Mucking in

Mucking in

Composting, for us, is mostly about diverting waste from our alarmingly full, toxic landfills. Haphazard in our approach, we’re learning as we bumble along and don’t harvest a huge amount of compost – and when we do, it’s an added bonus on our journey of waste reduction.

Yesterday I attended the most inspiring workshop at Urban Farmstead, where I learnt that, just like baking, there’s a composting recipe you can follow. The workshop was facilitated by permaculturalist Saskia Schelling and herbalist Karen Parkin.  Over a period of 6 years, Saskia has toiled tirelessly to transform her suburban garden into a thriving food forest. Passionate about sharing her hard-won knowledge, the workshop was practical, mucky and hands-on. We added layer upon layer of organic material to create the most awesome compost heap. Here’s how it went down and some of what I learnt:

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Base layer – carbon-rich straw. Ideal size for the heap is 1.5 m wide by 1.5 m high – and as long as you like. This facilitates efficient heat build-up.
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Next up – nitrogen-rich horse manure. To generate heat and kick off decomposition, compost heaps need a good mix of carbon and nitrogen (more carbon than nitrogen). Saskia sources her manure from the local stables.
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More straw, then mineral-packed, nitrogen rich seaweed, foraged from our coastline.
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Some fresh cut greens for more of a nitrogen kick. Greens also store nutrients and minerals such as potassium and phosphorous in their leaves which are released during decomposition.
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Kitchen scraps, clay and – a key ingredient – water. The compost heap needs to be moist but not waterlogged. We learnt a nifty trick: squeeze a handful of the compost really tight, if a few drops trickle out, you’ve got the moisture content more or less right.
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More ‘brown’ matter to up the carbon content – newspapers and more straw. It’s worth noting that you don’t have to do it in this order, or with these particular materials, just work with what you have to balance the carbon and nitrogen. And you don’t need to layer either – you can mix it all up before creating the heap.
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Voila! A magnificent heap, ready to start working its magic.
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Within days the heap will start heating up. You’ll need to check the temperature in about 3 weeks – it should be hot (you can use a stick or an iron rod to gauge the temp, which should be hot to the touch). When the heap starts cooling down again, you’ll need to turn it (which sounds like quite a job!). 3 weeks after turning, it should be ready for harvesting.

That’s the very basic recipe, to be tweaked and adjusted to suit your needs and lifestyle. We tend to ‘cold compost’, adding bits of waste to a small bin which decomposes over a long time – months to a year. But if you’re a keen composter in Cape Town, looking to churn out beautiful compost quickly, get yourself to Urban Farmstead, to learn the best way – by doing.

Bin, bokashi or worms?

Composting is totally win-win. You divert waste from already-heaving, methane producing landfills, plus you create fertiliser which enriches your soil.

When you’re ready to start, first thing is to decide where you’ll put your waste. Once you’ve got that sussed, the rest is easy – it’s as simple as chucking your kitchen waste onto your heap, applying a few basic principles, and waiting for it to decompose into beautiful rich soil.

Whichever container you choose needs to have a lid. For urbanites in compact spaces, the best options are a compost bin or a bokashi system. If you’re feeling adventurous, or don’t mind a bit of muck, you could try worms. Here’s the lowdown on each:

*Bokashi*
Bokashi (meaning ‘fermented organic matter’) uses enzymes to ferment (‘pickle’) your waste. All food waste, including cooked meat and dairy, is thrown into a plastic bin and covered with a layer of bokashi (a powder that looks a lot like bran). When the bin is full, you close it and let it stand for about 2 weeks. It’ll then be ready to add to your compost heap.

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Kitchen waste sprinkled with bokashi powder. Because a bokashi system needs to be anaerobic (oxygen free), flatten your waste with a potato musher to get rid of any air pockets. This also helps you fit more waste into the bin.
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Sealed bokashi bin – store it anywhere in your kitchen or scullery. Most have a tap at the bottom for pouring out any liquid run-off. The principle here is the same as with worm tea (see below). If it smells bad, don’t use it for your plants – rather pour it down your drains as a natural disinfectant.

Pros
– can be kept inside
– can add cooked meat, dairy and bones
– speeds up the decomposition process

Cons
– does not fully decompose waste – it still needs to be transferred to your compost bin or dug into your garden so it breaks down completely.

*Wormery*
Worms are a great way to return nutrients to the soil. Worm casings (essentially their poo) create nutrient-rich vermicompost which improves soil fertility.

A wormery consists of a series of stacked buckets – we use three. The top two buckets are where the worms live and eat their way through our waste. When the middle bucket is full of compost, we start filling the top one with waste. Eventually all the worms will move into the top one (through a few holes in the lid), allowing us to harvest the compost in the middle bucket.

The bucket on the very bottom collects the liquid run-off, also know as ‘worm tea’, which is a great tonic for your soil if your compost is healthy. Worm tea can be diluted and used as a fertiliser.

A layer of egg cartons or newspaper on top of the food waste is handy for keeping fruit flies and other miggies out.

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A stacked worm bin. Inside the top two bins are worms munching their way through our food waste. The bottom bin contains the ‘worm tea’, which is not so much worm wee as run-off from the decomposition process. If your worm tea is in any way smelly, don’t use it, as out-of-balance compost can be damaging for plants.
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Peering into the top bin with the lid slid across (not convinced we have the balance right as there are always miggies and other creatures crawling around, though thankfully no rodents). It could be that onion? The strong odour of onions is said to attract critters.

Pros
– good for compact spaces
– produces nutrient dense compost + worm tea

Cons
– can be a bit mucky to deal with
– can’t add meat or dairy.

*Compost bin*
A large container – an old tyre, a plastic bucket or a wooden container – where you throw your organic food waste. This includes fruit and veggie peels and scraps, egg shells, tea bags and coffee grinds.

For convenience, keep a little container on your kitchen counter and transfer the waste to your large bin every day or when it’s full.

To keep the acid / alkali balance of your compost bin in check, layer it with organic garden waste (grass clippings, leaves, plants, ash from your fire or paper products).

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Our bin is open at the bottom and rests on soil. When the compost is ready we dig it out from the bottom, creating space for more waste on top. It’s quite tricky to turn the compost in this bin – you need to jiggle it around or dig inside from the top. If you can, opt for a bin with built-in turning handles. Most nurseries have a range of compost bins, and some may even have bokashi systems.

Pros
– good option if you have a garden or outdoor area

Cons
– can only take organic waste (meat, dairy and oils will make your pile stink and also attract rodents and other pests).

Top Composting Tips

  • To keep your compost balanced, aim for a good mixture of nitrogen-rich green waste (grass clippings, plants, organic food) and carbon-rich brown waste (branches, sawdust, paper products such as cardboard and egg cartons, straw). This helps keep the acid / alkali balance in check.
  • If you want your compost to be more acidic, add lots of citrus (orange peels) and coffee grinds. By contrast wood ash and egg shells are great neutralisers (wood ash has the added bonus of repelling slugs and snails).
  • Turn your compost regularly (every 6 weeks or so) and keep it moist (but not wet). Keep an eye on the temperature too – waste needs heat as well as moisture to decompose.
  • Keep it covered, in a dry, shaded area.

If you find yourself running out of space, have two or more containers on the go. That way you can use a second or third container when the first is full and doing. Here are some possible combinations:

  • Two bokashis in your kitchen
  • A bokashi in your kitchen and a bin outside
  • A worm bin and a bokashi.

We’ve got a large compost bin in the garden and when that’s full we top up our worms and use the bokashi for a few weeks, giving the bin time to break down and do its thing.

Pee on your tree

Pee on your tree

Everything about lemons scream summer. That colour. The zestiness of lemonade and G&T’s, that cleansing hot drink first thing in the morning. One of the best degreasers, polishers and odour neutralisers around, they should be a household staple.

A potent source of Vitamin C, the trees are evergreen and produce fruit all year round. And best of all, growing them is easy, perfect for novice gardeners. What’s not to love?

To flourish, they just need the basics – sun, water and fertiliser. The last being free if you pee on your tree – the nitrogen in urine is said to be the best natural fertiliser (double bonus as you save on flushing the loo too). We’re trialling this at home and will report back on whether our lemon tree survives, thrives or dies.

  • Lemon trees grow well in pots and look fabulous on balconies and terraces. And they transfer well if you want to plant them out.
  • Like many fruit trees, they may take a while to get going, not producing any fruit for the first few years, so hang in there.
  • They’re self-pollinating, which means you’ll only need one of them to bear fruit. Avos by contrast are cross-pollinators – you’ll need two or more trees for them to fertilise.
  • Choose a sunny aspect – too much shade makes them susceptible to disease. You’ll know your lemon tree is sick if the leaves start curling or become bumpy. Check under the leaves for scale and sooty mould (which look like white mould). Neem oil or good old cloth and soapy water is supposed to help here, or you could ask your local nursery for an eco-friendly spray.
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Our lone lemon tree in need of some TLC – few bumpy leaves on the bottom

Succulent love

My ongoing love affair with succulents has intensified since our level 3 water restrictions kicked in. Hardy, versatile and low-maintenance with endlessly fascinating hues and contours,  they’re the perfect drought tolerant plant. They don’t sap our water supply, and they absorb radiation. They seldom wilt. And they bounce back quickly after a bit of neglect.

Sculptural and beautiful to look at, ‘Bloom where you’re planted’ perfectly encapsulates them – stick them just about anywhere and they’ll propagate, morphing into the most captivating shapes.

Gardens in our part of the world are looking parched – new plantings have withered and lawns have died. The relentless winds don’t help, ridding the air of every trace of moisture, making plants even more dry and brittle. But the succulents soldier on, asking for just a little water and care, and giving so much in return.

My farm boy

My husband grew up on a farm and is much closer to the earth than I am. There’s stuff he just knows – basic agricultural principles about planting and sowing, the scarcity of water, eating seasonally. Being frugal and recycling is ingrained in him; it’s something I had to learn.

With all the technological knowledge we’re gaining, it seems the really basic stuff that we ought to know, like how to feed ourselves, is being lost. I only recently learnt what a pepper plant looks like. Could I tell a garlic plant from an onion? Probably not. Walnut tree from a pecan nut tree? Definitely not. Have I ever pulled a carrot out the ground? Nope.

I’ve gotten so used to plucking highly packaged and processed food off frigid supermarket shelves I can’t recognise plants in their natural habitat. But, determined to learn, we’ve been experimenting with a bit of urban farming. Our patch of garden is little, but it’s big enough to teach us the basics.

Here’s what we’re experimenting with at the moment.

We discovered, fortuitously, that the area underneath our trampoline acts like a greenhouse, as tomato plants kept sprouting up. Since then we’ve had success with celery, kale and peppers (gutted that our trampoline patch was recently decimated by builders who had to dig up some pipes). We’ve got some veggie boxes (mainly spinach, but also carrots and strawberries), wonderfully large potted blueberry plants (which we planted) and wild rosemary bushes (which we inherited). We’ve got a little lemon tree and planted a pomegranate bush, none of which have yielded any fruit yet. The tomato plants continue to sprout up anywhere and everywhere, clinging to to anything it finds.

We’re not quite at the stage where we can forage for supper, but it’s a start.

Who needs therapy when you can compost?

Who needs therapy when you can compost?

Last year, I had a writing assignment on solid waste management in Cape Town. A very unglamorous gig on the face of it, but it turned out to be life changing. Until then, I’d never thought much about what happens to our food waste when we chuck it out. I knew it ended up in landfills, but I never bothered to complete the thought. If pressed, I would have said that it just decomposes. I learnt though, that it doesn’t.

When food waste hits landfill, it gets mushed in with the other stuff we chuck out – the plastic and the rubble and the hazardous waste and the toxic sludge – and creates leachate. This is the really putrid stuff that leaches out of our landfills and seeps into the earth, polluting our air and seas. Deprived of oxygen to help it break down, food waste also releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas.  It’s pretty grim stuff to contemplate.

I learnt too that our landfills are running out of airspace (at an alarming rate). If we keep going the rate we’re going, we’re going to have nowhere to dump the mindless crap we keep accumulating. How to divert your food waste and keep it out of landfill? Compost it! It’s super simple. Super nutritious for your garden. And super therapeutic for you!

Getting stuck in with all that putrefying muck soothes the soul. It’s a deeply satisfying, tactile experience crushing egg shells between your fingers or ripping apart soaked tea bags to sprinkle over rotting veggies. It’s sticky and grimy – a wonderful respite from our sanitised lives where everything is contained, ordered and scrubbed clean.

Composting has reignited my connection to the very thing that sustains us. It lets me get up close and personal with food in a way that feels fantastically primal. And in our world of excess and waste it feels so good to plough what we don’t use back into the earth — rather than let it transmute into gunk that poisons our environment.

I think there’s a perception that composting and city life don’t gel. But really, all you need is a container, a willingness to get your hands dirty and a little know-how.  Read about how to get started here and here.

Try it, you’ll get hooked.