It’s a funny old place the internet, full of information about absolutely everything and providing an equal opportunity for complete idiots and world experts to put forward their views as if they were of similar value. The distinction between fact and fiction has never been fuzzier. On almost every topic under the sun you will find trenchant views for and against and even sometimes balanced in the middle.
It is rare indeed to find a subject on which there is a broad consensus with scarcely a dissenting voice to be heard. Composting may well be as close as you’ll get to such a subject. By no stretch of the imagination does everybody do it, and among those who do there is a lively debate about methods, but you would have to look very hard to find someone saying it’s not something you should do. Indeed, the prevailing tone in many online articles is that there are no reasons for not composting, only excuses.
This year, in a spirit of enquiry, I’m going to swim against the tide and not have a compost heap. Let me explain my thinking.
I spent a couple of hours yesterday up at my allotment digging out my compost heap and barrowing it onto my plot. It warmed me up if nothing else. Lovely stuff it was, brown and crumbly and pretty much fully broken down. I shifted about half of it and will try to get the rest done by the end of the week when it’s due to get warmer but wetter again. I am a no-digger, so usually I would aim to get a good layer of compost spread over all my bare ground in autumn but this winter has been so wet and I’ve had other excuses, so it didn’t happen. I would do it in expectation of a number of benefits, by far the greatest of which is to protect the soil from the sort of relentless rain we’ve been getting for the last several weeks. It will also provide some nutrients and encourage the soil fauna to get to work dragging it down into the lower levels where it will improve water retention, drainage, cation exchange capacity and so on. The soil surface hasn’t been completely without protection, I have a pretty good crop of weeds in addition to the crops that are still in the ground.
Digging out the heap has been made more difficult by the fact that nettles have become well established around three sides of the heap, left there by me because they were covered in the caterpillars of peacock butterflies. Unfortunately the tough yellow roots and white rhizomes have gone deep into the compost heap and I have had to pick them out as I’ve been going along. Getting rid of them would be something of a challenge though I can keep them down with my strimmer.
What has also helped protect the soil is material that I have collected in the autumn, shredded and put straight back onto the ground. Peas and beans produce quite a lot of greenery and I simply bagged it up, took it home, shredded it and took it back up the plot to spread back on the area it had just vacated. While I was at it, I would have shredded and mixed with it any kitchen waste and garden tidyings that were around at the time.
I have a shredder because the garden generates woody prunings that would take a very long time to breakdown without being chopped up. I want to keep them rather have the council recycle them because for no dig you need all the material you can get your hands on. Woody material is good because it breaks down very slowly and the top layer of my allotment soil has several years worth in it, making it quite resilient under winter’s wet cosh. The shredder is electric, so powered during the day with surplus electricity from our solar panels. It’s not a wholly green method but it could be worse. Since I have it I use it for just about everything that I want to compost; it speeds the breakdown process dramatically and means that even if stuff isn’t fully composted it is nevertheless quite fine and spreadable.
I replaced my second Bosch shredder with a Stihl machine as I thought I would use it enough to justify the considerable expense. It’s quite a big brute and like the Bosch, its blades are vulnerable to stones in the material being shredded. I have to sharpen the blades quite regularly as a result. I keep it outside, but covered, so I don’t have to move it far. Feeding material into it is simple enough although it gets clogged up rather a lot.
The shredder chops stuff up so effectively that if I have bare ground on the plot, I will often simply spread it on the ground rather than putting it on the heap. I’m thinking that by so doing, all the nutrients go back into the ground rather than getting washed out of the heap and all the benefits of busy worm activity that characterise the early stages of composting take place in the soil of my plot rather than on the compost heap. The fact is that the stuff I was digging out yesterday had very few worms in it, they’d done their work and moved on. I’m not convinced that they are going to reappear just because I’ve now spread the compost onto the soil. OK, it’s a different set of worms and the soil living species will go to work on the spread compost, but I suspect that it’s the difference between silage and growing grass for them, they’ll eat it because there’s nothing fresher.
All that I’m planning to do then is to shift the balance from shredding and spreading some of my green waste to shredding and spreading all of it. It might entail putting some tough material through the shredder twice and I may leave some stuff, kitchen waste perhaps, in a bag for a week or two before spreading it, so the orange peel and banana skins go brown. There may be times when there is very little bare ground and I just make a pile somewhere temporarily. It’s hard to imagine it attracting more rodents than the plague of voles we already had last year and it will be spread too thin and break down too quickly to provide slugs with much shelter.
Picking up on a typical online list of reasons to compost, it ticks every item. In some cases it will do the job better. Here’s one such list:
1. reduces waste to landfill
2. strengthens soil and promotes healthy plant growth
3. reduces need for pesticides and fertilizer
4. recycles essential nutrients back into the soil
5. Promotes a prolific soil ecosystem
6. It’s cheap and easy
I would say that more essential nutrients will get back to the soil (3 & 4), that it would provide nutrition for a wider range of fauna and fungi as it is the whole breakdown process happening in the soil not on the heap (5), that it protects the soil better if it’s on the soil rather than on the heap (2), that it is cheaper and easier because it doesn’t need to be dug out and spread and doesn’t require compost bins or structures (6). That’s a gain on every item but the first one, which doesn’t change. I’ll take that.
Then looking at a list of excuses for not composting, I ask myself if it answers any of them or makes things worse.
- it’s too difficult, all this mixing of greens and browns
- It stinks
- It attracts rodents and other vermin
- It takes a lot of space/is ugly
- It takes too long to turn to compost
- It’s too much work
I don’t worry about what goes in it, it’s all good, if for different reasons. It stinks less because there is no anaerobic generation of aromatic breakdown products and any that do form don’t stick around. Attracting vermin is one I shall wait and see on, but I can’t see being a problem. It takes no space and goes brown in a day or two so is not unattractive, not that I care much on my allotment. There’s no turning required and it’s only handled once. OK, the shredding is a chore but for me works out at maybe a couple of hours a fortnight and is just another job in the garden and one I’d rather be doing than mowing grass. Mostly gains there too.
Do I have concerns? A few. If I have no heap to spread in autumn will there be enough residue of spread material to protect the soil surface? I think there will because it is in autumn that the greatest volume of material is being processed. Will there be bare ground to spread it on? Can I get away with spreading it around growing crops? Will it attract slugs? (or give them something to eat other than my crops). Will it get worked on and incorporated into the soil in dry spells?
That’s why I’m just going to take the plunge and do it, to get some answers. In the meantime, I’d better get those nettles under control so if I’m back to having a heap next year, at least I won’t have that problem.