Growing Calm - Compost addict

When I started my role as the Master Composter Coordinator for Shropshire, I wasn’t quite aware how quickly and how completely obsessed with composting I would become. I had always been a rather half-hearted composter in the past, fully endorsing the idea of composting in theory, but having lived in a town house with a small gravel garden for 10 years, there wasn’t much to feed the bin with at home. I’d had better success on my old allotment, but when I gave that up to go travelling the compost bin had sat forlornly in the garden, waiting for its moment to be fully appreciated. I’d nearly been put off composting for life whilst volunteering at a conservation project in the Ecuadorian Jungle, when I was attacked by fire ants during my attempt to turn a stinking, steaming compost heap, also home to snakes that were attracted to the heat. Thankfully we don’t have fire ants or many poisonous compost loving snakes in England, so when the opportunity arose, I began to compost in earnest.

Our composting area is down at the bottom of the garden, through a gap in the box hedge, tucked behind an over-grown shrubbery, overhung with buddleia, a vicious berberis and rambling honeysuckle. Blackberries run along the fence behind it, and a patch of nettles are allowed to remain nearby, as long as they behave and don’t try and colonise the garden, which they inevitably do. When we bought the house a few years ago, there were two Dalek composting bins already in situ. We acquired another two from downsizing family and brought along the old bin from our previous house, adding them to the rather neglected looking, empty, group.

Moving from a back yard consisting of a patch of gravel measuring around 5 metres square to nearly a third of an acre of wild, overgrown, once landscaped but now neglected garden, it was time for the compost bins to show their worth. The lawn was a waist high meadow by the time we finally got the keys in June, having been left unmown from when we first viewed the house on a cold, damp February day. The borders were 15 foot deep in places, full of rambling roses, plum trees, maple, rowan, laurel, choisya, and an abundance of box and euonymus, all very green and all very over grown. We were excited and terrified in equal measure at the thought of taming the jungle before us. The first year was a voyage of discovery, finding lost benches beneath a tangle of brambles, water features lost in thickets of bamboo and discovering unusual plants hidden behind box hedging two foot taller and wider than it should have been. Needless to say, the compost bins were quickly filled that summer, and were topped up on a regular basis. I was always, and still am, filled with wonder at how a jam packed compost bin would magically appear half empty within a couple of weeks, and could be continually filled without the need to be emptied.

Fast forward two years involving a new baby and a complete house renovation and extension. The garden was cherished but once more rather neglected, and the compost bins added to half-heartedly when we could escape the chaos of small people and building sites. When I was offered the coordinator role, I thought I really had better start making an effort with my composting. I was slightly in awe of the in-depth knowledge that the Master Composters had on the subject, and after visits to volunteer’s gardens where tips were shared along with tea and usually cake and plants, I soaked up information to try at home. I learnt about the effect of adding too much coffee to the compost heap (it can affect future seed germination in large quantities), how too much citrus can affect the acidity of the heap and how to get better results by chopping everything into smaller pieces and layering it or mixing regularly, rather than chucking it haphazardly in and leaving it for two years. Weeds that I had been scared of adding, such as nettles, were soon seen as friends as their leaves can be used as activators, and the roots can be left in a tub of water to turn to a sludge that can eventually be added to the bin or heap. I learnt about comfrey tea and wormeries, and each Master Composter Training session was an education for me, in addition to the new volunteers.

If I’ve had an exhausting day home schooling children, I can now often be found down by the compost bins, methodically snipping garden waste into inch long pieces. This probably does take garden therapy to a whole other level, but I have discovered there’s something immensely satisfying about the simple, mindful process of snipping, layering and turning the compost, knowing that the result will be a rich, fertile mulch that will feed the garden for free. My husband draws the line at emptying the contents of tea bags into the waste caddy, but is happy to humour me and leave them on the side for me to do, layering them with the peelings, bits of loo rolls, cardboard packaging and kitchen scraps from the day. If the compost bin is looking a bit too dry, he’s more than happy to have a chance to water it. Thankfully its well screened to save the neighbours any unwanted sights!

When we finally emptied the compost bins, which had been added to but left unemptied for over three years, we were all a bit more excited than we probably should be over the ensuing heap of crumbly brown results. After lifting the bins off the ground, the layers could be clearly seen, and the boys exclaimed over centipedes, earthworms and woodlice that could be seen hurrying away. They used toy diggers to excavate the heaps, excitedly discovering whole egg shells and the occasional pineapple head that had failed to break down, along with the odd plastic ball and plant label that had found its way in be accident. The diggers and mini wheelbarrows were then used to transport the compost to the new veg beds, along with some, unbeknown to me at the time, which was ferreted away to their mud patch to see if it could be mixed with mud to make stone walls. So far, I’ve filled two raised beds and numerous pots with my composting results, and still have a bin left cooking which will be ready soon. This year I’m on a mission to make compost quickly, as the lockdown has made it harder to get good peat-free compost locally, so I’ll be experimenting with making my own potting mixes at home.

I wouldn’t like to guess how many bins of green waste we have prevented from being collected and going to be composted commercially, and the emissions that have been saved as a result, but it must add up. I’ve still got lots to learn, and I’m grateful to the fantastic Master Composters who share their knowledge so selflessly. I rather unashamed to say that I’ve definitely become something of a compost addict.

More about Rachel...
Rachel co-ordinates the Shropshire Master Composter Programme, and lives in the county with her two young boys and husband. After training as a social worker, Rachel worked in the community with young people for years before her love of gardening took over, and she retrained and combined the two. Now a part time gardener and project co-ordinator, Rachel is also restoring her own wildlife friendly garden, whilst studying Social Therapeutic Horticulture and the benefits of gardening for health and wellbeing.

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