Saturday, 12 February 2011

Ah, the manure!

Gardening sustainably in north-eastern Scotland, presents its challenges. Not the least being how to maintain the fertility of the ground. Without artificial fertilizer. We have heavy, acidic clay soil that sticks to every part of you. Infested with creeping buttercups and couch grass, dandelions, daisies and dock weed…Arghh!

You might think that a dollop of dung will sort it all out. Easy there. Raw dung will often bring you even more couch grass. Scorch your tatties too. Plus it tends to make your soil even more acidic than it already is. Welcome creeping buttercups! I knew you’d like it here too.

You need compost. Mountains of it! What in old Scotland was called a midden. We’ve had a mild winter. It’s the perfect time to load your matured compost into the wheelbarrow and spread it out on freshly turned beds. Then sprinkle them with lime. The buttercups don’t like lime, but then I don’t like buttercups. At least not in veg or flower beds.

This year I’ve finally succeeded in accumulating enough compost to cover most beds. Two ingredients every compost pile needs in order to mature are heat and air. Heat in Aberdeenshire? You’re joking. For half the year the temperature remains in single digits. During the winter months the sun skims low over the southern horizon for a few hours before dipping below. That’s why you need biofuel. Grass clippings and dung are two best friends. Pile your grass clippings onto the mountains of couch grass and buttercups extracted from the beds over the summer. The heat generated by decaying grass is intense enough to kill the weed seeds. And scorch the weeds. By the following spring, the compost under the grass clippings is clean enough to use.

The scenic view

Our main compost pile is formed from kitchen waste: vegetable and flower cuttings. The trick is to make sure that there's enough air for the bacteria, worms and insects that decompose the waste. They need to breathe. I build the pile in layers, first straw or plant stems from peas and beans, kitchen waste and nettles, grass clippings and dung.It all goes into a wire frame so that air can get in around the sides. I also add Comfrey plants. We grow Comfrey in large quantities and extract the juice to fertilize tomatoes and courgette.

When the pile is a a few feet high, turn it. That’s when you’ll appreciate the reek of the compost. “Ah the manure!” you’ll say with pleasure. Putrification --- the word comes from ancient alchemy, is a perfectly respectable alchemical process necessary for refining the philosopher's stone. There's gold in that thar pile! After another couple of months you’ll turn the pile again. And so you have several piles next to each other in various stages of maturity.

The key to your garden’s success is to replace whatever you remove from the soil. If you cart away five loads of weeds, you replace them with equivalent compost. Nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium all need to be replaced. Sprinkle your wood ashes on beds where tatties will be planted. They're a good supply of potassium. Unfortunately planting beans and peas doesn't fertilize your garden. Not unless you plough them under, along with their fruit. Don’t apply lime and dung in the same year. They cancel each other out. It's why I also apply compost and dung in alternate years.

This sort of gardening isn’t the most glamorous. You don’t take your photo standing beside your compost for “Gardening and Good Housekeeping”. But it’s what keeps your garden alive.

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