Black Gold

“Tess’s Mum, Lesley, is our appointed compost custodian and curator. I always though it was a case of chucking your garden waste into a heap and waiting a few months, but it turns out that there’s a real science to composting. Lesley has been swotting up and is eager to share her accumulated knowledge. This is the first part in what will likely become a series of articles chronicling our adventure in all things rotting.”


Compost makes me happy. It’s recycling at its best, giving back to the earth that has given us so much. The soil at our allotment is heavy clay, which becomes dry and dusty in the hot weather and a sticky soggy mass in the wet. Applying compost will help to open it up and enrich it, and we can even use it as a mulch. No wonder gardeners call it Black Gold.

My son in law, Nick, has made three compost bins from recycled wood so I can now realise my composting dreams! Though, other than hurling everything vaguely resembling a vegetable into a plastic compost bin, resulting in a tower of mummified plant life, I actually have very little experience in this field. Following extensive research, I’ve come up with some tips that I shall apply to our compost to see what actually works.

Our plot:
Nick is pretty nifty with his carpentry skills (thank you – Nick) so as well as the compost bins he has put together a number of raised beds. We also have larger plots that we use for climbing beans and wigwams for sweet peas. Ideally compost bins should be located in a shady position but there’s not a scrap of shade on our elevated and exposed site. However, I’ve observed that the Eden Project has bins out in full sun, so what’s good enough for them…

Gather your ingredients! – The Greens and the Browns:
Most agree that you need a good mix of ‘Greens’ (Nitrogen) and ‘Browns’ (Carbon). I’m going for a 50/50 mix, though purists insist on 75% Brown to 25% Green. This will help the compost to decompose more quickly. More on this below!

What to include can get quite scientific but I’ve simplified down to the following – 50/50 of each:


  • Dried grasses and leaves
  • Straw
  • Cardboard and paper (not coloured or glossy)
  • Sawdust
  • Small twigs


  • Any green/fresh vegetable matter
  • Chicken manure and bedding (I know, right?)
  • Weeds (not couch grass or bindweed)
  • Grass cuttings in moderation
  • Teabags and coffee grounds in moderation

Applying the 50/50 rule, chop up your greens and browns with a pair of shears, slice with a sharp spade or generally bash the ingredients up until they are as small as you can manage. This increases the surface area of the pile which will aid the heating up process.

I have no shredder – the allotment is my gym.

Let’s cook:
Now it’s time to assemble. Originally, I decided that the ‘lasagne’ method was for me. Layering up the greens and browns separately does away with having to turn the pile making the whole process less laborious (the compost also tends to look much tidier which appeals to me). I made a start on it the other day, certain that this was the way forward… but I’ve changed my mind.

I now plan to use the more traditional approach of mixing my 50/50 chopped material together before adding to our first compost bin. This will add lots of essential oxygen much more easily than the lasagne method. Keeping the compost airy and moist is important. Adding scrunched up newspaper and/or torn cardboard will help too. Just keep an eye open to make sure the heap doesn’t get too wet or too dry, and adjust it by adding more green or brown as needed.

Turning is important because it can really help to aerate the compost. Using a pitchfork I’ll lift and turn the compost every couple of weeks or so. This will keep the microbes happy who need air to thrive, function, and ultimately decompose. As the bin fills up, I’ll turn the compost into the adjacent bin and then return to the first bin the next time I turn, and so on. This will involve more upper body work and hopefully some help from Nick (We’ll see – Nick).

To cover or not to cover:
Opinion is divided, so I’ve decided to only cover the heap during exceptional and sustained rain. Composts need oxygen and water just like us, and covering can compress the pile and make it dry out.

The waiting game:
One day the compost will become dark crumbly and friable, with a wonderful woody and ‘mushroomy’ aroma. Some say that if I do the right thing in the right way I could have ‘black gold’ in as little as 3 months, but as I’m a rookie I’m going to aim for several months. Yes really – it can take that long. But think of what we’ll gain: super enriched soil and bulging biceps, ready to do more composting next time!

Watch this space, very patiently…


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