Green fingers, brown hands


Durban – If you don’t feed the soil, how can you expect it to feed your vegetables? And, if you don’t give the soil the right “food” – you run the risk of doing lasting damage to it.

Kamcilla Pillay speaks to the experts.


According to Life is a Garden – a web resource for budding gardeners – a thick layer of compost spread across flower beds is just what plants need and will improve the life of the garden.

“Compost sifts down into the soil and in so doing improves the aeration and water retention of the soil and returns nutrients to it, so that plants can grow better. Composting household materials also saves landfill space, as you will be able to reduce the amount of waste you dispose of.”

Coral Vinsen, who is on the board of the Durban and Coast Horticultural Society, agreed, and said good quality compost could start with kitchen table waste.

“You need to prepare soil before you plant vegetables. It also needs to be kept cool, by mulching, to keep the micro-organisms from getting roasted,” she added.

Life is a Garden said there were four basic requirements for successful composting: air, water, heat and organic materials.

“Air is necessary for organic matter to decompose properly. This will result in fast, odour-free decomposition. Air can be incorporated into your pile by simply turning the compost regularly.”

Moisture was needed to maintain composting activity in the pile.

“The micro-organisms that decompose the organic matter need moisture to move around and break down the material. Keep your pile about as moist as a well-wrung sponge.

If the pile becomes too dry, composting activity will slow down and eventually stop. When watering your compost heap, be sure to turn it so that the water penetrates all the way through.”

It said that if a compost pile had enough water and oxygen, a good balance of material, and enough volume, temperatures in the pile might reach more than 55degC.

“Heat is the result of the work of the micro-organisms that are decomposing the organic material. The higher the temperature, the more work being done.”

It said: “It should feel warm or hot to the touch when you dig into it. Temperatures of 55degC are desirable because they kill weed seeds and speed up the composting process. However, don’t worry if yours doesn’t reach this temperature. A cooler compost can work just as well.”

Life is a Garden advised gardeners to collect autumn leaves to make their own compost.

It said the month of February was a good time to do maintenance to prepare for autumn months.

“Make sure your compost heaps are ready to receive the constant stream of leaves autumn sheds. Don’t allow your lawn to become too long and then mow too short. It is hot and the top leaf growth will protect the grass roots. Water once a week if it has not rained.”

Watering, mulching and feeding were very important during this hot month.

“Lay a thick layer of organic matter around the trees as far as branches have spread. Feed with a complete fertiliser once a month. Add a lot of compost, bone meal and an organic fertiliser to the soil.”

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To make good compost, you will need the right ingredients.

The experts at Life is a Garden, and horticultural expert Coral Vinsen, say all organic materials contain a mixture of carbon and nitrogen.

“Items high in carbon are often a brown colour and items high in nitrogen are mostly green in colour. Try to collect equal amount of greens and browns in your compost heap as this gives the correct ratio of carbon to nitrogen in the final product.”


How to make compost:

Start by mixing the dry brown leaves of autumn with green clippings from the garden. Make sure you layer the material in your compost heap. Start with a layer of twigs and then alternate layers of green and brown material.

It is also helpful to put ordinary garden soil between your layers as this introduces micro-organisms that do the decomposing. Composting should take between two to three months, depending on the material used and the time of year.

Greens: (these materials are usually moist):

Green leaves, weeds, kitchen scraps such as fruit/vegetable, peels, green grass clippings, coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, flowers.

Browns: (these materials are usually dry)

Evergreen needles, dry leaves, dry grass clippings, bark chips, straw, prunings/cuttings, vacuum/dryer lint, birdcage cleaning. You can also include feathers, old leather, cow manure, paper, card, wood ash, stable manure and sawdust.

What to avoid: Meat, all dairy products, oil, weeds with mature seeds, pet wastes, walnut shells, rhubarb leaves, plants or grass clippings that have been treated with chemicals, diseased or insect-infested plants.

The Mercury


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