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Brains Trust

Questions answered by Emily Stokes

COMPOST

What’s better, a compost pile or a worm farm?

It depends on how much material you have. An effective hot compost pile needs to be at least one metre by one metre at the base (even better if it’s 1.5 metres) and the same in height. You can store your garden waste until you have gathered enough material to make a decent-sized pile. If your material is more of a small but continuous stream of kitchen and garden scraps, then you might choose to keep a worm farm instead. Worm castings (or vermicast) can be used in a similar way to compost to fertilise your garden and diluted worm wee makes an excellent liquid tonic.

What’s the difference between hot and cold compost?

Hot compost is when you build your compost pile all at once with material that you have been storing, or brought in. When you get the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen (25:1) your pile will heat up within a few days and get to temperatures around 50–60 ºC. The heat will ensure your compost is breaking down effectively and efficiently as well as killing weed seeds and plant pathogens at the same time. Depending on your compost-making style, hot compost can be ready in a matter of weeks. Cold compost is a pile that is added to over a much longer time, often a lot smaller and sometimes in a covered bin. It will eventually break down, but won’t be the same finished product as a hot compost pile. If your cold pile is open to the soil it will most likely attract worms that will assist in the breakdown process.

How do I get the carbon-to-nitrogen (brown-to-green) ratio right?

A hot compost pile needs to have a certain amount of carbon (think brown ingredients like dry leaves, straw, old mulch, paper) and a certain amount of nitrogen (think green ingredients like fresh manure, grass clippings and kitchen scraps). The ideal ratio is 25 units of carbon to one unit of nitrogen. However the materials have varying ratios within them, so if you’re unsure you could broadly aim for four brown to one green. This might be a large pile of dry leaves and straw to a small amount of fresh chicken manure, and make sure you add enough water for the microbes to play their part in the composting process. You can push a piece of wire into your pile and touch it periodically to see if it is producing enough heat. If it’s not warm, add more nitrogen the next time, make your pile bigger, or insulate it better. You don’t want your pile to get so hot it kills the microbes doing the breakdown work. If it does get too hot, you can add more water and use less nitrogen the next time.

Do you still turn a hot compost?

Once you’ve built your hot compost pile, leave it for a few days to let the heat build up and the microbes begin their work. Then turn it a few times a week for the first few weeks if you wish to ensure the process will be fast and effective. Within a few weeks you will have crumbly, black and sweet-smelling compost, and you can cure it for another couple of weeks. You’ll get best results if you then cover it, and leave it for another couple of months allowing the worms to complete the curing process.

Can I add citrus, onions and meat to my compost?

Nearly anything goes – in moderation. The remnants of juicing a full bag of oranges a day will overload your compost, the same goes with onions. Citrus peel takes a long time to break down, so chop it into small pieces before adding it to help it break down quicker. As for meat, it will absolutely break down in your compost over time – many a loved backyard pet was turned back into earth in this way – but be aware that you’re likely to attract rats and other creatures looking for a free meal, so ensure meat scraps are well covered.

How do I keep vermin out of my compost?

If you have a daily stream of kitchen scraps it might be a good idea to use one of the covered compost bins or worm farms that vermin can’t access. If you are adding to a cold compost pile that is open to the air, make sure you bury your scraps deep into the pile each time you add them. With a hot compost pile you will be adding all of your ingredients at once, and it will heat up within days to temperatures that rats will want to avoid. You should also be keeping your hot compost pile wet enough that it won’t be a tempting place for rats to make home.

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

We’d love to see if we’ve inspired you to embark on any projects. One letter each issue will receive a limited-edition Pip magazine print featuring archival inks on textured, 300 gsm rag paper. Email your letters and photos to editorial@pipmagazine.com.au

Connections

To say that I was excited to find this in our letterbox this morning would be an understatement. You know those moments you have when everything just feels so right? That’s exactly how I was feeling today, reading Pip and feeling inspired and connected while having a coffee in the vegie patch, watching and hearing the bees buzzing all around me. Thank you for everything that you do.

Carmen Roche

via email

Hey Carmen,

Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I love hearing Pip makes its way into people’s homes and gardens and inspires them. That is the whole reason I create it. I know that feeling, too, of just blissing out in the vegie patch, watching the bees and having a morning cuppa. It’s one of my favourite things to do. Happy reading and thanks for subscribing.

Robyn

Mulch or menace?

I’m enjoying my Pip magazine subscription and the newsletter articles from back issues.

Are you sure that it’s okay to recommend tagasaste as a chop-and-drop crop (How to grow your own mulch, Oct 2020)?

It is listed as an invasive weed by the Victorian government. I also wonder about the African feather grasses, I think there are plenty of better alternatives.

Wendy Duff

via email

Hi Wendy,

You’re right, in the right circumstances, tagasaste can self-seed and spread prolifically, and in some areas it’s regarded as a weed. But as with many permaculture plants, it’s about educating yourself on what’s right for your environment and managing the plants you’ve chosen in your design effectively.

If chopped before it goes to seed, tagasaste makes great homegrown mulch – and has many other uses – but being aware of its potential invasiveness is really important. Thanks for flagging the issue.

Robyn

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