Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The joy of compost ~ setting up the garden for the summer

Now that the burst of spring growth is well under way I've begun stripping the winter weeds back in earnest.  The piles of weeds that have resulted prompted me to disestablish the compost heap from last summer so that I could use it to build up the central part of the top terrace, and then begin the compost heap a-fresh.  Last summer when I dug up part of that terrace to put in a garden under the big tree I had envisaged this possibility.  The roots of the tree had been too shallow for the lawn to grow properly, and although I added fresh earth and compost to the area at the time I knew a lot more was needed. 

The compost heap had been built up with layers of weeds, manure, and the kitchen scraps which had been decomposing in bokashi buckets.   The photograph below was taken at the beginning of March six months ago just before autumn set in:

During the winter I left it entirely alone to allow it time to rot down, and the result is first rate.  Once I lifted off the top layer, which has yet to fully break down, the wonderfully rich dark earth was revealed...

It contained many beautifully dark pink, shiny and wriggling worms, a sure sign of health in the garden.  I lifted the earth carefully to avoid harming them - they are a great asset to the garden and I regard them as helpers.

I expected that digging out the old compost would be done fairly quickly, an assumption which proved to be a long way out, and I lost count of the number or barrow-loads that were forthcoming.  I got at least twelve!

Weeds were easily removed thanks to the layer of mulch I had put onto the garden in the autumn, and the ground beneath it was soft and fresh.  As I pulled the weeds back a lot of the remaining mulch came with it, but I don't mind at all - its fibre will contribute to the health of the new compost heap.  As I put the composted earth in place on the garden I gently stirred it about, no more.

My little cat, Louisa, helped:

As I continued to clear the garden of weeds they piled up in impressive heaps!  Although part of this heap was the result of an earlier clearance I certainly added to it considerably!

And since some of the compost heap hadn't yet fully rotted down I had to make a pile for that as well.  The old curtain that I keep for this sort of work kept the loose earth off the lawn:

Phewf - it was hot work!  I went inside to get some lemon cordial to cool me off and keep me going.  I was glad to have this to hand, made from lemons sent down by family up north.  The bottle is leaning against some clumps of strawberries:

A few carrots remain in the ground from last summer's crop.  They have survived there quite comfortably over the winter, and although rather hard to eat raw, cook up well when they are just as sweet and tender as ever.  They are going up to seed now, so it's probably time to take them out and use them before they go woody.  There are some beautiful flowers:

This one isn't yet fully formed:

Seeing the orange top of a carrot exposed I bent over to see if I could pull it out.  I wiggled it gently.  Out it came, and was revealed to be of astonishing size!  I don't know what made the carrots grow so very well, but whatever it is they like it!

Dock was another long-rooted plant that did well here during the winter. There is masses of it in the paddock over the fence and I knew it would seed into my garden but was philosophical about it.  Now is the perfect time to remove it as the ground is able to give up its long roots relatively easily:

This is one weed I don't put in the compost as even small pieces of root will grow again with gusto!

The strawberries I had planted along the front of the terrace last year needed to be taken out so that I could add a substantial amount of compost to the bed raising it by about six inches.  Doing this and then replanting them made more work than expected but was worth it.  The garden looks a lot healthier and the plants will do better with the rich earth to nourish them. 

I had expected to be finished by lunchtime, but wasn't anywhere near it, so I went inside and made myself a sandwich.  As I was putting it together it occurred to me that it showed how well we now manage in making a lot of good stuff ourselves: Rewi had baked the bread, the rocket and beetroot had come from the garden; and I had made the pesto last autumn from our massive basil plants (grown in the sitting room) and walnuts which came from family up north. 

If you're wondering what the white stuff is it's cottage cheese, the Tararua one, which incidentally is the only one available in New Zealand that uses a vegetarian culture.  New Zealand retro fans of middle years may recognise the Crown Lynn plate.  All this is very satisfying.  We might be cash poor, but we are increasingly capable and growing richer in what we can do for ourselves in truly wholesome ways.  I would not describe it as a glamorous way of living though, and takes a lot of determination and solid work. 

After lunch it was back out to my compost!

As I dug down to the bottom of the compost heap I came across a caterpillar of a sort which I hadn't seen before.  Here it is:

Since I had no idea if it was the last of a nearly extinct species or some frightful kind of pest I put it in a box and enquired further.  The answer came back promptly: it is a pest, unfortunately, a porina.  They are a pest in pastureland and eat greenery prodigiously at ground level.  The caterpillar is the larvae form of a large moth which lives only about four days, during which time it distributes from 1,000 to 2,000 eggs over fields.  The next morning, mindful of my responsibility to the garden, I very reluctantly took it down to the sea along with shell-fish leftovers and cast it into the tide where it could nourish the little creatures there. 

Finally I got the last of the compost fully distributed.  I cleaned out the up-turned lampshade I use for a bird bath and put the rocks back into it.  The wonderfully rich compost had added from six to ten inches of height over that particular bed, an impressive result!

One task remained, which was to start off the new compost heap with all my weeds.  I set about constructing it in layers: I started off with some branches which had been pruned from shrubs - these will prevent the compost from getting boggy at the bottom; next came some of the old compost, and after that a bag of horse manure:

The manure was free.  A nearby rural property has a large pen next to the main road marked with a sign inviting those interested to dig and carry away manure for free.  This lot looked as if it had come from the bottom of horse stalls as it had a lot of hay mixed with it.  So much the better!

Those of you who have heard my tirades about plastic bags may be surprised to see them in use here.  These are old official Christchurch rubbish bags left over from when we lived there about five years ago.  Christchurch has since phased out the use of rubbish bags but we continue to get good usage out of these ones!

Anyway, on went a bagful of manure, topped by more weeds, then the contents of the bokashi buckets, then more weeds and manure, and a final thatch of weeds.  It looked great!

There were still weeds which I hadn't put on to it, but these had been put to work on top of the freshly weeded vegie border where they will keep the ground soft and fresh growth at bay until I'm ready to plant there. There they are in the foreground shown below.

You can see the compost heap at the back right.  There was just a bit more stacking and raking to be done at this point before I finished up:

Next morning I came up the garden to make my inspection.  The top terrace looked very fresh and inviting.  I'll try growing pumpkins again here this summer and maybe zucchini (also known as courgettes).

From the terrace below I could see that the plants along the front edge were well settled with their new earth around them:

The vege terrace looked ready for action:

And the compost heap in that shady back corner looked tidy, and, I have to say, rather large for a brand new one!

I have heard it said that compost heaps are the heart of the garden, and I agree: it's the place where the life cycle of growth and decay both begins and ends, so for me it is a wonderful representation of the continuity of life, which is what gardens are all about.  This heap will rapidly sink down and a great deal more will be added to it over the summer.  Next summer it will provide many more barrow-loads of rich dark earth which will be able to be used to enhance the garden even further.  It does this all for no charge, without any instructions from anyone, and with very little intervention from me!  How wonderful - that suits me perfectly!

It is important to note that handling compost does have an element of risk as it can harbour microbes and fungi that are hazardous to health.  I've written about this in my article:
It is equally important to note that these organisms exist all over the place, and that it's only where they have built up to concentrated levels, and / or one has an especially vulnerable respiratory or immune system, that they are harmful.  I do wear gardening gloves but other than the usual hygiene of hand-washing and not standing over anything obviously mouldy I don't worry too much.  If you want to find out more there is a very full list of precautions you can take in the article linked to above.

My compost heap hadn't been slushy or overheated or left in an enclosed plastic bag so I didn't fear any untoward effects.  My nose ran steadily all day though, which I take as a healthy response to dust particles or pollen that was being washed right back out!

In quite a different part of the garden in my irises and roses grow unattended - a reminder that there is still plenty to do to keep the garden in step with the season, but that can wait for a bit while I draw breath from this project, and choose my vegie seed and seedlings...

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