratio when it comes to making compost is 1 part of green waste to 3 parts of brown waste. In laymans’s terms the ‘green’ can include household veggie scraps (no meat), or green garden waste such as prunings or fresh grass clippings, tea leaves and coffee grounds. Coffee grounds are an excellent source of nitrogen and they are not acidic after they have been brewed. While some tea bags are compostable many tea bags are now wholly or partly plastic, and you don’t want to include any of these in your compost. The ‘brown’ could include dry leaves, shredded or torn newspaper, shredded office paper, or used bedding from the chook pen. Our compost has a bit of all these.

A barrow load of goodness from our compost bins

A barrow load of goodness from our compost bins, which you can see in the background.

One of these bins is dedicated to the super-slow breaking down of leaves into leaf mould, the others are for compost in different stages of decomposition.

‘If I could say just one thing’ it would be to not make a compost pile or set up a compost system bigger than you can feed. If you live in a small household or only have a small garden you may not generate enough green waste to get your compost system working actively. If this is the case you have several options:

  1. set up a smaller system, eg by using and old plastic garbage bin with the bottom cut out, placed directly on the soil so the worms can get into it; or invest in a Bokashi system;
  2. dig small amounts of vegetable scraps into holes around your garden and let nature do the rest;
  3. find another source of green waste to add to your bin by collecting coffee grounds from a cafe or even leaving a small bin to collect compostable waste from where you work.

Having set up the bin you also need to feed and mix it up or ‘turn’ it regularly. Let’s face it the worms aren’t going to hang around if you don’t give them some new food every so often. Turning your compost bin allows the air to get into it, to ensures faster decomposition. It also reduces the risk of creating ugly smells.

If you have a compost bin it is just about impossible to turn the contents with a garden fork. If you have a heap or compartment system then a garden fork is fine. The best device I’ve found to ‘turn’ my compost is this strange piece of metal with a ‘screw’ on one end. By turning this tool into the compost you can easily mix the bin’s contents. To avoid giving yourself a hernia I suggest you make some shallow digs into the upper 15 cms before you drill further down. It’s really not too difficult.

My favourite compost turner!

Getting ready to turn the compost.

If you are checking the compost every week (you should be adding stuff to it regularly), then you should be able to head off potentially unpleasant compost situations. If your heap does go wet and nasty make sure you add lots of dry ‘brown’ material and mix it through thoroughly. Keep a close eye on it until the compost is evenly damp, rather than a foetid mess.

Before I forget, you can also re-cycle your spent potting mix through your system. The potting mix will get nutrients as your heap decomposes and the potting mix will add some structure to what’s in the bin.

Re-use and re-cycle also applies to old potting mix!

Re-use and re-cycle also applies to old potting mix!

So happy belated world soil day!

Cheap trick

Go out and find/buy an old or second hand hammer and use it to break up tough and woody stems of plants so they will break down more easily in your compost bin. This really good for tough brassica stems.

Smashing the stems of our frost destroyed basil … with the added bonus of basil aroma while I worked.

Tip # 1: smash the stems while they are still fresh, it will be easier.

Tip # 2:don’t ruin your special relationship by using the ‘good’ hammer for this job!

Not compost again!

I think I’m spending too much time in the garden. Where some people like to show you photos of their kids I can show you photos of my recently dismantled leaf litter compost pile …


The joy of this compost is just stick the leaves in the bin and ignore them for two years (the dark brown layer on the bottom). For once slaters are welcome as they do their thing breaking down rotting cellulose (and not my new seedlings for a change!).

As the blessed Saint Peter Cundall says “Good enough to eat!’


Not to mention my recently cleared and sown green manure bed being readied for this coming summer’s tomatoes …


along with some random garlic seedlings I found while I was digging out the weeds.

and the seed that went into it!


Tragic really!

In the Mix

You’d probably think that with the onset of winter we would be settling down inside our warm house with some interesting garden reading – but TB isn’t having a bar of that! Last weekend it was out with the wheelbarrow and rake and off for a short walk to a nearby park to collect leaves for our compost heap.

Canberra’s urban parks provide an almost endless bounty of fallen leaves, and often as an added bonus piles of grass cuttings, that are there just waiting to be collected. Think of it as a community service! Several large bags of leaves later we returned home ready to employ that most useful pieces of garden equipment, the lawn mower, to cut our leaves and a big pile of dead plants and weeds into smaller pieces suitable for compost pile building. We also added lots of veggie scraps from the work kitchen (which produces 5-6 kilos of compost each week), some pelletised chook poo, blood and bone and potash. When completed we had a pile of just over a cubic metre. Just what we need to get some good compost ready for the spring garden.

While TB was building the pile I was busy cleaning up and harvesting some water chestnuts. Eash year we grow these plants as an annual saving some corms each winter and storing them over winter (in water in a container in our fridge).

The first step is to turn out the large plastic tub they grow in.


Then slowly pick through the soil and pick out all the little corms.


Our harvest this year was no where near as agood as last years. We think this is due in part to the overall cooler summer temperatures and to some degree of not feeding them regularly (TB was much better about this last year).

I also picked through our styrofoam boxes of potatoes, almost our last to be harvested, and came up with quite a decent amount.


With such fresh potatoes to play with we decided to have some sorrel and potato salad with our dinner. Having planted two small pots of sorrel when we first started the garden we now have a year round supply. Its slight lemony flavour is great in soups and with scrambled eggs. As it is a perennial plant you need to place it where it can grow happily away without being distrubed.

This recipe came from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and is dead simple. Scrub your potatoes, cut them to your preferred eating size, then cook them (steam or boil it doesn’t really matter). In the mean time rinse your sorrel leaves to remove grit and anything else from the garden, cut out the central rib, which can be very stringy, and cut the remaining leaves into broad ribbons. When the potatoes are cooked drain the water and return the potatoes to the hot saucepan, add several knobs of butter and the sorrel leaves. Put the lid back on the saucepan and swirl everything around to mix. Leave it for about 5 minutes, season with salt and pepper and serve.


Consuming Passions #2

A far healthier occupation for us in recent weeks has been making compost, lots of it and as much as we can. If you???ve been visiting with the Forks for a while you might remember that I started to collect organic waste from my office kitchen earlier this year.?? I also decided, about a month after I started that it might be interesting to keep track of how much waste gets collected each week (yes that???s just the sort of an all-round fun girl I am!). For the three months that I have been keeping records I have collected over 84 kgs of food scraps!


As you can well imagine our compost bins fill up very quickly at that rate ??? which well and truly takes care of the ???wet??? compostables. The office also comes in very handy on the ???dry??? side as well. The shreddings from the paper shredder are the perfect ???dry??? balance for the kitchen scraps. I for one am pleased to see that all our hard work in the office now actually gets used for a truly productive purpose.

While our own garden only produces a small amount of autumn leaves, the nearby ovals and parks are a great source of them. TB now has us regularly heading over the road every weekend to gather large bags full of leaves. I???ll give you a tip. If you are collecting autumn leaves for your compost heap it???s a good idea to run them over with a lawn mower before you add them to your compost to help them break down more quickly.


We got a bonus this week as we shifted from our usual collecting spot and discovered that the groundsmen had been disposing of their grass clippings by spreading them out over the ground behind the club buildings. As there is clearly no intent in their being used for a compost heap we have been happy to assist them by adding the mown grass to our bags! Confidentially I can tell you that their clippings appear virtually weed free, unlike the lawn clippings produced at Chez Fork.


The big compost piles that we create will only just start to address our needs for the garden but far better that we make as much as rather than just keep buying it in.