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12 April 2022

Composting | #NationalGardeningMonth

Composting; Great for the garden, wildlife and the planet.

April marks the start of National Garden Month and with Spring finally here, we are already starting to see spring flowers bloom. April is a great time to start prepping your soil and composting is an effective way to enrich it!

What is compost and how do you make it?

Essentially compost is a soil improver which increases fertility and reduces the need for chemical intervention. By recycling garden and kitchen waste into compost, you contribute to a reduction in waste going to landfill whilst gaining a free resource for your garden and creating habitat for a huge array of species. What’s not to love?

On top of those benefits, it is also incredibly easy to create. You just need waste, water and air. There are many options for creating a composting space from large multi bay set ups to “dalek” style bins. All you really need is a simple heap which can be covered with some old carpet or plastic sheeting to maintain heat. This can be scaled up or down depending upon the space you have available and your preferred aesthetic. Shady spots are best as this reduces evaporation and helps keep the compost moist.

What can you compost?

You can get very technical when researching what to compost and in what quantities, but to keep it simple a mix of nitrogen rich materials (green stuff like grass cuttings, kitchen waste) and carbon rich material (brown stuff like cardboard, woody stems) is all that is needed. The RHS recommends 25-50% nitrogen rich materials.

What to compost:

  • Grass cuttings and dead leaves
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps and peel
  • Eggshells
  • Plain cardboard (not the glossy kind)
  • Old cut flowers and bedding plants
  • Pruning’s and dead plants
  • Coffee grounds
  • Plastic-free tea bags
  • Pet droppings from any veg-eating pets

What not to compost

  • Meat, bones, dairy or starchy foods such as pasta and potatoes (these can attract rats)
  • Carnivorous animal waste (dog, cat, ferret etc.)
  • Plant material from diseased plants or invasive plant species
  • Perennial weeds and their seeds

What about wildlife?

Compost by its’ nature requires wildlife. Invertebrates and microorganisms carry out the act of decomposition which is what turns your waste into the rich brown stuff your garden plants love. So, compost heaps are a detritivores haven. This in turn inevitably attracts predators. Other invertebrate predators such as centipedes, earwigs and ground beetles will all thrive in a compost heap and in turn will also spread into the wider garden where they will actively predate many species considered to be undesirable such as aphids. This also attracts larger predators such as birds, reptiles and amphibians. These latter groups are two which at a national level are in universal decline across the UK but also benefit from the environment created by a compost heap, they love the heat generated by them.

Species like slow worms and grass snakes will utilise compost heaps for food, warmth, brumation (the reptile version of hibernation) and breeding. While a compost heap is not essential for these species to thrive in a garden, it can go a very long way in helping. Slow worms in particular are a species every gardener should have on their wildlife wish list as a voracious predator of slugs and a totally harmless species. Frogs, toads and newts are also largely terrestrial species which predate heavily on the same soft bodies invertebrates that tend to munch on your cabbages and lettuces.

If you know you have reptiles and amphibians in a compost heap then it is best not to turn it over in winter or until you are confident that they have emerged in the spring. The disturbance of an early arousal before temperatures are consistently in double figures (Celcius) can be fatal. Laying a piece of roofing felt or plastic sheet over or around your compost heap, in a sunny spot will attract reptiles and help you ascertain if they are present in your garden. Slow worms can be very difficult to detect.

Our ectothermic friends are not the only wildlife to exploit the temperatures created by compost, small and not so small mammals will. It is not uncommon to find voles, shrews and wood mice exploiting the temperatures. These present no concern to your garden or your home. They are a sign of a healthy garden eco-system. Regular turning will deter them but fears of infestation are misplaced. You may even be fortunate enough to have hedgehogs hibernating if space allows.

So, in short composting is a win win. It saves money, reduces waste and created a fantastic “hot rot” habitat for garden wildlife.