December 21

18 day compost – December’s attempt

This post is part of my trial to build an 18 day compost heap each month of the year to see what happens – I wasn’t sure that it would work during the winter as the videos I had seen were made in Australia and other much hotter countries than the UK.  You can see November’s results here.

The issue in winter is gathering enough green material to make the heap  big enough and I didn’t manage that last month. So, I am no longer making the heaps on the beds where I want to spread the compost but on a spare bit of land I was going to turn into another bed but haven’t done so yet.  This gives me more space to turn the heap and to build bigger.

 

6th December 2020

I can see why it is suggested that you have all your manure, brown and green materials and water at hand when you build the pile. I must have walked 10,000 steps getting everything in place as I built the heap; a lesson for January!  I did mark out the size of the heap with pallets this time but realised after I had lugged them around that I could just use 4 poles pushed into the earth next time.  Anyway, as I built the heap I also found that I didn’t have enough green material and so needed to cut down a bed of phacelia that I had sown at the beginning of October.  I had originally planned for this to flower in the spring and then cut it down because it was sown on a bed that had had strawberries for about 5 years and the bed needs a serious bit of work on the soil. I also managed to find a few comfrey leaves to add to the pile to kick start the process and I wetted the materials a LOT more than last time.

The pile is as big as I can make it and it is still not a cubic meter.  The limiting factors at this time of the year are green materials and if I am to make a pile in January, I am going to have to go out on a scavenge. I spotted some younger nettles and weeds on the way into the plots yesterday so will harvest them over the next few days to start my January pile.

 

 

 

 

10th December 2020

The heap had sunk quite a bit and was about 8.5°C which is no where near hot enough. Everything still looks the same and was damp enough so it was turned and covered for another two days.

12th December

I forgot to take my camera with me but really the compost didn’t look any different to the previous turn. What was different, however, was the temperature. The heap had reached a high of 12.5°C, an increase of 4°C.  The next turn will probably need more water and I may add more green material and manure to see if I can get a greater heat. It will mean adding another 2 days to the making.

14th December

The temperature has gone up 0.5°C to 13°C so at this rate it will take me another 70 days to reach 50°C!  The materials still look the same and I am now half way through the 6 turns. I have decided not to do anything to this pile but to just leave it. I know I need to add more green material and manure which means that thirds of green, brown and manure are not the right proportions for this climate at this time of year.  Is it thirds by volume, which is what I do, or by weight? The manure is obviously heavier than the other two materials.  I will experiment a bit with the January pile and add a LOT more green material. I am the mad, scavenging woman out around the town picking nettles and dandelion leaves so that I am ready! Oh, and there were two worms in the pile.

16th December

I think I might go as far as to say that the temperature is now up to 17°C, up 4°C on yesterday.  It all still looks the same although a little more brown and I have removed the thick stalks and whole beetroot. Those were just wishful thinking!

I have been out and collected the nettles and weeds outside the allotment gates and there is quite a lot. If the January pile doesn’t get quite hot with all of these nettles, I don’t know what will.

19th December

The weather was so bad on the 18th – 30mm of rain throughout the day – that I couldn’t/didn’t want to go down to the allotment so the turn of the pile was 1 day later.  You can no longer identify the phacelia but the weeds which were not ripped up are still visible as is all the brown stuff although all are much more mixed up now.  The pile is wet enough because the tarpaulin is woven and quite a bit of rain from yesterday go through.

The temperature is down half a degree to 16.5°C so I am wondering if peak temperature has been reached or whether the lack of turning yesterday has slowed the process down.  There were three worms in the pile. These are worms from the ground and they are only really in the lowest layer but every little helps!

21st December

 

 

 

 

 

 

The temperature is going down now – 14.5°C  today so unless I add some more green to the pile it will not get any hotter. For the final turn, I moved the heap to a dalek bin, or as we call them at home rat bins, that is on the bed where I want to use the resulting compost eventually.  I will leave it in here a couple of months, still taking its temperature every week or so just to see what happens.  The bin is full to the lid and the compost is quite wet – probably as wet as it should be because I could squeeze out a drop of water but it is wetter than I would normally allow compost to get. Maybe that will stop the rats taking up residence in it over the next month!  It also smelt a bit which tends to suggest it is a bit anaerobic which is not helpful.

So, what am I going to do differently with January’s pile?

  • Make it at least a cubic metre, all packed down. No airy-fairy trying to make it look like a cubic metre when it isn’t!
  • Chop everything up quite small. This is not the sort of compost making that will rot down large roots, whole beetroot and Spanish radish. This needs premium materials in premium sizes which means I will need to take the leaves home and run them through the lawnmower to chop them up and add a little grass.
  • If it doesn’t show signs of getting anywhere near the heat needed, I will add more green and manure and a couple of turns.

Happy Christmas to you all.

November 29

18 day compost in November – really? Update

On the 6th of November I created a compost heap and followed the Berkeley method of hot composting as I was sceptical that it could be made in that time in November in the UK.  Well I was partially right and partially wrong!

These pictures show you how the compost looks now and I can’t deny that it looks a lot like compost that is ready to use. There are a few elements that look like they originally did and I removed those as I spread the mound over the bed.  I made it on the bed I am using it on to save barrowing ‘stuff’ around and because I would have to find space if I didn’t. However, the heap did not heat up anywhere near the necessary temperature so I would say that means that the weed seed in it is still viable and will grow when the conditions are right.  I will come back and update this post when I know how that goes.

I can think of two reasons why the heap didn’t heat up.

  1. It wasn’t big enough. It needs to be at least a meter cubed and mine wasn’t.
  2. It needed more moisture. I watered it several times but could not get a single drop of water out when I squeezed it.
  3. Oh – there’s a third! It might have needed a bit more green in it. Green is in short supply at this time of year and brown is in the summer. You just can’t win.

To prevent the weed seeds germinating, I have covered the bed in woven black plastic that I keep for just such an issue. (No need for a picture of this. You can all imagine it!) For some reason, an overwinter cover seems to inhibit weed germination once the plastic is removed.

So, I will gather all the stuff together for another heap. I have a cleared bed I can make it on and try to remedy these three problems. I wanted to make a heap each month but it might take me a little longer than a week to get enough green. I am going out on a nettle hunt over the next few days to see what I can find and I probably do have some weeds somewhere! I could also cut the lawn on a dry day.

One other thing I will do differently in the next heap is to think about what I include. When I looked again at Geoff Lawton’s video it did all seem to be leafy material, both green and brown, rather than twigs, large clumps of grass etc. I can put those things into my cold heaps where they will rot down. I will document more clearly what goes into my next heap and by the end of 2021 I should have got to grips with hot composting.

See the results from December here.

Have you tried this method of composting? How did it go?

November 27

Reviewing the hugelkultur bed

In the spring I built a hugelkultur bed because I had plenty of time on my hands, the tip was closed and I had a lot of wood and prunings. I thought now would be a good time to review how it has worked and whether it was worth all of that digging. The short answer is ‘Yes!’  but below is the longer answer.

Strawberries on the west-facing side of the hugel

I built it in March and then didn’t take many photos of it during the summer so I am afraid I can’t show what happened.  The long side of the bed faces west as I read that it should be placed facing the prevailing wind to shelter what lies behind it. I planted strawberry offshoots from the allotment on the west side – Guarigette – half way down the slope and then lettuce seedlings below them on both the west and east facing sides.  The west facing lettuce bolted before those on the east-facing side and so for a longer harvest of lettuce the east side is the place. On the east side I also planted spare coriander seedlings but they just bolted and seeded. However, the seedlings are doing well now and showing no signs of bolting and so for the first time ever, I have a fairly decent crop of coriander. I didn’t know October/November were the best times here for this plant. It is definitely not what it says on the seed packet.

Beetroot on the north-facing end

On the short end which faces north, I planted 6 beetroot towards the bottom of the slope because I wanted some plants for seed.  I have left them because they won’t flower until next year but they are massive. I wrote about them in this post. The mulch that you can see behind the beetroot is Strulch which I had left over from using on my big flower bed so that I don’t have to go ferreting around to weed quite so often. It has worked a treat. I have only had to pull out 22 weeds from the mound and have had far more in the vegetable beds.

The biggest success has been the fact that it was a very warm and dry spring and early summer here and from March to now, I have only had to water it twice whereas during the dry spells I had to water the vegetable beds once a week. It is just as well it hasn’t needed much watering because it is not easy to water – it just runs straight off it if you are not careful.  The second time I watered, I created little bowls behind the strawberry plants and watered into those so that it didn’t run straight off.  It is for this watering reduction alone that I will build more of these beds both at home and on the allotment.  What I do need to get better at is which plants to put on which side of the mound to maximise its different elements.

Have you built one of these and if so, what do you plant in it?

April 30

The endless polytunnel

I do love a trial and usually have something I want to try out each year. In the past I have looked at sowing seeds and the best ways to do this and when to use each method.  This year I am trialling something completely different. Last year my tomatoes were a bit indifferent in places in the polytunnel.   That was partly due to ants, which are a real problem and I can’t find a way to get rid of them, and very dry soil.  I have tried everything to get rid of the ants, and I mean everything my friends, from boiling water to nematodes. And NOTHING works!

Many years ago I read Eliot Coleman’s book The New Organic Grower and instantly wanted his moveable polytunnels. He designed and built them himself and they run on tracks and have 3 different places they can settle.  I don’t have the know-how or desire to build my own but I now have a temporary tunnel which I can move around.

For about 18 years I have had a hooped tunnel frame without a cover on my plot. I planted an apple tree inside it thinking I would move the frame soon but of course, never did.  This winter I pruned the tree hard so that I could get the frame over it and then walked it to its new site. It has had go where it would fit rather than where it would look best so it is in an unusual place but it is in.  The polytunnel companies are all taking a long time to send items out, understandably, and I couldn’t wait for 6-8 weeks so I bought some cheap plastic from Amazon for £3 to cover it with. It will do for this year.

The thing that is different about it is that it has no ends. I know! What was I thinking? Actually, I was thinking about the fact that it is the wet that I am really trying to keep off the tomatoes and probably provide a bit more heat than our ‘normal’ summers. (Not sure what a normal summer is nowadays!) The tunnel’s side is facing the prevailing winds, offering some protection but I can not deny that it is airy inside. And that the plastic blows around a bit because it was too stretchy to put on tightly.

Inside, I have planted tomatoes and a cucumber in the same way as my other tunnel. This means bottles sunk to water and string underneath the rootball to train the tomatoes up as they grow.  At each end, half in and half out, I have two courgettes under plastic domes because it is a bit early for them to be out yet.  The downside might be slugs and snails. The tunnel is near the patch of comfrey and there must be hundreds of the little critters hiding under the leaves. However, the tomatoes that I planted out when it was really warm are growing well.

 

 

 

Outside the tunnel, I have buried the plastic and then planted some lettuce in the ditch, covered in plastic bottles at the moment to protect them from things until they are big enough to cope on their own. They are growing well but need more frequent watering than if they were in the soil with no polythene underneath them.

So, this is my trial for the year. Will the tomatoes grow and fruit well? Will the endless tunnel be later than the one with ends? Can I use it for a second year in this place or will I need to move it after I have harvested the fruit, if there is any?  If I want to move it, I only have to pull it up and move it to the side where I reckon I can fit it on twice more before running out of bed. Then I can bring it back to this patch. My very own mobile polytunnel.

I will keep you posted with updates.  What are you trialling this year?