The Cottage Smallholder


stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Why buy compost for your pots when you can make it at home?

healthy courgetteWith the “save money in 2008 challenge” gripping the reins of the cottage smallholder spending, I’d been a bit concerned about the annual outlay on seeds, grow bags and loads of compost for the large pots that are dotted about in the kitchen garden.

We usually have fifteen tomato plants growing on a warm south west facing wall of the cottage. So I bought two ultra cheap grow bags from Netto and three decent ones and within seconds of planting them up, realised that the saving was a mistake. The Netto ones were rougher in every way. They tend to flood and the soil is adequate rather than the John Innes ones that shine like the good girls at school. I did put the Netto ones in the sunniest spot to give them a fighting chance.

When I saw the tomato plants in the Netto grow bags standing in water, I pierced the undersides of the bags with a penknife and gave the whole matter of compost some serious thought.

We have two sources of compost in the garden:

  • John’s compost heap – a combination of grass clippings, leaves and wood ash from his famous bonfires.
  • The giant black composter that we bought cheap on a council funded scheme to encourage householders to compost their kitchen waste, rather than dump it in landfill. The compost in ours is rather wet and cloggy and needs to be fed more paper but the bottom layer is useable and it’s thick with worms.
  • A smart rotating composter which we use to speed up the composting of kitchen waste.

Wide awake at two in the morning I was courageous- surely with these three sources of compost could provide everything that we needed for this summer’s veg in pots? In the cold light of dawn I reconsidered and motored into Newmarket and bought a bag of potting compost. Just in case.

We grow quite a few vegetables in big pots and containers in the kitchen garden (sweet corn, squash and courgettes) and like to have tomatoes, chillies, herbs, cucumbers and aubergines growing in the greenhouse. Usually Danny carries six or seven hefty bags of compost down the garden. To his relief, I cancelled this spring workout and carried the one, smallish, top of the range bag of compost myself. This bag was initially just insurance.

On the way back from Newmarket I realised that it could fill ‘control’ pots for a compare and contrast experiments. The excuse made me long to turn back for more.

I wasn’t confident about the experiment.

I’m now delighted that I did loose my nerve and bought just one pack of compost. Now I can see the astonishing results.
Admittedly, I’d also remembered that chicken droppings can be used straight away on the garden. So I saved the buckets of wood shavings and chicken droppings from two weekly clean outs (I usually add them to the kitchen waste composter).

I sifted the two year old compost from John’s compost heap, with a garden sieve. It felt good and almost friable between my fingers.

I decided to try various combinations of compost:
In the greenhouse:

  • Commercial compost (my control)
  • Home grown compost
  • A 50/50 commercial and home grown compost mix

Half the greenhouse pots were filled with the compost from John’s heap, a few with the commercially produced compost and the rest with a combination of the two.

In the big kitchen garden pots:

  • Commercial and home grown compost mix (my control)
  • Commercial and home grown compost mixed with kitchen waste compost and uncomposted chicken droppings and woodshavings

I didn’t have enough compost to have a big pot filled with just commercial compost. One pot was filled with a commercial and home grown compost mix the rest of the big outdoor pots were layered with our own compost, buckets of chicken poo and wood shavings, a bit of the rich kitchen waste compost and topped with our compost.

The greenhouse results have been good for the thrifty, greedy gardener. The plants in the pots with our garden compost have done very well. The combination compost plants not quite so well and the commercially produced compost plants are lagging behind.

Outside, in the kitchen garden, the pots with the combination of chicken droppings, rich kitchen waste compost and our own compost are spectacular. The leaves on our courgette plants are massive measuring nine inches across. The plants are covered with good sturdy buds. The courgette plant in the control pot with just a compost mix (no kitchen or chicken droppings) has diminutive four inch leaves and a few smaller buds.

It’s so easy to overlook resources that are sitting in your garden. I have for years. Normally I wouldn’t want to take a chance that might adversely affect our vegetable harvest but this year the saving money bit was between my teeth. And growing plants from seed makes them much cheaper and it’s not too expensive to experiment.

I had no idea that our own compost is clearly rich in nutrients and a good alternative to commercially produced bags. I hadn’t realised the benefits of using chicken droppings straight in the soil. Although I had read about it and ignored it. The kitchen waste compost bin need a bit of TLC.

I’m so pleased that I tried this and set up some simple control pots to gauge the results. If we hadn’t been cutting our outgoings I wouldn’t have bothered, just used our old methods that have produced good harvests in the past and spread the compost on the borders in the autumn. And there’s still loads left for that.

Now i’m firing on all cylinders. Next year I’m going to try raising seeds in our own compost (with a control row to compare). I’m also considering making up some of own grow bags. In a weak moment I was dallying with the thought of buying some double sized grow bags this year. They looked so plump and alluring and they were enriched with Grow More. Heavy duty dustbin liners filled with home grown compost and some daily presents from our chucks might just do the trick. Apart from being hugely entertaining, our chickens are providing us with eggs for eight months a year. Now I’ve finally twigged that they are giving us their own ‘grow more’ fertiliser every single day of the year.

Small savings. Massive satisfaction and the possibility of bumper harvests in years to come.

By next year I hope to be collecting great compost from the kitchen waste composter. All those unwanted snail mails could be feeding our plants next summer. According to Radio4, all the nasty chemicals in the print are quickly broken down when you compost them. And thank you Netto. Loads of your products are guzzled in this cottage. Your grow bags were dissapointing but made me think deeply about compost. And the results are superb!


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9 Comments

  1. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Penny

    Rats can carry the deadly Wiles Disease which can kill humans. This is spread in their urine and as they pee a little all the time the rat poo could be deadly so keep it well away from your compost.

  2. I came home from holiday and found the rats had made a home in my shed. Well it is cleaned up now but I was wondering is it safe (healthwise) to put the rat droppings on my compost.

  3. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Emma

    A few people have died from Weil’s Disease around here too. I always wear gloves in the garden – just in case. You’ve made a good point about rat poo in the compost – I wonder how long it takes to be safe to handle.

    Rats traps are efficient and quick. They will cure the problem in a short amount of time and you will be able to see how many rats you actually had. They are sociable and breed rapidly.

  4. Thanks for the hints on rat management – I need to invest in some wire mesh. They’re getting in through a burrow under the bin, and through the flimsy hatch on the side; my main concern is that they’ll start to get under the adjacent shed too.

    In true anecdotal story style, my Dad had a friend who died from Weil’s disease so I’m a bit cautious of handling the compost now that it’s got plenty of rat poo mixed in.

  5. Fiona Nevile

    Hello Michelle

    I need to prise the shredder out of the Rat Room and get to work!

    I’d love a ‘wormery’ but reckon that I have an off the cuff one. The kitchen waste composter is full of them!

    Hi Emma

    We had a rat in the compost bin in the first year. I was working for a couple at the time that had the same problem but their rat had eaten through the plastic bin so I reckon that traps are a good idea. Poison would be difficult to contain in a compost bin unless you have one of the old, sturdy council walk in and snack type traps. With the cut backs they are no longer available around=d here.

    If yu have evidence of rats in the garden always wear gloves and avoid exposing open wounds (including eczema) to soil. Some rats carry and spread Wiles Disease. This can kill humans as itâ„¢s very hard to treat.

    Hi Nommo

    Thanks for dropping by. Good point about the compost being too rich for planting seeds. Thanks. I’ll mix in much more neutral stuff. But I’m definitely going to give it a go.

    If yu do go down the mad professor route I’d love to hear the results!

    Thanks for your input regarding Emma’s rats. The steel mesh would deter them from digging up into the compost and this is what they generally try to do.

    Hi Sharron J

    I was just thinking about you today!

    I’ve heard that wormery compost is wonderful stuff!

    Thanks for leaving a comment.

  6. Sharon J

    An interesting experiment indeed 🙂

    I have a wormery that I’m hoping will eventually give me enough compost for the hanging baskets and few pots that I have.

  7. Nommo

    I have a black plastic bin 2/3 full of last year’s garden compost – it was my first attempt at cooking some… it is definitely about ready – and I have already filled the next one! Fortunately our council has recently changed it’s refuse collection routine and has imposed wheely bins on us, which means I have a couple of old school bins in which to put maturing compost.

    I will have to start a big one down at the new allotment – which is where I need it!

    For sowing seeds – I would be tempted to add something to the compost to ‘water it down’ – it may be a bit ‘hot’ (too many nutrients) for seedlings.. Cucurbit family, apparently, love a hot compost (and a warm one too!). I have heard mention several times that melons, pumpkins etc love to grow on compost heaps…

    I have been experimenting myself with additives such as horticultural sand, grit, vermiculite and perlite mostly to improve drainage and texture etc of cheap commercial peat-free compost! I will be playing with some worm cast(ing?) when I get around to clearing out the worm bin too!

    I would definitely do the same with my home-made compost when I get around to it! I was going to save it for an autumn top dressing in my raised bed in the garden, but I may end up doing a mad professor in the potting shed – seeking the ultimate, free soil additive for perfect home made potting compost! 🙂

    Oh – Emma – next time you turn your compost – see if you can whack a few with the spade before they run off! Then while you are at it – put some steel mesh down (get it from garden centres or farm stores) and put the bin on top – and refill it. That should keep the surviving critter out…

  8. I’ve got rats in my compost heap (I also have one of the council black plastic ones) which I’m a bit concerned about. I don’t ever put cooked stuff in the heap but they seem to like the carrot peelings and fruit bits which go in. Do I put poison down? Or traps?

  9. michelle sheets

    Hi Fiona,
    Atta’ girl! Good job! Home composting is great for your gardens and recycles so much stuff, making it useful instead of sending it to the landfill. I usually have more problems with too much dry and not enough wet.
    I read a while back that some offices have “worm bins” to get rid of shreaded paper (its a bin that they place worms and the paper the office shreads for privacy or junk mail, and the worms go to work on it and turn it into compost)and I have been shreading my junk mail and putting it in the compost ever since. It works great, except when your husband forgets to pull out the celophane window in the envelope!

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