Decay and degradation

Compost. Nature's way with death. So why do the politically correct thing when you can do the right thing?

When the visit to the compost bins is the high spot of the garden tour, you know you are in the territory of an organic gardener. The OG may have trouble remembering the name of a particular flower or shrub, but here, in front of the shrines of rotting potato peelings, weeds, grass cuttings and farmyard manure, no question goes unanswered, no detail of the engrossing process of decay and reassimilation is left out.

The messianic zeal of a certain kind of organic gardener brings to mind the dictators of the last World War. A sentimental view of animals, an obsession with health and supposedly health-giving foods, vegetarianism and furious anti-smoking campaigns were all hallmarks of the Nazi period. Read The Nazi War on Cancer by Robert Proctor (Princeton, pounds 17.95).

"So what's new?" I find myself thinking rebelliously, as the self-regarding cant piles up. Some OGs give the impression that they invented the very process of composting; that worms give the bum's rush to anybody who is not a member of the Henry Doubleday Research Association. You can make good compost without the vast quantities of plastic and old carpet that seem an intrinsic part of a fully organic compost heap; and without the hideously intrusive noise of mechanical shredders that after grinding away for hours produce scarcely enough mulch to cover a mole.

I have a compost heap from hell - huge, untidy, unscientifically made. I am not proud of any of those attributes, but turning and tending compost do not come high on the list of priorities. I would never be without compost, though, and the heap produces the goods, which I retrieve by tunnelling under the mound like a miner. When the roof, the most recent, unrotted stuff on the heap, looks as though it is about to collapse, I pitchfork this material on to a cleared strip at the side and start building again.

The principles of composting are desperately important; the way that you get there is not. Anyone truly interested in gardening soon learns that soil is a precious commodity. It needs loving and feeding. You have to take the trouble to understand how it should be treated to keep it in good heart. But you can do that without plastic, comfrey, New Zealand boxes or any other totems of "correct" composting.

Composting is, in effect, recycling. So by having a compost heap rather than carting waste to a tip, you are doing your bit for the environment. Home-made compost is an endlessly renewable resource, unlike peat or loam. It is free and it is handy. No petrol is needed to haul it home from the garden centre. Households in the UK produce about 20 million tonnes of rubbish each year. Most of that goes into holes in the ground - "landfill" as it is delicately called. But green waste composted in small quantities at home, can become a plus, rather than a minus.

There. That's the Party Political Broadcast over. I can't say any of the reasons above are in my mind when I chuck weeds on to my compost heap. I just can't imagine gardening without one. It is the gardener's way of replicating what goes on in Nature. The alchemy of the process is fascinating. How can it be that nettles, potato peelings, grass cuttings and rotting sweet pea plants can be transformed into a single entity with the moist, dark, crumbly beauty of the best fruitcake? So how do you start? Not necessarily by spending money. You can make a compost heap anywhere, just by piling up waste into a heap. If this is contained within walls of some kind, it looks tidier and you can more easily pack the material into layers that heat up quickly. Heat is the key, but you also need air in a heap.

In a small garden, some kind of plastic container is probably the most practical way to make compost. Most custom-made compost bins are like dustbins without any bottoms. If you are a skip raider, you can make excellent compost pens using recycled pallets. Mine is built against a stone wall at the bottom of the garden. The two sides containing the heap are both made from pallets covered with chicken wire, which stops the compost oozing through the gaps. The front is contained only along half its length, so we can still tip a wheelbarrow on to the pile. Keen composters have two heaps: one cooking and one in the making.

Tea leaves, coffee grounds, egg shells, vegetable scraps, hair and dead cut flowers can all go on to a compost heap. Most of mine comes from garden waste: weeds, old pea and bean haulms, herbaceous plants cut down in autumn, grass clippings. But not autumn leaves. Those we rake up and pack into a leaf clamp. Leaf mould takes longer to make than compost, but is a fabulous mulch around shrubs.

The composting process, the alchemy, depends on two different micro-organisms. Mesophiles get to work first, creating heat as they process the different kinds of waste. When the heap gets too hot for them, thermophiles take over and the temperature rises even more quickly. But once all the most readily available foods have been gobbled up, the temperature of the compost falls and the mesophiles kick in again. Meanwhile, mites, centipedes, woodlice and worms will be tackling tough, chewy stems, beyond the capacity of the micro-organisms.

Air and water are vital to this process, but not sunshine, so there is no reason why your heap should not be in a dark, dank corner. The bigger it is, the hotter it gets. You won't get much action in a heap less than 3ft long and 3ft wide. Twice that size is twice as good. You can never have too much compost. Don't just use it as a dump for grass cuttings. They pack down tightly and get slimy, because not enough air is circulating in the mass.

The more air you introduce, the faster the heap will rot, which is why turning is so much in favour. I don't turn ours because there is always some more pressing task to hand. It still makes, but much more slowly. And because it does not heat up as much as a turned heap might, it harbours weed seeds, ready to germinate at the earliest opportunity. This is a problem only where you use home-made compost as a mulch. Much of mine goes to fill containers, or to line trenches for potatoes, peas and beans. Well buried, the seeds don't germinate. Sometimes we sieve it. This is Grade A stuff and, mixed with bonemeal, it makes the best possible compost to pack round plants when you are first planting them. Our soil is heavy clay, an intractable medium for tender new roots to penetrate. If the plant can be wrapped round with a more crumbly growing medium, it gets off to a good start.

Compost-making attracts obsessives. That matters only when they bore on to the rest of us about the Only True Way. Compost has been happily making itself for several trillion years. And will continue to do so, with or without our so-called improvements.

The shrine of compost-making is the Henry Doubleday Research Association's garden at Ryton-on-Dunsmore, Coventry, Warwickshire CV8 3LG (01203 303517). The garden is open daily (10am-5pm); admission pounds 2.50. Armchair gardeners can read `The Complete Guide to Garden Composting' by Dr Paul Bardos (Taylor Marketing Services, pounds 5.99). For stockists, contact Taylor Marketing Services, Oakwood House, 3 Moulton Park Office Village, Northampton NN3 6AP

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering