June: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust Equals Great Compost
by Ruth D'Alessandro


f you’re going to have a shot at organic gardening, the most important, and satisfying item that you’ll need to construct is a compost heap. This can come in many forms - you can buy a large plastic bottomless composting bin, or, if you have an enlightened borough council, they may supply one to you for a small fee. You can build your own simple wooden slatted box from old planks. (Make sure there is a small gap between each plank to allow air to circulate). Or, if tidiness and olfactory delight are not your primary concerns, you can pile everything up into a smelly heap in a corner.

In addition to providing lovely rich compost, your heap may well provide a home for overwintering amphibians, such as toads and frogs, and if you’re very lucky (although the frogs won’t be) a grass snake. Earthworms, ground beetles and centipedes, all good friends to the gardener, will camp out in the compost and do their eco-stuff.

By far the simplest compost heap can be made from four old car tyres. Get on down to Kwik-Fit and chat nicely to the head mechanic who will, in all probability, have a shed full of old tyres and be more than willing to give them to you. Choose large, wide, luxury ones: the closest most of us will ever get to owning a set of BMW wheels. Roll them home, clear a patch of earth in a sunny corner of the garden and simply stack them up, one on top of the other. Put a plastic sack over the top, or if you’re really flash, an old dustbin lid, and you’re ready to start making compost. It is truly magical to see how such a large volume of waste breaks down into a small volume of gardener’s black gold.

So what should go into your tyre tower? Vegetable and fruit scraps and peelings from the kitchen. Eggshells. Used teabags, although they may be more useful for putting in the bottoms of seedling pots for drainage. Tissues, kitchen roll and small brown paper bags. Cleanings-out from any herbivorous pets you may have, although the volume of newspaper may become overwhelming and fill up the bin too fast. Use less newspaper for Benjamin Bunny and recycle the rest. Grass mowings, essential for binding the material. Annual weeds, pulled up by hand. Autumn leaves. Spent plants at the end of the growing season. The contents of your vacuum cleaner bag - a great way to retrieve odd socks, ties, money, teaspoons etc. that have mysteriously disappeared. And urine. Your compost heap will break down into beautiful nutrients even quicker if you wee on it from time to time.

What shouldn’t go into your tyre tower? Meat and fish scraps, otherwise you’ll attract rats, cats and urban foxes which will pull the heap apart. Anything plasticky and unbiodegradeable. Cat poo. Dog poo. Cleanings out from carnivorous pets, such as ferrets (although do scatter ferret droppings round your garden boundary if you have trouble with wild rabbits - the smell will keep them out). Large woody and twiggy prunings - they take an age to break down Long after you have luscious compost, you’ll still be pricking yourself on rose thorns.

Keep adding everything in the should paragraph for about a year. Even if you fill the bin to the top one day, by the next week it will have broken down sufficiently to add another bucketful of peelings, or barrowload of grass.

Fast forward to a year from now, and here’s the smelly bit.(Or perhaps not, if you have the space to construct two heaps and alternate them, leaving one to decompose for a full year, while filling the second one, and vice versa.) Take off the top tyre, with the rather pongy half decayed matter in it and place it on earth next to the other tyres. Lift off the second tyre, and you’ll find more decomposed matter, but it shouldn’t smell so bad. Place the second tyre and its matter on top of the first. Take off the third tyre and Aha! You should find fibrous, nutrient rich compost, alive and wriggling with earthworms and beetles of all sizes. You should be able to plunge your hands into it easily - the texture is crumbly and it smells as sweet as The Earth. This is what you’ve waited a year for, and it’s ten times better than anything you can buy in the garden centre. Scrape the compost out of tyres three and four and bag it up to keep it moist. Put tyres three and four on top of two and three, and start the filling process all over again.

Plants grown in this rich compost should be more resistant to pests and diseases than those put directly into soil. Unlike commercial fertiliser, home made compost does not make stems soft, sappy and toothsome to aphids. Rather, stems toughen and resist attack. No need for chemical pesticides!

When you come to plant out tomatoes, courgettes, beans, cucumbers, melons etc., which you should be doing around now as the frosts have passed, dig a hole, fill it with a few handfuls of your lovely home-made compost and pour in a couple of litres of water. Tap the plant out of its pot and sit it on the wet compost. Firm it in with the soil that has come out of the hole, and then dig another hole about 8cms away from the plant. Sink the plastic pot into the ground, pop a stone into the bottom to keep it clear, and when you water the plants, pour the water into the plastic pot. The water will go straight down to the roots where it’s needed, and you’ll conserve water.

Happy composting!

Snail Tails

The difficulty that I have found with creating a truly organic urban garden is that the balance of nature in our cities has been disrupted. In my case, this has manifested itself in a vast overpopulation of snails that last year ate nearly everything in my greenhouse, including most of the tomatoes on the vines, and 90 per cent of bean seedlings as they pushed through the compost.

There were so many snails it was almost impossible to implement organic control - they merely yomped across dunes of ‘sharp’ sand, and hung around the edges of the beer traps like a gastropod ‘Cheers’. They didn’t even get Brewer’s Droop as they produced hundreds of little snails who then built sandcastles and went to the pub with Mum and Dad. The resident toad had plenty of slugs, thank you, and couldn’t be bothered with taking the packaging off the snails.

I removed 40 fully grown snails from underneath my front window sill one damp evening. That sheer density rarely occurs in a well-balanced environment, such as my allotment, which backs onto woodland and a well-hedged railway line, so what has happened?

My theory about the plague of snails is twofold:

Firstly, there are too many cats in London. In addition to scratching up newly seeded flower beds and vegetable patches to bury their foul-smelling, Toxoplasmosis-infected excrement, Hoverfly
cats decimate the bird population. The domestic cat does not have to hunt for food, but ancestral behaviour still endows it with the killer instinct. In one street of 23 houses, there are 13 cats, all of which are predators, most of which are bored and want something feathered to play with.

Thus, there is a noticeable lack of insectivorous birds such as robins, bluetits, and thrushes (which would eat some snails), in our urban gardens, although a brave pair of blackbirds try to nest every year in an overgrown conifer. The baby blackbirds get to a pre-fledging stage, but their eager first flight chirrups and flappings attract cats which haul them out of the nest, throw them around a bit, then leave them to die. With a lack of birds to eat them, pests proliferate.

Secondly, many people in small urban gardens, especially if they grow ornamental flowers and like to manicure their lawns, tend to over-use commercial chemicals against aphids, slugs and snails, caterpillars, black spot, rust, even earthworms. These chemicals achieve their ends temporarily in that pests are either killed or driven out. Now, if you were a snail, would you hang around in this toxic environment, or would you head for a chemical-free, organic garden where the beer and salad is free and there’s a sand-pit for the kids? And the snails come from the toxic gardens, albeit very slowly, but come they do.

The good news here is that although the baddies make their way to your organic Eden, so too do predators such as spiders, centipedes, ladybirds, ground beetles, hoverflies, lacewings and their larva the antlion, ichneumon flies and many sizes of parasitic wasps, which keep their own mini ecosystems in balance. A pity they can’t eat snails.

If anyone knows of a creature that parasitises snails, please let me know.

If an inundation of snails is your problem, consider one or all of these options:

1. Get a Jack Russell terrier.
2. Hope that snail-crunching hedgehogs find their way into the garden. If your garden is big enough and you have somewhere for hibernation, you could check out a local wildlife rescue centre and offer a pair of hedgehogs a good home. If you do this, don’t put down slug pellets as well, or the hedgehog may well pick up a poisoned snail and poison itself.
3. Grow leafy shrubs and trees where birds can perch and keep a lookout for cats.
4. Put up a birdbox or two, or three, depending on the size of your garden. Make sure the box does not have a perch outside the hole, otherwise gangs of piratical sparrows, which have waited for your bluetits to finish building a beautifully crafted nest, will sit on the perch, put the frighteners on the tits and take over the nest for their own use. But what’s wrong with that? you may ask. Nothing, essentially, except that a pair of bluetits and their young will pick 19 kg of caterpillars off your fruit and vegetables in a year, whereas sparrows will pick off your fruit blossom and polyantha flowers just for the hell of it.
5. Make a hotel for parasitic wasps: drill a thickish piece of untreated wood with lots of little holes a centimetre or so deep and hang it on an outside wall. Soon, you’ll find tiny wasps blocking up the entrances to the holes with mud - they will have laid their eggs inside before doing so, and the baby wasps emerge later in the season to hunt.
6. Don’t spray plants with commercial pesticides. I must make a confession here that I, and a couple of trustworthy organic gardeners I know have used metaldehyde slug pellets this year to give our seedlings half a chance. But what happens if another creature eats a snail that has eaten a slug pellet? Surely it will be poisoned?

Well, if other creatures had been eating the snails in the first place, I wouldn’t need to be using pellets.....

See you all next month!

June 1998