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The first compost pile of the season, and it’s a good one.  It’s a lasagna pile with nice thin layers, with mulch from the Mulch Mountain every second layer.

It only took me an hour to build, but only because I have been routinely on the lookout for the ingredients, bringing home a bag of horse manure whenever my neighbour puts some out on the roadside for sale ($3 a bag), collecting a bucket of cow manure whenever I see cows out on the road reserve on my way home (I keep a bucket and shovel in the car for just this chance), collecting seaweed at the beach, cultivating the herbs and weeds I know are micronutrient accumulators, and lately making my morning walk  over to a neighbour’s dam to collect a barrow of azolla.  They all took time, but it was kind of incidental time.

The major ingredient was the mulch, and there’s about an hour’s worth of mowing in the pile.  But you could almost call it “incidental time” too, a byproduct of my Mowing Meditation.

It goes:

  • Layer of mulch, then layer of horse manure
  • Layer of mulch then one of azolla
  • Layer of mulch then one of cow manure
  • Layer of mulch then one of green herbs and micronutrient accumulators (including nettles),
  • the whole lot wet down with the last of the Seaweed Brew, diluted 1:20.

I will turn it twice, next weekend and the weekend after, wetting it down again, breaking up any clumps, moving the outside to the inside and introducing more oxygen. It will take about an hour’s work with a pitchfork each time.  But it’s a good investment.  This pile will keep the shadehouse and planting out going all summer.  I’ll build another one in autumn to keep me going for the winter.  That, and the sheet mulching done by the chooks is most of my garden work done and dusted.

I am using it to clear a new bed along a fence, hoping to cover the fence with a perennial climber like Scarlet Runner Beans, or maybe passionfruit. But first I need to get rid of the cannas and the stinging nettle and the nut grass along the fence. A  good compost pile will get hot enough to kill everything under it.  As I turn the pile along the fenceline, I’ll cover where it was with a good thick layer of mulch and plant my seedlings into it (in little wire cages to prevent the bandicoots digging them straight back up again every night).

Happiness is a good compost pile.

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The first compost pile of the season, made by my partner Lewie, who is usually totally uninterested in anything  gardening except eating the result! (Or photographing it – he’s the one responsible for most of the gorgeous photos on this blog).

I usually make several compost piles through the summer, when ingredients are most available and they mature fastest.  But this year I am in the midst (nearing the end actually) of one of my occasional regular perfect storms where I rush from one thing to another with compulsive lists.  My garden is still feeding us well despite being sadly neglected – I wrote about what makes a Garden With Stamina last time this happened – but I have been so regretting not having a compost pile on the go.  All my gardening fantasies have been screeching to a halt with the realisation that the bottleneck will be compost, or the lack of it.  And now I will have a great big pile of it!

The main ingredient (and inspiration) in this pile is mowings from an overgrown lawn.  Short green lawn clippings don’t make good compost on their own.  The ratios of air, moisture, nitrogen and carbon are all wrong – they are too wet, mat down too tight excluding air, and they have too much nitrogen.  But lawn clippings from an overgrown lawn, specially with fallen leaves from angophera or any non-eucalypt picked up along with the grass and weeds, makes great compost. And wet summers like this are a great way to get overgrown lawns.  The bright side of  me being too busy to mow for weeks is perfect compost mulch!

I feel guilty driving anywhere solo, which I’ve been solving by car pooling, and, whenever it is my turn, bringing home bags of horse manure from a kids’ roadside stall I pass on my way home from work.  It is too early in the summer yet for azolla but horse manure has enough nitrogen to start the compost bacteria breeding and make a good hot compost.

It’s one of those jobs that only takes a few hours when you  know where to get enough ingredients all at once, and the result will keep me in supplies for potting on and planting out seedlings all summer. The hardest part is knowing where all the ingredients are easily available, so the real “work” in making compost is tuning your perception so you see them.

True love is a pile of compost.

A Quick Guide to Breeding Compost Bacteria

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The dam is full of azolla – a little water weed that I encourage because it is symbiotic with a nitrogen fixing bacteria.  Like legumes, it can grab nitrogen out of the air and stabilize it in a form that feeds soil and plants that are not so handily endowed with an in-built fertilizer factory.

My partner, who is a bit more enthusiastic about cold water than I am, decided that collecting it was a good excuse for a swim.  In a few minutes with a little swimming pool net he had scooped up several feed bags full of it (still leaving plenty for this little frog to live in).

So of course with this supply, it had to be a compost making morning.

I don’t make a lot of compost – most of my soil building is done in-situ.  But three or four times a year, I decide it is worth the effort to create a batch of high-value plant food mostly used for raising seedlings.  I have written an item before about the theory behind compost making, and it really helps avoid failures if you get the idea behind the system.

Here’s today’s method for applying the theory:

Pick a spot with some stubborn weeds that need to be cleared.  Good compost composts the weeds growing under a pile – too good an opportunity for weeding without digging to waste.

Line up  five or six feed bags full of something that has a very high level of nitrogen, in this case, azolla.  Other options though include horse, cow or goat manure or a green legume.

Do a couple of hour-long sessions of mowing mediation to get two ute-loads of mulch.  I have a nice bit of community centre lawn that I like to mow because it has a good variety of soft meadow weeds in the grass, and some big angophoras (apple gums) that tend to drop lots of nutrient rich leaves.  So my mowing yields mulch with a good variety of nutrients and a good carbon to nitrogen ratio, (as well as a nice big lawn area for cricket games).

Mix the lot together either in layers or randomly, wetting as you go to give a texture like a wet sponge.  That is, it should be moist enough for the aerobic bacteria that will do the compost making to really enjoy the environment, but not drown.  Think air-breathing life form with no skin.

Wait for the pile to heat up to a temperature too hot to comfortably leave your hand inside it.  In something like a week to a fortnight’s time, when the pile has peaked in temperature and has started to cool down again, use a pitchfork to turn the pile, turning the outside to the middle and wetting it down again as you go.  You may have to do this more than once, depending on the weather and just how nice a breeding environment you have provided for the compost bacteria.

Within a few weeks you will have a pile of lovely stuff like this:

Expensive in labour, but oh so worth it!

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Today is not a planting day, so today’s garden job is mowing. I always feel great after a mowing session. I call it “mowing meditation”, and it is such good exercise – aerobic, strength and flexibility all at once – and I so hate exercise for its own sake. This way I end up with a trailer load of organic matter for soil feeding, and a nicely mowed lawn at the community centre, at the same time.

This mowing will not make good mulch. It’s been so wet since Christmas that the lawn is filled with soft meadow weeds like cobblers pegs and dandelions, and the grass is knee high. There’s an old permaculture tale of using this kind of stuff to seal dams, but it has never worked for me. I think in Australia,  keeping water in is a whole nuther level of challenge. But if I just dump it in a pile, it will turn into a slimey, water repelling gel that looks like it could be used to seal at least a little dam.

It will, however, make great compost. I’ll layer it with a little bit of horse manure, not too much because it already has plenty of nitrogen, and the leaves, prunings, and carbon rich weeds we try to keep cleared to reduce the fire hazard. This multi-purposing every bit of work is so much a part of the beauty of permaculture. In a few weeks I’ll be using it to pot up seedlings, and a few weeks after that, I’ll (hopefully) be posting pictures of the product in a recipe post!

If you are into gardening at bigger than a courtyard bed scale, I’d seriously recommend finding a good patch of lawn that needs to be lawn, and taking up mowing for exercise.

If you’d like my compost making recipe, I’ve put an article about it on the Garden page.

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