I spoke with one of my friends who follows this blog and she asked me how to test her soil and set up a compost heap. She has a small garden which is Mediterranean in style and uses plants that require little or no water.
Do it yourself soil testing. First go out with a shovel or spade and dig 6 inches down in one of your planting beds. This depth is where your potential plant’s roots will draw in their nutrients. Fill on half of an old mayonnaise or tall jam jar with your soil. Then top up the jar with tap water, leave a bit of room at the top for shaking space. Seal the jar tightly and start shaking the jar until it is thoroughly mixed and every bit of soil is broken down. This should take about 3-5 minutes. Then set the sealed jar aside for at least 12 hours undisturbed. This will give the soil sample time to settle into layers created by each component finding its specific gravity. Simply put, each of the following layers will settle in different proportions in this order from the bottom up; rock, gravel, sand, clay, organic matter and if you have it charcoal. Each layer should be easy to spot as it will be a different colour. Measure the depth of each using millimeters recording each one including the height of the entire soil sample in the jar. Here comes the science part. Divide each of the individual component’s depths by the total depth of the soil sample. The resulting numbers represent the percentage of that component in your soil.
Why did we do this? The resulting numbers give us an idea of how to proceed in amending your soil to achieve the best results from your plants. A good soil will have enough sand for good drainage, organic matter to provide nutrients and hold water and clay to bind it all together. The ideal percentages should be;
CLAY 20%, SAND 40%, HUMUS 40%
Very few if any of us have this mix naturally occurring in our gardens, but we can come close with a bit of help. We are ignoring the test result in our veg beds simply because we are growing on top of the soil. However the rest of the garden needs help. Humus is what most soil lacks, followed by sand. Both of these you can add over time.
Here comes the junior chemistry kit stuff. Go out and buy an inexpensive soil testing kit like this one on Amazon; Soil Test Kit produced by Haversack. Don’t buy a one shot kit because you will no doubt make a nervous mistake as I did the first time and have to buy another full kit. Plus I test the soil many different times depending on the area in my garden and check if the additives I put in are improving it. Follow the directions in the kit and only use distilled water for accurate results. Your tap water can swing things in a misleading direction. We used Brita-filtered water for our tests with no ill effects. Record your results for comparison purposes at later dates. The results will give you a clear view on what you lack in nutrients. My next post will be on how we dealt with our results.
Composting, what can I say? It is all garbage. We save everything, leftover liquid coffee and grounds, teabags, eggshells, seaweed, newspapers, egg cartons, used paper towels, old beer and wine, bits of dry bread and dough not incorporated in the main ball, rotten veg and fruit, cardboard (not waxed or multi-colour printed), animal bedding, manure, duck & goose pond water, lawn clippings, hedge clippings, leaves, fish dinner waste, shellfish shells, mouldy jam and fruit juice. We even have a deal with a local cafe to pick up their dead veg. BUT NEVER add land-based meat or raw potato peelings or rotten spuds. Why not potatoes? They could contain the dreaded *Fusarium wilt, infecting your soil forever. Throw the potato peelings in your wood fire to help clean the chimney of unwanted soot. We save all the wood ash separately for adding potash where it is needed.
Where to compost. There are two schools of thought, mine which puts it outside the back kitchen door and the other which places it in the far side of the garden out of sight. Neither way is bad, just put it where you will use it. Urban people with small tidy gardens like neat composting units that take up little space but also keep out vermin. We have a large bin made out of old pallets, both work just fine. What is important is the ration of dry to fresh, how moist it is kept, and aeration of the heap. The best ratio for composting is;
FRESH 1 part / DRY 25 parts
We don’t measure just use common sense. As you layer all your bits throw in a shovel of soil once in a while. Soil makes a super highway for good bacteria to travel through the heap. We also add fresh manure and old compost too just to make it all cook. One of my tricks is to throw in a bubbling cup of bread yeast mixed into warm water with a pinch of sugar added. Just as you would start for making bread. This will really get things off with a bang as will beer and wine. We like a good hot compost heap as it makes compost quickly and kills all the weed seeds.
Dry ingredients are; torn up cardboard and newspaper, old egg cartons, mouldy straw or hay, dried weeds and dry leaves. Sometimes the amount of this you need can be frustrating especially in the city. Get thee to a recycle bin after the weekend and take out all the old newspapers and cardboard. Call up a riding stable and ask if you can muck out a stall for them in exchange for what you clean out. Ask a feed store if they have any mouldy feed or bales they could give away or sell cheap. Go to the beach and collect old dried seaweed. Go around the neighbourhood looking for people raking their leaves. Word will get around that you will take away garden waste or rake for leaves. If you need it you will find it. Manure in the city can be difficult but kids keep rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters, or ask your local pet store. People keep chickens and goats in the suburbs. Check out private schools with riding programs. it is all do-able.
Space for composting can sometimes be hard to find. The cost of a composter can be off-putting. Check yard sales for old natural wash baskets and clothes hampers which make great composters. Four old pallets lined with chicken wire and placed upright in a U-shape make a composter. (see the great video link on making one of these) A large tube made of small-hole wire fencing can be used. An old wooden crate works too. Anything so long as the sides are somewhat open and circulate air.
I mentioned moisture control. Compost works best when it is not sodden, the best description is that it should be moist like a damp sponge. We cover our heap with an old piece of carpet fished out of a dumpster behind the carpet fitters, pile side down. Cover it with whatever you like so long as it never dries out or becomes too wet.
Aeration is important. We turn our pile with a pitchfork once every week or two letting air get in between the layers. The best system for us is to have two compost bins so that we can turn the one into the other. Turning the pile will also give you a good idea on how it’s doing. A good compost heap should throw out steam on a cold morning. I personally love watching the steam rise in little curls as I drink my morning coffee. The compost is finished when it goes cold and the individual wet components are no longer visible in themselves but as an integral part of the lovely earthy smelling mass filled with bits of dry matter.
In the end it is not important to use a bin, you can just pile it up somewhere, toss it, keep it damp and enjoy the beauty of such a perfectly sustainable system that needs very little help using your garbage to produce lovely nutrition for your garden.Or you can be truely lazy and use the wet garbage underneath your raised beds to compost out of sight and attract worms. More on that later….
* Fusarium wilt see the link at right under Information