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Gardener’s gold: valuable and easy to do yourself

written by Samen Maier on 16. November 2020
in Garden year, Gardentips
DI Doris Kampas

Gold in the garden? To do yourself?
Don’t worry, you haven’t landed on a site for alchemists!

Although: there is something magical about it. Garden and kitchen waste – tossed loosely in a pile – becomes the gardener’s black gold in a few months – compost. The ingredients for this miracle come from nature itself: small soil animals and microorganisms chew up, eat and digest the plant parts and build crumbs and clay-humus complexes from them. The digestion of the soil organisms generates heat that kills germs and weed seeds. Finally, the plant parts become valuable compost full of important nutrients.

Earthworms at work: kitchen waste becomes valuable humus

If compost smells like fresh earth or forest soil, it has turned out perfectly. Creating a composting area and compost correctly is not witchcraft. Nevertheless – with a little know-how you will avoid the usual beginner’s mistakes and you will be able to supply your beds with compost more quickly.

Find the best place for your compost

The composting place must be shady. Light shade is ideal, e.g. next to a hedge or individual shrubs, so that occasionally a few rays of sunlight warm the compost. Continuous sunshine, on the other hand, would dry out the compost, and the composting process would then come to a standstill. The compost feels most comfortable next to an elder or hazel bush.

Elder provides shade and promotes composting

Around your compost you need enough space to work on it and take out finished compost. Place a few stones next to the compost so you don’t sink into wet soil while working. And think about your neighbors when you build your composting area: a compost under their kitchen window or next to their patio is a no-go.

Choose the form of composting that suits you best

You can create compost in different forms. Arrange the compost according to the size and space in your garden and according to the plant material that accumulates in your garden and kitchen. And of course, your taste plays a role: are you the natural type who likes to live with a little chaos? Or do you prefer your garden neat and tidy?

Compost in heaps

A larger to very large garden is ideal to create compost heaps. You will need at least 8-10 m² of space. A compost heap is an elongated space, about 120-150 cm wide, on which you layer the compost material in a trapezoidal shape. The length of the compost heap is arbitrary, the height is a maximum of 150 cm.

In addition to the space for the compost heap, you will also need an area to collect material and turn the compost. And if you still have space, create a second compost heap every six months – then you will always have enough compost. Make sure you keep track of your compost area: separate the individual areas with stepping stones, for example, or enclose the collection area with a small wall made of bricks.

You have enough space? Then use it for a compost heap – collection site included

Compost in containers

Fixed edged composters fit into smaller to medium-sized gardens. There are countless variants: e.g. made of wood (purchased or homemade), plastic or metal. For a homemade compost bin, there are no limits to your imagination: for example, a border made of willow branches or tree trunk sections, with bricks or other stones, old wine barrels, with pallets and much more.

Two small compost containers are better than one large one – if you are short of space. Composting takes place in one, while you fill the other with material.

is practical and looks good: a composter made of wood

Area composting

You don’t have enough space for a composter, but you still want to have good compost for your vegetables or shrubs? Then try area composting. The “compost site” here is the area where you want to have the finished compost. This could be a vegetable patch or 2-3 spots in the garden where you want to plant a hedge or trees later.

Vegetable patch: choose an area that you do not want to use for 4-6 months. The ideal time for this is autumn, because the winter break is just around the corner. On the empty, well-cleared area, layer a mixture of leaves and grass clippings, perennial residues, very finely cut thin twigs and unsalted, uncooked leftovers from the kitchen. The layer should be about 15-20 cm thick. Finally, cover the mixture with straw, grass or soil. Over the months the material rots, nourishing compost is formed directly on the bed.

Tree or shrub planting: dig a hole or trench in the place where you plan to plant trees or shrubs later. Fill the hole/trench with plant and kitchen scraps. Mix coarse and fine material, then the rotting will work without complications. You don’t have to fill it all at once, just go by the material you have and your schedule here. Cover the filling with some grass at the end. After a few months, a great compost is created here, too, in which you can directly put the new plants.

Compost directly at the vegetable patch: with leaves, kitchen scraps and garden residues

This may go on the compost – and that not

Many materials are well suited for composting – but many others are not allowed on the compost. They would contaminate it (e.g. plant residues with spraying agent residues), acidify it (e.g. thuja cuttings, too many conifers) or even impair soil life (e.g. salted food kills earthworms).

In the following table you will find the do’s and don’ts for your compost:

Branches and twigs, shredded logs of deciduous trees and shrubsNeedles, trunks of coniferous trees in large quantities, remnants of “sprayed” trees and shrubs.
seedless weedSeed-bearing weeds, root weeds (e.g. couch grass, field bindweed)
Healthy plant residues from the garden, e.g. perennial cuttings, parts of vegetable plants cleaned away.Sick plant residues, e.g. zucchini leaves with powdery mildew, tomato plants with blight.
Leaves from trees and shrubsWalnut leaves, oak leaves
Lawn clippings, hay, straw and cuttings of ornamental grasses (e.g. Miscanthus).Large quantities of sawdust, large quantities of wood ash
Unsalted, uncooked vegetable food waste (e.g.: outer leaves of lettuce)Salted and cooked food waste from vegetables, all animal food waste, i.e.: fish, meat, bones, dairy products.
Fruit and vegetable peelsSprayed peels of fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits and bananas
Tea residues, tea bags, coffee groundsCoffee from capsules, these contain residues of aluminum
Animal manure from healthy horses, cows, chickensAnimal manure from stable animals treated with antibiotics, feces from cats, dogs and other pets, cat litter
Unprinted cardboard boxes, newsprint paperColorful and glossy paper

How to set up the compost correctly in 5 steps

Once you have determined the compost area and collected some material, you can start setting it up.

  1. Dig a pit 15-20 cm deep and put the soil on the side for later.
  2. Place a vole grid in the pit. This will protect your compost from uninvited inhabitants.
  3. Fill the pit with coarse branches and twigs. This will provide enough air to the compost.
  4. Now the actual filling begins. Alternate layers of plant debris, kitchen scraps, shredded twigs, branches, grass, leaves and other material into the composter or onto the windrow. Fine and coarse material should be filled in about equal proportions. Make sure that the moist layers (e.g. kitchen scraps, lawn clippings) are never thicker than 10 cm, otherwise oxygen-deficient zones will quickly develop – the compost will rot. Therefore, always mix some of the previously excavated soil under the plant material. Also, primary rock flour binds excess liquid and also enriches the compost with trace elements.
  5. Finally, cover the compost with straw, grass or soil.

In the compost pile, the rotting process will now begin shortly, during which the plant parts are converted into valuable compost.

After 6-9 months the compost is ready. If you want to speed up the process, it helps to turn the compost. In this way you bring fresh oxygen into the system and shorten the time span from the time you put it on the ground until you “harvest” the compost.

Compost ready – this is how you turn it

You can recognize the finished compost by its earthy smell and the fact that the compost worms have already retreated. Compost has a positive effect on any soil. It stabilizes nutrients, makes heavy soils lighter and sandy soils more grippy, stores water better and ensures good plant growth.

Spread 5-7 liters of compost per square meter annually on vegetable and perennial beds. Shrubs and trees you provide with 2-3 shovels of fresh compost – depending on the size of the plant. Roses are also happy with 1-2 shovels of fresh compost.

The best time to create and place the compost is autumn. You have enough material available from the garden year, plus the leaves from trees and shrubs. While there is enough to do in the garden in spring anyway, summer is too hot and winter is too cold, in autumn you can devote your time to the “black gold” with a pleasant temperature.

Post: DI Doris Kampas
Photo credits: bio-garten

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