ISSUE 24  |  Scandi Midsummer

Composting: Are You Obsessed?

June 22, 2014 10:00 AM

BY Kendra Wilson

Is an obsession with composting a peculiarly male trait? I can’t imagine a woman thinking, “I must go out and cover the compost” when it starts to rain. Nor can I imagine pulling over during the school run to fill the car trunk with nettles to add to the compost. Maybe I’m generalizing because I live with someone who admits, in relation to compost: “I am obsessed.”

Photography by Jim Powell

A neighbor rang the other day to say that she had a bin full of nettles. Did I want them? Of course! Every time Jim (my in-house composter and compost photographer) gathers nettles, the car smells a bid odd afterwards, so a delivery from a neighbor is always welcome. These wild plants are rich in nitrogen, so composters seek them out to add to the compost heap, which will eventually feed the garden.

“Let’s go for a walk, children!” really means: Let’s forage for nettles (shown here) or, later in the season, comfrey.

Comfrey adds potassium, which aids flowering, whereas nitrogen is good for growth: This is useful green waste. Less useful green waste is tons of lawn clippings, but only because these tend to arrive in such large quantities. It’s important to go 50-50 with the green and brown.

If you remember to add the brown stuff, you can toss in all the grass clippings you want. Brown waste means twigs, desiccated plants, cardboard–even, for the obsessed, full vacuum cleaner bags and haircut sweepings. Bulky items keep the air circulating, and air, along with moisture, is the key to quality compost. It’s a good idea to break down bigger elements before you add them to the pile; an easy way to do that is to spread the garden waste on the lawn and mow over it.

Worms move into the compost as soon as new plant or food waste is added. As the plant material rots, it generates heat and compost is on its way. It’s also imperative to stir, often but not too much. Let the compost rest. Don’t let it go dead. One can’t help feeling that the “do this-do that” element of gardening is part of the appeal for men. As with vegetable-growing, you will find your own way.

A few rules to bear in mind, while we’re on the subject: Don’t add cooked food (it attracts rats). Do add eggshells, well mashed up. Add citrus and garlic and onions, sparingly. Don’t add thorns.

Worms are not the only heroes here. Microorganisms, protozoa, and fungi ably assist. The key bacteria are mesophiles and thermophiles, which operate in moderate heat and high heat, respectively. You want your compost to reach high temperatures to keep everyone happy and to kill the weeds (which you should feel free to add to the heap).

Jim would argue that this sweet-smelling, rich, crumbly stuff (above), also known as “black gold,” isn’t quite ready yet. The trouble is, compost can be endlessly perfected. Whether you pick out the twigs and sift it to something finer is your choice. As for myself, I’m planting out pumpkins and need it now: It looks fine.

The book that set Jim on his composting journey was the strangely entertaining Compost, by Clare Foster, the garden editor of British House & Garden (£9.99 from Octopus Books). Jim says: Read it at least twice.

Ready to get started? See 10 Easy Pieces: Kitchen Compost Pails and Steal This Look: Elegant French Country Compost Bins. Already composting, and a little obsessed? See Garden Riddle: What’s Round, and Sifts Twigs?