Can I have too Much Compost?

Yesterday evening I read ‘Growing Green’, by Jenny Hall and Iain Tollhurst, which had been recommended to me by a friend, Nick Vowles. There was a lot in the book that I already knew, but, as always, there is always something new to learn. The book is about Stock Free Organic farming, and much of the book is devoted to listing the standards that you need to adhere to to be registered. The book deals with farming at all scales, so quite a bit of it, the bits that dealt with machinery, were of little relevance, but there was enough new information to have made the purchase worthwhile. The main topic that caught my attention was the recommended amount of compost to use., which was one wheelbarrow load per 10 sq meters, for most crops, dropping to 5 sq meters for Nitrogen fixers, and some other crops.

A quick bit of mental arithmetic showed that I have been applying four times as much compost as they recommend. I wouldn’t normally worry about having too much compost, but they did say that an excess of Nitrates can lead to pest problems. So I’m having a rethink. Whilst my polyculture experiments are aiming at providing all of the fertility for the vegetable growing area, and may lead to a reduction in compost, I currently get through at least a bale of straw a week as bedding for the ducks and chickens. Buying that in creates a surplus of organic matter that I have been gleefully turning into compost, fully aware that I am importing fertility from somewhere else. So either I am going to keep on creating a surplus of compost, or I will need to produce more bedding material for my poultry, or I am going to have to find/develop a system that uses less straw.

Another interesting point raised by the book was that leaving bare soil over winter is one of the principle causes of soil erosion. Now I aim to keep all of the empty beds covered with compost, but the beds that have winter crops in still have a lot of bare soil. That’s something that I’m going to have to look at. Another useful topic covered by the book was which crops do/do not grow well with a groundcover. Sadly many of the plants that I grow at this time of the year are unable to compete with a groundcover, so I’m going to have to try mulch. Some of the plants will cope though, so I’d like to give that a try, but it does introduce another cost, or task. Buying, or growing, the seed for the groundcover layer. Plenty to think about.

The book gives some interesting crop rotations, including green manure details, and for anybody looking to establish a Market garden, it would certainly be useful.

I was also reminded that small branch wood, less than 7cm/3 inches have an almost ideal carbon/nitrogen ratio for use as a longer term soil improver. The lignin in the wood will take much longer to break down, but will not lock up nitrogen in the same way that older wood can. Again, this suggests ways that can help build fertility, such as sections of fast growing trees, or bamboo, perhaps as shelter for chickens, where small wood is shredded, and added to vegetable beds, possibly after use as bedding. Again, this is taking fertility from one area to another, but if the chickens are being fed from the vegetable patch, the system becomes much tighter.

On the downside, quite a lot of the techniques discussed come from Eliot Coleman’s book, New Organic Grower, which I already have, and may be a better buy.

The question remains, am I using too much compost? Perhaps I am. It may be that instead of scraping around to find enough ‘green’ material to make compost, that I use the old straw as mulch, or as a soil amendment. Removing excess Nitrogen, but still gaining from improved soil structure.

Plenty to think about during the cold dark winter.

Wishing you well

Deano

7 thoughts on “Can I have too Much Compost?

  1. chrisjsuk

    Hi Deano
    Interesting blog – we are using chippings as hen run ‘bedding’ and then using it under new deep beds or round soft fruit – glad to hear someone else talking about it as well
    Chris (www.ecodiy.org)

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Chris
      It seems silly to be buying straw in, when I should be able to produce quite a bit of bedding from shredded branches.

      Reply
    2. Deano Post author

      Hi Chris
      Followed your details toyour site, and saw that you were a LAND site. I couldn’t find the greywater details from following the link, but did take a look at your reed bed stuff. I grew some from seed, which have done very well.

      Reply
  2. A Life Less Simple

    Interesting one that I sometimes play with and then push to the back of my mind as with the old bedding from the goats I’m sure that some things don’t do as well as they could because of too much compost. Squash seem to do well on my ‘no dig’ beds (a layer of cardboard with whole houses worth of old bedding placed on top and left to rot down for a few months) and along with potatoes I am hoping to bring my use of wheat down to a minimum.
    Poppy

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      I’m looking at concentrating the compost for plants that really need it, and leaving some beds with less fertility. It would be nice to get to a point where I can combine fertility building plants, with heavy feeders, and not make compost at all.
      take Care
      Deano

      Reply
  3. Keith

    keep up the good fight deano. i too have come to the realization (after a year of experimentations) that a more conventional approach will do wonders for certain crops. by which i mean that digging, composting, and weeding exist in farming for a reason. while i am down with, eating the weeds, and do nothing farming, and broadcasting seeds (and i have learned A LOT from these methods in a year) Simply flinging seeds and amenments around willy nilly might improve my soil long term, but it makes my current yields look weak.

    i saw you mentioned not using as many trees and ramping up grains. i would recommend you think closely about this. my guess is you are saying this because its an immediate return, but thats kind of the urge we need to fight. for instance, ive read that the chestnut is grain equivalent to corn… if im remembering correctly. so planting corn around a young chestnut makes sense. eventually in your older age whatever that might be you will have chestnuts with very little work… you know this im sure

    just remember that grains take a lot of processing (as well as the planting etc) just as do walnuts. neither is a free lunch but grains aren’t the answer. my guess is you’d be better off on your farm without a single grain species, than without a nut tree. 2 cents.

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      Hi keith
      Thanks for the comment.
      I think that whilst it’s good to try different ways to grow things, we need to concentrate on what works best. I feel that digging, where appropriate, works best, especially on my clay. I also dislike dogma, and too many people are rigidly sticking to a system that may not be right, just because they beleive that it is better, without trying alternatives.
      The increase in grain is part of an experiment to produce a food growing system,that also provides it’s own fertility. As the effects of Peak Oil increase, we are going to need simple food growing systems, that do not require fossil fuels. For those who will have left it too late, trees will take too long to fill in the shortfall, whereas grains/vegetables will only take one season.
      You’re thoughts on growing annuals around trees are absolutely correct, but I think that people will need to feed themselves first, and then plan for a longer future second. Sadly,too many of them will leave it too late, or not have access to enough space to look after themselves.

      Lovely to hear from you
      Deano

      Reply

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