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“The answer lies in the soil!”

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That’s what I seem to remember was always the answer that the likes of Percy Thrower and his ilk used to trot out on Gardeners Question Time in the old days.

….. well maybe, but it’s what you put into the soil that is what makes it so good.

With that in mind Sue held the first of her Compost Making and Using courses here at Nantybedd Garden today.   A dozen trusting souls reached deep into their wallets and diced with the timber lorries to spend nearly six hours talking about … Compost!

So great was the anticipation that the ‘car park’ was full a good 20 minutes beforehand – maybe lured by the smell of Sue T’s scrumptious cake with the early morning tea.

Eventually they settled down to discuss why they felt they needed help.  It seemed to be a long talk.

Getting into the swing of it

This was followed by a presentation of the do’s and dont’s, the sources of learned composting and how ’tis done here at Nant y Bedd.

Fortunately the delicious quiches for lunch were a bit delayed as the discussion around the slides ran over by quite a bit!

Lunch included not only the aforementioned quiches, with our own eggs and some interesting foraged ingredients, a salad largely gleaned from the garden and yet more scrummy cakes, this time from that multi-talented gardener/ painter and cake maker Caroline.

The spread!

 

Chance to chat over lunch

After lunch there was an opportunity to work off the excesses on a tour of the various compost heaps around the garden and an indication of how and where to use compost, leaf mould and other such mulches.

The “FC Bin” awaiting pumpkins

Needless to say the cats got in on the act, with Smudge rounding up stragglers and Oreo hitching a lift.

With perfect timing, Sue rolled back the cover on one of the heaps and there was ….

… a slowworm, enjoying the warmth

But it wasn’t all theory.  Over the last few weeks I’ve been instructed to place piles of ‘stuff’ up in the pig field.  Now I know why!  The assembled company was asked to help in constructing a ‘windrow’, a sort of open compost heap.

Here’s how you do it!

After this it was back to the garden room to discuss what was learnt.  A Nant y Bedd Garden postcard was issued to all present, along with a pencil, to record the three things that each participant would be doing in the future to make better compost.

A bit more tea and a (futile) attempt to finish off the cakes and the assembled cast was given a sachet of QR Compost Activator to go home with – but only after they had visited the plant stall and bought a compost duvet or two.

If you think this is for you, there’s another course booked on 27th June with a few places left and one pencilled in for September.  Get in touch, now.

Did you know?

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Did you know that 7 – 13th May 2017 is International Compost Awareness Week?  Neither did I.

We are pretty much aware of the importance of compost to the garden at any week of the year but here are some of the compost highlights here at Nant-y-bedd garden this week…

When adding material – weeds, mostly dandelions from the paths – but see below on that one – and lawn mowings – to the current compost heap I disturbed a pair of slowworms mating.  Nearly all all compost heaps are home to slowworms – which is very good news as they are brilliant at munching slugs – and I have a photo buried somewhere in my non-digital archive to prove it.

slowworms mating in one of our compost heaps

We have lots of compost heaps – it’s a big garden so we need them to process ‘waste’ materials from the garden and kitchen into a yummy, nutritious resource to feed our plants.  Every gardener will have his or her favourite way of making compost with special tips on how to get best results.  Our methods are still being honed after nearly 40 years but there are a couple of crucial things to adhere to, in our experience:

Firstly the heap must be bulky enough to generate heat, which speeds up the process of decomposition.  We also keep  our heaps covered at all times with duvets (yes, really) made from wool from our sheep – again to keep the heat in. For a detailed description of our duvets and how they raise the temperature, you might want to see our previous blog by clicking here

Having a good mix of material to hand during the process of building the heap is always a good idea.  I don’t put too much dry material (dead stalks of herbaceous material from the Spring tidy-up, for example) on at once put leave a separate pile to be added with the Spring’s first lawn-mowings.

Kitchen waste, including egg-shells and tea bags, also gets added weekly – but no meat, fish or bones as this may attract unwanted rodents.

Adding weeds to the compost bin

When the compost bin is full I like to get in there with a muck fork and give it a good mix – ideally if practicable turning the whole heap into an adjacent empty bin.  The whole thing then gets covered and the decomposition magic does it’s thing and a couple of months later (depending on the time of year) there’s a fantastic compost to use in the garden – at no cost!

Caroline loading up the wheelbarrow with compost earlier this Spring

Today I checked under the fleece to see whether the potatoes are doing anything – and they are.  Four varieties this year – Sharp’s Express – a first early that my Dad always grew, International Kidney – which are Jersey Royals except you can’t call them that unless they are grown in Jersey, Charlotte – which are our favourites for a salady-tasting main-crop which stores well until the Spring, and Remarka – which is, in my humble opinion, the best for jacket potatoes. Remarka are my own seed saved from last year as I have been unable to buy them from seed potatoes suppliers for the last couple of years.

First earlies and main-crop potatoes under fleece in the potager

So what has all this about potatoes got to do with compost, you may be wondering?  Well this year we are trialling the ‘NO DIG” approach to veg growing as advocated by the great no-dig guru Charles Dowding.  So we have put the compost on top of the soil and planted the potatoes in that layer instead of laboriously digging trenches, filling with compost, planting potatoes and then back-filling (we aren’t getting any younger..)  We shall see…

Charlotte potatoes planted in compost (and photo-bombing Oreo)

Yesterday I planted out the first of the brassicas – Purple Sprouting Broccoli (PSB to the initiated), Calabrese Waltham (which is a new variety for us, but as we discovered the fantastic garden at Waltham Place last summer I felt I had to try it – even if there is no connection) , Theyer Heritage Kale (we are members of the Heritage Seed Library and grow different  Heritage varieties every year) and Redbor and Pentland Brig Kale (both our own seed).  Again the compost connection is ‘no dig’.  I covered the bed with compost some weeks ago and planted the brassicas into this layer.  The whole bed is covered with black plastic netting to protect from the very pretty cabbage white butterflies which are welcome to feed on sacrificial cabbagey things elsewhere in the garden.

Brassicas planted ‘no-dig’ style in compost

Another experiment this year is exploring whether composted wood-chip can provide a good growing medium.  We are pretty much dependent on wood for heating the house and cooking so when producing firewood from our forest we also generate a lot of wood chip from the brash (branches which are too small for firewood).  We use this on paths throughout the garden but we have lots.  We also use lots of potting compost and rather than buying in expensive stuff from garden centres it makes more sense to make our own.  We have, for many years made our own potting medium with a mix of  garden soil (often molehills), leaf mould, garden compost and sometimes Moorland Gold which is peat (shock, horror!) which is a by-product of the water industry – where it is filtered out  where there is serious peat run-off caused by erosion into reservoirs.

So the experiment is to see whether we can grow potatoes successfully in a mix of composted (i.e. left in a heap in the forest for a couple of years) wood-chip and my own garden compost.  We’ve put this in a large container in full sun in the woodyard where we can keep an eye on it – and even water it if necessary (I think moisture-retention might be an issue with the wood-chip) as it’s next to one of our rainwater harvesting barrels.

International Kidney potatoes planted in composted wood-chip and home-made garden compost mix

By the end of this Compost Awareness Week I hope to have turned the compost heap which we finished building a couple of weeks ago and also hope to have emptied another bin (the other half of the one where we photographed the slow worms) by mulching the rest of the soft fruit bushes – have been waiting for it to rain before doing that.

Oh …and back to dandelions, mentioned earlier – don’t put them all on the compost heap – they are magnets for bees and butterflies and other pollinating beasties..

Red admiral butterfly on our dandelions

Happy composting!

Garden booze

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It’s the booze making time of year again.  It all seems to need to be done at once, so this year I’m splitting up the cider making with a bit of grape pressing.

We have had an excellent crop of Tom Putt apples (as recommended by the Marcher Apple Network) this time round – it all depends on the weather at pollination time – but we have also been given a load of what look like mainly cookers by our friend Linda.  The Tom Putt’s weighed in at just under 100lb, though it might have been a lot more if the badger hadn’t spent every night nicking the windfalls.  Linda’s weighed about the same, so we should get around 7-8 gallons in total.  I’ve also done a small amount using just crab apples, either to blend in or as a probably very dry cider.

To do it in this sort of bulk a few bits of kit are preferable.  Firstly a press and secondly a scratter.  Many moons ago I made a wonderfully efficient press, but unfortunately it got lost in the move from Kent to here – I think it got sold erroneously at the farm sale.  So this set up is from Vigo Presses.

So first set up the scratter on the press:

The full works

The full works .. with accompanying H3 tasting vessels

In go the apples, just as they come off the tree or the ground:

...not too many at a time

…not too many at a time

Turn the handle a few (well quite a lot of) times:

keep your fingers out of here when it is going round!

keep your fingers out of here when it is going round!

.. and this is what you get

ready for pressing

ready for pressing

Apply some serious effort to the screw thread and the juice flows.

Bootiful!

Bootiful!

After the juice has finished running, remove the pomace (technical term for this stuff)..

Solids 'cakes' of apple

Solid ‘cakes’ of apple …

…  which then go onto the compost heap

No waste in this process

No waste in this process

Take the pressed juice into the house and place beside the Esse for a week or so until the fermentation  (from the natural yeasts on the skins) has died down.  Depending on quantity now bottle it or store in plastic polypins which deform as the cider is drawn off, keeping air out.

Now comes the final and most difficult bit.  Sit and watch it for a month or six whilst it clears naturally and the flavour develops.

Then, as the old Wurzels song says, “Drink up ye zider, George, there’s still more in the jug”.

Grapes go very much the same way, except for killing off the natural yeasts, which are unreliable for wine, adding fresh yeast and sufficient sugar as there is rarely enough in home grown grapes to make a sufficiently robust wine that will keep.

Another great crop this year of the red, but virtually nothing on the white again.  Its days may be numbered!

Plenty of low hanging fruit

Plenty of low hanging fruit

just over 35lbs ready for the press

just over 35lbs ready for the press

Iechyd da!

Compost duvets

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We have recently borrowed a Thermal Imaging camera from The Green Valleys, ostensibly to check on the insulation properties of the house (and others in the valley), but it was interesting to turn the lens on one of the compost heaps.  (It’s also very useful for finding black cats on moonless nights!)

This heap is the one currently being filled and so is ‘working’.  As with all our heaps (7 in total) it is covered with black plastic, but also, underneath the black, is one of our compost bin lambs wool duvets.  Although its pretty cold outside the heap is still working, and is full of worms munching away.

The first picture shows the thermal image of the top of the heap with plastic and duvet in place and the second the top of the composting material itself, quite a bit of which has only recently been added, so not up to temperature yet.  The temperature at the centre of the photos is shown as a figure on the right hand side, the range of temperatures in the photo is on the scale on the right. 6C is approx 43F

Compost bin

Thermal image of the top of the heap

The difference is quite remarkable, being around 12C (21F) hotter (the yellow and red areas) under the duvet than on top. 18C is approx 64F

compost 2

Thermal image of the compost under the duvet

And here is what a (slightly mucky) compost duvet looks like in real life, with the top black plastic cover pulled to one side.  The filling is unwanted lambs wool shearings from a local farmer – very green!  If you live local to us, I can supply a limited number for a small fee. Use the reply/ comment form at the bottom of the page to get more details  The basic size is four foot square, although other smaller sizes are possible, as this is the bin size we find best suited to making good compost.

compost duvet

lambswool compost duvet