Farming cheats: Making your own compost

Fertiliser needn’t be expensive. You can make your own compost by imitating the processes that naturally fertilise the veld.

Start by choosing a site for your compost heap that is close enough to where you plan to plant, so that you have easy access to your compost.

If you’re buying in any materials, like cattle manure, make sure deliveries can be offloaded. The site must also be level and have a water source close by.

You will need the following: Brown material. Anything dry. Vegetable leaves, grass or any other dry material of plant origin.

Green material. Green leaves, green grass, cuttings from your farm or weeds. Just make sure no plants have roots attached, because they can grow in your heap.

A compost starter. Animal or chicken manure, bone meal, comfrey, stinging nettle or seaweed. Finally, a little bit of wood ash and a balanced mixture of heat, water, and oxygen.

Picture one: Start by building a platform of dry branches, so that your compost heap doesn’t lie on the ground. Get a few thick plastic pipes, drill some holes in them, and place them in the middle of the compost to ensure airflow through your heap from below. Remember, you need oxygen for the compost to break down effectively.

Picture two: Build your first layer of dry material. Here wheat straw is being used.

Picture three: A first layer if green material is added. The green material helps heat up the heap and kills any pathogens.

Picture four: Add some dry material again.

Picture five: A layer of kitchen scraps is added. They have been collected over a matter of weeks and have been stored in a container elsewhere. Wood ash from braai fires is included in the scraps.

Picture six: Add some dry material again. And so you carry on. Add a layer of green material, some more dry material, then some chicken manure or any other manure you might have, then some dry material again, until you have used all your material. It’s a little like building a lasagne!

Keep the compost damp, as it’s the oxygen (provided by the pipes, and the different layers of dry material), and the water that breaks down the material. There are three main phases in the process. The heating phase starts after 3 days. Temperatures will rise to between 60 and 70ÆC and remain there for 2 to 3 weeks.

It then cools down slowly to between 25 to 45ÆC. Finally, the compost loses half its original volume, has a dark colour and is now ready to be used. The same principles apply, whether you are building a big or a small heap. It’s probably one of the most important farming skills there is!  

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