It is the time of year in my part of the world for making compost. Living here in the Algarve, it has been a revelation to me that not too many people locally make compost. Asking my neighbours about compost brings blank looks, although one did tell me in the old days, people dug pits and buried their waste and then planted on top of it when the pit was full. I suspect pits were made, rather than heaps, for several reasons. The chief reason may have been the threat of fire, coupled with the fact that compost can’t be made without water and we don’t have much for a lot of the year. In the UK, we just make piles and only rarely have to add water in the summer, the rain does most of it. The second reason, here where I am in the country, is that local people around me are very clean and tidy in their gardens. They don’t like piles of rubbish because of the danger of harbouring rats, scorpions and snakes, I suspect, but they are too polite to say so when they see mine. Finally, they have the clean technology in the form of “blue” pellet fertiliser, so don’t feel the need for piles of old fashioned poo and cuttings. Usually olive and other tree cuttings are burnt once the useful branches have been gleaned for firewood and animal manure has become hard to find as they are very few animals around here nowadays. As my neighbour told me “A tractor doesn’t need feeding and looking after as much as a donkey, you just put the diesel in” My neighbour once also took me to the large carob tree with a wheelbarrow, to get the rotted matter from the boles for compost, but it did feel a bit like robbery.
I am still enthusiastically making compost, however, although I do it slightly differently to the way I did it on my allotment in the UK, which was basically to have a worm farm in a dalek composter for my scraps and a couple of palette type compost bins for all the garden waste.
In the Algarve I have 2400 square metres of land, which for us in the UK, would be a large garden. Our garden waste is fairly considerable now, after seven years of growth. It consists of a lot of twiggy branches from trees and hedge clippings , some with fleshier leaves than others, as well as vegetable leftovers and some weeds, although not too many as the chickens eat most of them. Since we have walls all around our property which can be a hiding place for rodents, I prefer to make my compost heaps out in the open, where the chickens and cats can get at them and prevent any rodent population setting up home. I have sympathy for supporting wildlife, and plant with this is mind, but not to the point where the wildlife is endangering what I am trying to produce. Roland the Rat and Minnie Mouse have to stay out and the two cats who choose to live with us, already trained by their semi-feral mothers when they came here to catch mice, see to that job extremely well. The only rodent I ever see in my garden is usually in pieces on the front doormat, often with only the head left behind, as the cats kindly eat their catch properly.
I have tried various composting methods, both taking advice from friends and also watching many a Youtube video. Some people love the whole process of making and turning compost. You can see the gleam in their eye as they explain the ingredients. “First of all I take a lovely steaming pile of smelly horse manure. Mmmmmm, just smell that! Then I open my pot of lovely festering nettle tea and unmentionable bits of rotting vegetable matter just to spice things up and get things going. Yummmmmy! (slight look of worry on the video as the presenter wonders if they might find a frog or a dead rat in the bottom of the pot) Then I mix several bucketfuls of chicken bedding, laced with hot chicken poo, just to get the perfect balance. Then I come down every day and turn it inside out and back to front with a great big pitchfork.” This goes on for fourteen days until the compost does indeed look wonderful , but excuse me, duck that for a game of soldiers! I am 63 years old and this kind of caper is far too strenuous. I tried it once and couldn’t walk for a week!
So, this is the Lazy Gardener’s guide to making compost in hot climates. I have three methods. I was reminded of the first method by Linda, a gardening friend in Central Portugal. This method may work best at this time of year when the weather is wet. It is simply this. Take all your soft peelings and stuff from the house, dig little holes, about eighteen inches feet deep and bury it. Done. When I had my allotment in South London, this kind of method was favoured by Shirley, my Jamaican allotment neighbour. Shirley used to laugh at all the old blokes making their lovely composting bins. None of that for her. She just got her feisty Sicilian husband to chop up all her waste on a chopping block with a machete and added it back there and then to the top of the soil. She never dug anything, she just parted the beautiful soil she made from years of weeds and chippings and planted her seedlings right there, talking to them gently as she did so, as though they were babies being put to bed. She had the best vegetables of any of the 200 odd plots. Encouraged by her, we did a sort of Hugelkutur job with a large Cotoneaster Wateri tree we chopped down from our Peckham back garden and buried the lot. With the rain we had in the UK, it rotted down completely in two years. It improved the soil a great deal and didn’t seem to upset the vegetables we subsequently grew there.
Unfortunately, hugelkutlur hasn’t worked well for me in this warm climate, especially with the tough twiggy olive branches and carob wood we have. There just isn’t enough water to rot it down, not even after five years. So this is my second lazy method of making compost. What I do nowadays with my twiggy branches is pile them up in a quiet area of the garden for the winter and let the rain and winter weather do its work of removing all the leaves. Then I take the branches and make a “dry hedge” in a circle with the twiggy branches, away from the wall, as I said. Then inside this twiggy circle I pile up all the soft weed materials and cuttings gleaned in the Spring, only leaving out poisonous trees like oleander, layered with horse manure and any softer twiggy branches, topped by a thick layer of manure and garden clay soil. Then I plant squash and pumpkin on the top and water them all summer and I get a good crop of vegetables and in a good crop of compost, the water having been used for both. In theory the circle of dry wood is a good home for spiders and bugs, but in practice, when I dismantle it, the chickens eat most of them, peeping wildly and running about the kids on Christmas morning.
So now to the third and final method. After removing the well rotted compost on the top of this “stork’s nest heap” as I call it, I leave anything not decomposed completely and mix it all with fresh horse poo on the ground. My horse poo comes from a local friend who loves her horses more than herself and I am very happy to pick it up and in exchange, although she ever asks it of me, I give her what produce I have at any time from the garden. I think I get the better deal though, as horse poo from a trusted source is hard to find around her. At this point, my little gardeners, aka the chickens, start helping me. I soak a bowlful of whole grain such as wheat for a night and then bury it in the material for composting. After a few days it begins to sprout and the chickens are happy to dig over the compost every day. I have only to encourage them slightly every morning by turning over a few forkfuls. Right now I have at least half a tonne of compost being made by my chickens to use on the vegetables in the Spring. The rain is a vital part of this, so I always make compost when I see we have a settled period of wet weather. If you haven’t got chickens, you will have to heap it up somewhere and turn it now and again.
So, there we are. Lazy ways to make compost. The only problem is, there is no lazy way to keep chickens. Cleaning out the chicken coop is always very hard work! Perhaps I can start training them to do that for me too!