Waste Not .....
Making compost is one of the great organic gardening pleasures. Few experiences match delving into a heap to discover the black, crumbly goodness that has formed. It's how we feed our soil and return vital organic matter to it. But not everything rots down easily into useful compost, and it can be tempting to dispose of trickier, tougher materials in the green bins and bags offered by local authorities.
Garden waste collections do save precious nutrients and organic matter from landfill, turning it into a useful compost. But it still has to be collected by a diesel-burning truck, with further energy expended in its processing and redistribution.
Here are some tips for dealing with tough garden material, including the roots of perennial weeds, soft and hard wood prunings. We also have further advice on our website at Home Composting.
Weeds with tough, perennial roots such as bindweed and dock can be drowned by immersing them in a bucket of water for a few weeks; use a brick to weigh them down and ensure they stay fully submerged. Once the roots have started to decay, they can be added to the compost heap and the foul-smelling but nutrient rich liquid can be used as a feed for container plants.
Roots can also be dried out by leaving them to 'bake' in the sun before being composted. Before drying, weed roots should be hit with a hammer to crush their structure, which can be quite a therapeutic activity!
If you have a large number of perennial weeds with tough roots, you may want to consider making a compost heap specifically for them. It may take a while but all roots rot in the end.
Annual weeds with seeds
If you don't manage to catch your weeds before flowering and setting seed, they too can be drowned along with perennial weeds. This will prevent the seed from being able to germinate.
Softer prunings from the current or previous year's growth can normally be added to a regular compost heap. As most spring and summer flowering shrubs are best pruned after flowering, they will be in leaf, so the nitrogen in them will help any thicker, carbon-rich material to decompose.
Soft prunings can also be left to rot down under hedges and shrubs, where they will act as a mulch, breaking down to feed the plant, suppress weeds and prevent moisture loss.
Even gardens with just a few trees and shrubs can generate surprising amounts of woody material, but this needn't just be seen as something to get rid of. A lot of prunings are perfect to reuse as pea-sticks or other plant supports. The branching shape of lilac stems, for instance, makes them ideal for propping up perennial plants that flop onto paths. Less useful pieces can go into creating twig or log piles, providing habitat for beetles, centipedes, spiders, toads and countless other wildlife. Log piles can be horizontal or vertical and can make interesting garden features.
Give spiky prunings such as holly their own pile, so they have longer to break down and so that you know to take extra care when handling them.
Chipped or shredded wood is used to make paths. If you allow it to rot down in its own pile, it may take 18 months to 2 years or more to mature, but will eventually turn into a black, earthy mass that can be used to improve soil or as growing media. (Don't use freshly chipped wood to mulch around plants, as the bacteria responsible for breaking down woody material will also strip nitrogen from the soil in the process.)
For gardens that produce a lot of woody material or tough evergreen leaves, consider buying an electric shredder or the possibility of sharing one between a group of friends or neighbours.
Collect and store fallen leaves to make dark crumbly leafmould. This is good for soil structure, as a mulch to cover bare soil in winter, and even as part of a potting mix. See here for how to make and use leafmould.