Making compost

21. March 2020 by Isabelle Van Groeningen
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Kräuter vom Großmarkt © Isabelle van Groeningen

Herbs, Strawberrys and other plants for your garrden and your balkony. We could buy them yesterday at the market – thank God!

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzung Zur deutschen Version – I wish you a happy spring! As I write this, spring has officially started. A season of hope and new life. Noticeably longer days (only one more week before the clocks change!), and noticeably louder birds. I watched a blackbird forcefully rip off bits of the fibrous bark of my palmtree in the garden: it is excellent nest-building material.

My world, like that of many other people, has become very small. The central focus of my little world is my garden. My daily walkabouts cheer me up no end, as it gives me the opportunity to observe closely the changes that occur from day to day. What a wonderful luxury this is.

From the many telephone conversations I have had with customers, friends and family these past days, I notice all are diving into their green paradise with unprecedented energy.

Getting equipped for the season

Kräuter © Isabelle van Groeningen

We are open today – come and get the plants you need for your garden!

read the German text  – Whilst I sit at home in solitary confinement, life goes on at the Garden Academy as we are still allowed to trade (at least for now garden centers remain open – how much longer, we do not know). Our wonderful customers still come and buy plants albeit carefully, our brilliant team of gardeners are making sure everything looks as inviting as ever and that people get the right advice – at a distance and with gloves.

We notice how all garden owners are busy equipping themselves for the season, knowing that they may soon not be able to buy the necessary plants, potting compost, seeds and fertilizer required for the coming months. Many people have resigned to the idea of not travelling anywhere for the foreseeable future, and instead have decided to make their surroundings as beautiful as possible. This summer many gardens will be exceptionally good, as they have never received as much attention as they do this year.

Besides gardening, the prospect of cooking  nice meals also seems high on the list: the demand for fresh herbs is huge!

The need to improve our the soil

Lungenkraut genießt die frische Kompostdecke © Isabelle van Groeningen

Pulmonaria officinalis enjoying the compost corner

Now that the early spring clean-up in our garden is done, my attention is focused on the soil.

Time and again we have noticed nutrient deficiencies in some plants. Leaves with yellow markings, weak growth or poor flowering performance.  Although we planted everything with mycorrhiza and added a lot of compost (and keep on doing so!) plants every so often remind us that the soil we started off with seven years ago is less than subsoil: it is what was dug out of the cellars of this century-old building. (At the time of moving in, our neighbours’ small boys thought it was the most marvelous sandbox! )


Komposthaufen ohne alles: Mit Liebe und einer guten Gabel quadratisch, geometrisch aufgebaut © Isabelle van Groeningen

Simply pure compost heap – build with love and a fork in a square geometric structure

A few weeks ago we emptied out our compost heap and scattered the lovely brown matter over the beds. At the Garden Academy we try to do this during the late autumn and winter months when there is more time, but it can also be done in late winter or early spring. Making compost is like bread baking: People get wonderfully fanatic about it, and everybody has his own methods for the perfect compost, so do not get worried if my recommendations are  different from your neighbours’!

Compost bins versus heaps

Hölzerne Komposttonne © Isabelle van Groeningen

Wooden compost bin

During my training in Wisley I learnt how to stack compost so carefully and meticulously, that the heaps formed an immaculate rectangle, with perfectly straight sides. This is feasible when you have a large heap, for a smaller garden it is easier to have contained bins.

The simplest way is by hammering four wooden posts into the ground and surrounding them with large meshed galvanized wire, (used for sheep enclosures) leaving one side “open” for easy access. Alternatively you can buy ready-made wooden or plastic bins. Look out for one where the sides are made of loose slats that you can adjust the height to a comfortable working level as you fill it up- or empty it out.

In case of a plastic bin, make sure it has a door or hatch at ground level so you can empty out the compost from the bottom. The advantage of wood over plastic is that it allows for better air circulation. In a closed plastic bin compost can become too wet and turn into a smelly, slimy mess rather than lovely crumbling soil.

How to start a compost heap

Obst, Gemüse und Gartenabfälle © Isabelle van Groeningen

Kitchen fruit and vegetable waste, garden waste

Ideally you should have two compost heaps. One active one, to which you add your greenwaste, and one that is resting and maturing, which will be ready to go onto the garden in autumn or winter. Direct contact with the soil is good, as it encourages  important soil organisms to migrate into your heap. Start by putting a layer of twiggy, woody material at the bottom, then keep adding layers of green waste. Ideally alternate green, leafy matter with more woody, fibrous plant material. The green stuff brings moisture into the heap and speeds up the process, the woody plant material provides the bulk.

Thin layers of manure, grass clippings, tree leaves and even pine needles can be alternated with other prunings. Likewise with straw or woodshavings from the chicken- or rabbit pens.

At the end of the season this heap should be turned into the second compost bin and left to rest for another year before it can be used in the garden.

Before you spread the compost onto the garden you may want to sieve it to remove any stones or larger bits of wood that have not yet fully composted. Put these back onto the new heap, it helps to inoculate this pile with useful organisms from the old one.

Chop up the plant material

Alles kleingeschnibbelt © Isabelle van Groeningen


Cut or break up stems into approximately 10cm long pieces to speed up the composting process. Alternatively, rent a shredder when you have gathered a lot of compostable material, it saves a huge amount of time and speeds up the composting process.  (don’t buy a cheap little shredder, it will only clog up at the first wet leaf you dangle over it, and cause a lot of frustration!)

What not to put onto your compost heap?

  • weed flowers or seedheads,
  • roots of perennial weeds like Groundelder, Couchgrass, Dandelions and Bindweed,
  • diseased plant material like rose leaves with black spot,
  • roots from cabbage plants (to avoid clubroot)
  • larger quantities of orange and lemon peelings
  • cooked food, meat or cheese leftovers.

What can go onto your compost heap?

  • leaves and stalks of perennial weeds,
  • annual weeds as long as they are not in flower,
  • all material from annuals and herbaceous perennials (except for those that have turned into obnoxious weeds!),
  • waste from the vegetable garden,
  • prunings from shrubs and roses,
  • raw kitchen fruit and vegetable waste like potato peelings,
  • tealeaves and coffee,
  • scrunched up eggshells,
  • leaves,
  • pine needles,
  • grass clippings.

All of these should preferably be added in thin alternating layers, and evenly spread, also into the corners. Try to press it down occasionally. This is best done by jumping on it, though do be careful not to fall! If it seems very dry (this can happen in periods of prolonged drought, or if you have little green leafy material) do water it.

It is so rewarding to give back to the soil in the form of home-made compost all that the plants have taken out of it over the season. It is the most valuable soil-improver you can possibly wish for, as the existing soil organisms will continue to process the material, and with time release the valuable nutrients, needed to good, strong plant health. In the meantime I need to give our soil a little extra hand, and look forward to the large bucket of well-rotted Chicken manure that a kind and generous friend has promised. I can’t wait for this somewhat unusual doorstep delivery to give this to my hungry plants. It makes a change from my daily breakfast roll supply. (Which I also look forward to!)

If you need further help with more gardening questions, do not forget that right now there are daily new films dealing with a variety of gardening issues from James der Gärtner to be found on the YouTube Channel:

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