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Compost contemplations

Like many organic gardeners, I am fascinated by compost. I know – it’s a bit weird, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. I love to witness the alchemy as my kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, cardboard and other unwanted items are transformed into a rich, chocolate-brown growing medium. It’s extraordinary.

On the right is the compost bin which has just been closed off, and on the left the one which has rested over the winter. A delivery company gave us the wooden frames, which stack on top of each other.

But it does take time to get decent compost. My first attempts, several years ago, resulted in a soggy green mess. I suspect the microorganisms have to build up. So I try to pass on the connection from an old bin to the next one, by layering the base of the new bin with twigs that didn’t break down in the last one.

Into the new bin I put kitchen scraps (potato peelings, tops of leeks and any other vegetable matter), coffee grounds, eggshells, cardboard (with any plastic tape removed), wood ash, weeds and trimmings from the garden. And lawn clippings. I try to spread each layer over the whole of the bin so that it doesn’t form a lump – and that’s it. I leave it to work its wonders.

This bin has been resting over the winter. Yesterday, I took off the two top layers of the wooden frame, and with my Libra shovel, started to dig the compost out. It was a bit soggy, which was either because of the very wet winter or because the frames did not allow enough air in. Previously I have made the bins out of pallets, which look less tidy but let more air through. It was beautiful compost, though – rich, dark and crumbly.

Then I barrowed it to the raised bed, tipped it into the frame, then raked it out and firmed it down with my Perseus Rake. I’ll transplant seedlings into this bed, so I don’t mind the odd twig or lump. If it was for seeds I would use a riddle to get the soil to a finer tilth.

What magic!

The two frames I lifted off the old compost bin are already in position for the next one. Here it is, with a base layer of twigs and the first set of lawn clippings (which will be spread out over the whole bin).

Things I don’t put into the compost bin: teabags (they have nylon and don’t break down), cooked food or meat. Chicken poo or other animal manure is brilliant if you keep hens – but we have none. I tried to persuade my partner to wee on the heap (urine is a good compost activator) but he felt that was a request too far.

There are many variations to compost making. Some use the quick return method, developed by Maye Bruce. Others make hot bins, which heat up and also work fast. Biodynamic gardeners add preparations to aid the development of the compost. Then there is the question of whether or not to turn your compost. I confess that I don’t. I leave those microrganisms to get on with it. For a thorough overview of compost making, Charles Dowding’s website is a good place to start.

A bonus (for me, anyway) with my home-made compost is the weeds. Because I throw seed heads into the bin, aquilegia, Jacob’s Ladder and other garden flowers appear in my vegetable beds where the compost has been spread. When I see them, I transplant them to the flower beds. And American Land Cress pops up regularly, which pleases me a great deal, because it provides winter salad leaves when there is not much else around.

A final contemplation. One of the aspects of compost-making that appeals to me is the containment. The leek tops and other bits of vegetables discarded before cooking, the cuttings and clippings from the garden all go back into the cycle. Biodynamic gardeners have a concept of the garden (or piece of land you are working) as a single entity, an organism. That concept resonates with me. If it is right, then could it be that the return of organic matter helps the garden to know itself? Although the seasons come round every year, each time they are different. Everything moves on. After all, our home planet moves in a spiral, not a circle. Does this continuity add to the story your garden tells itself?

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What can a garden be?

This post is a ponder about what a garden can be – for us, and for the other inhabitants of planet Earth that live in the area. This is a big and sometimes controversial subject, so please take this writing as exploration rather than answers. All discussion that opens up the area further is welcome.

The word ‘garden’ originally meant ‘enclosure‘ and shares its origin with ‘yard’, ‘orchard’ and ‘garth’, among other words. The first recorded garden is probably the Garden of Eden, which from the description in the book of Genesis was just that: an enclosed space. Into such an enclosed space selected plants (and sometimes animals) were brought, maybe from the local area, maybe further afield. It puts me in mind of the images of Persian gardens one sees depicted in carpets and paintings.

Lightly skipping over 3000+ years of human history, it is clear we are in a different world now. Those original gardens were for a select few, the elite, and now most people have gardens to be in and engage with, including you and me. Our gardens, private and public, take up a lot of space. There are few wild places left. This means that our gardens have a new job to do.

There may be some clues as to a way forward in the rewilding movement. In several crowded and not-so-crowded countries, large tracts of land have been allowed to revert. A famous instance in the UK is the Knepp estate in Sussex. 3500 acres of marginal farmland have gone back to scrubland, with fascinating consequences. Birds, bats and insects, not heard or seen for a generation or more have come back of their own accord. Interactions and intricacies of interdependence in the ecosystem have been understood. It is an inspiring story, not least because the land is still productive, but in a way which does not involve eradicating whatever is deemed not to fit.

What is possible depends on the size of the piece of land. On a larger scale than Knepp, at Yellowstone Park in the US, wolves were reintroduced a few years ago. The effects rippled down through the whole ecosystem. The wolves ate the elk, which soon learned to avoid areas where they would be vulnerable. Those areas regenerated, as the vegetation was able to grow back. The willow trees came back and with them the beavers. The beavers’ dams provided more pools in the rivers: more space for the fish. And so the effects cascade through the system.

Can what has been learned in such large spaces be applied to our gardens? My suspicion is, yes in principle. One principle being that Mother Nature has a good track record of looking after her own affairs if we don’t get in the way too much. There is no need to plant native trees on reclaimed land, for example, at least in the UK. Don’t mow it for a few years and the trees will plant themselves. So, note to self: don’t micro-manage.

Another principle for me is that I am custodian of the garden, not its owner. Other species: birds, rodents, rabbits and insects also have their part to play. Leave them to get on with it. Again, don’t micro-manage. Leave the seed heads on the plants over the winter. Better than a birdfeeder!

Thirdly, my needs are valid too. I’ll still cut the hedges, for two reasons. First, the large herbivores that would browse on their leaves haven’t been around here for a long time. Our garden is not on the scale of Knepp or Yellowstone, so I will have to fill that gap, do the job those animals would do if they were here. The second reason for clipping the hedge is that I have my own notions of what is attractive. And a clipped hedge provides a great background for a small garden like ours. I’ll do it when the birds aren’t nesting in it, however.

So, because our world is so crowded, our gardens have become a valuable resource. This presents opportunities for new learning, new understandings of the delicate interactions that we have blithely blundered through for so long. I’m sure we’ll all get on fine in the new regime.

However, there are some adjustments to be made.

For example, there is a big discussion going on in the rewilding world about whether to eradicate non-native species. This is a complete about-turn from the views of gardeners a century, or even a few decades ago. For Victorian gardeners, a garden was a showcase for exotic species. Our garden centres and seed catalogues offer us plants from all over the world, descendants of those brought back by plant-hunters from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Tulips and snowdrops from Turkey, peonies from China, fuchsias from South America: the list is endless. And as for vegetables: potatoes, runner beans and tomatoes from south America, carrots and onions from Asia .. clearly some perspective is needed here.

Here is a comma butterfly feeding on the aster flowering in our garden a few weeks ago, in October. Aster is native to North America – but I don’t think the butterflies and the bees were concerned about that. So I won’t worry about it either. I won’t eradicate human-introduced species for the sake of it, because I have noticed that Nature is pretty robust and adaptable. Having said that, however, I’ll think carefully before introducing anything from outside into the garden from now on. I’ll try to check beforehand, in whatever way I can, with the non-human residents. I’ll also set aside spaces for the vegetable beds, cut most of the lawn and pull back whatever gets in the way. I live here too, after all.

In the end, for me what counts is the love. Do I love this space, do I want it to thrive? What does it call for?

For more about garden-scale rewilding, here is Mary Reynolds’ website:

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Tamworth pigs, public footpaths and ploughing

Image from

The newly-released Tamworth pigs, two abreast, “unzipped the turf down the public footpaths, following the exact routes on the Ordnance Survey map, heading diagonally across the fields. We realized that what they were doing, with the undeviating propulsion of slow-motion torpedoes, was zeroing in on all areas of the park that had never been ploughed – margins rich in invertebrates, rhizomes and flora. In the first few days of their release the pigs drew an accurate blueprint of what modern farming had done to our soil.” ( page 110 of ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree, Picador 2018)

‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree is an inspiring account of an experiment to return marginal land, ill-suited to intensive agriculture, back to the rhythms of nature. As well as leaving the land to regenerate, they reintroduced grazing, browsing and rootling animals – the last being some Tamworth pigs.

The man who inspired our tools, Viktor Schauberger, had a horror of what modern ploughing was doing to the land. At the time, he could not imagine cultivation without ploughing, so he searched for an alternative, less destructive material to make the plough, and came up with copper. Subsequent field trials bore him out. The crops were healthier in areas cultivated with the copper-plated plough.

Times have moved on, and we are rethinking our relationship with the land. We know that the use of chemicals has long-term unintended consequences. Organic growing is becoming mainstream; it is hard to remember how it was seen as eccentric and unrealistic a generation ago. No-dig gardening does not disturb the life of the soil. No-till farming is proving its value. Bronze garden tools, the inheritors of Viktor Schauberger’s vision, share their sentiment of working with nature rather than against it.

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End of a chapter

Today, using my Mira Trowel, I harvested the onions from the new raised bed.

The frame of the bed was laid on the lawn last August, then the grass was covered with cardboard and the frame filled with about four inches of home-made compost. In September the onion set was planted.

The boiler room now has a decidedly oniony aroma. And I have transpanted some calabrese seedlings to where the onions were.

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No-dig works

Last summer this was part of our lawn.

One afternoon in August, partner Nigel made a timber frame. I laid cardboard over the grass, and then filled the frame with compost.

This is how it looked by the end of that afternoon.

In September I planted some onion sets and sowed some spinach and broccoli

Now, half a year later, the onions are flourishing, and I have been picking spinach leaves for meals. This is the first time I have managed to grow spinach that hasn’t bolted. Note to self: from now on, sow spinach in the autumn, to overwinter. The broccoli isn’t looking wonderful, but there is plenty of time yet for that. And as a bonus, some self-seeded land cress has appeared. A side-effect of using our own compost. I’ll put up with the weeds for that!

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Found my Mira Trowel!

My 15-year-old Mira Trowel disappeared in the garden last spring. I couldn’t find it anywhere. And this afternoon, there it was, stuck in a flowerbed where I had left it. The leaves had died back to expose it. The blade and handle (which was oiled every year) are as good as when I last used it, but the ferrule is a bit rusted.

Not bad – a great start to 2019!

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No-dig raised bed

Made in an afternoon: a new raised bed using the no-dig method.

Partner Nigel made the timber frame and laid it on the lawn. I sorted out some cardboard that the tools had arrived in and laid it inside the rectangle, covering the grass. Then with the  Libra Shovel and Perseus Rake, I sorted out the compost and filled up the new bed. Now we will wait until the compost settles.

The lawn underneath will die and we haven’t disturbed the soil. No worms were harmed in the making of this raised bed (although I disturbed a wasp’s nest in the compost heap).

For more about no-dig, visit

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Lack of slug damage – the evidence

Slugs used to devastate pretty well all of the young plants in our garden. Since we have used the bronze tools we don’t worry about them any more.

Here is some spinach I transplanted early last week, in a space between the overwintered onions. No protection – no damage.

Exhibit ‘b’. Bedding plants in the front garden. Plugs of lobelia and ageratum from a supermarket, planted out ten days ago. One of the lobelia was a bit withered – and was shredded by the slugs. The others are as you see them here.

Exhibit ‘c’. Partner Nigel scattered some seeds in the floor of the greenhouse, and they turned out to be lettuce. Untouched by slugs, as you can see.

However, some plants still get stripped. The slugs took a dislike to a perennial lobelia I planted in the front garden. So I won’t plant it again.

More about the slug and snail effect here.