Nichole wants to know the secret of making good compost.

  • Should it be covered
  • How do you start it
  • How do you turn it, how do you know when it’s ready and
  • How the heck can you turn that compost into good topsoil on the paddock?

“I know composting is supposed to be fairly simple, but you’d be surprised at how many people fail and end up with an area of their section or paddock that becomes a dumping ground.”

Gardening books are rarely written for New Zealand conditions – “and they assume you have a small section and not a lifestyle block as I do.”

The answer:

Waikato conservationist and permaculturalist Maxine Fraser says people get very hung up about compost.  “There’s pages and pages and books and articles written about it, all these rules about what to do and what not to do.

“Compost is just a whole lot of organic matter which, if given time, will break down into soil.  There’s many ways of doing it, and I’ve probably tried them all.  Now I make it the easiest way I know how.”

She uses black plastic compost bins, bought from most farm supply shops.

“These are great, made in New Zealand from recycled plastic and they come with a lid. I have two at opposite ends of the garden, and use them alternatively.  When we were on our lifestyle block, we had six of them scattered around the property.  I’ve been doing this for 15 years now, it’s not complicated and it works.”

She recommends placing the bins on a pad of loosely spaced bricks, which allows worms to get in and keeps the rodents out.  Then it’s just a matter of filling them.

“I chop up any large items like cabbage stalks and crush egg shells.   Hair goes in too. Animal manure can be added as well.”

She fills one bin and leaves it while the other starts being filled.  “And I use it when it becomes beautiful, chocolate-coloured soil.  It’s lovely.”

The process is a bit like baking a cake – “You’ve got to keep an eye on it. Every so often I’ll take a look and make sure it’s not too dry or wet, and adjust if necessary.”  If too dry, add leafy material; if too wet, add straw and fibrous items.

Lush grass grown easy

As for building up the paddocks, this comes down to management. For many years she and her late husband Tony ran young heifers on about 80 acres at Te Pahu.

“Its not good allowing stock to roam over a large area for a long time.  Tony was very strict about break feeding, restricting the animals to one place and then moving them on in a controlled fashion.”

“We grew fantastic clover and lush turf.  Once in a while we’d put some rock phosphate on, but otherwise it was just down to the break feeding.”  Compost is too precious to spread on paddocks, and is best kept for the garden, where it should be lightly forked in.

A willing worker

Katherine Hay, from Hamilton’s Environment Centre, has been a composter all her life.

“My parents had a huge garden and I was always the worker, emptying the wheelbarrow my mother had filled while I was at school.”

Her parents used three wooden compost bins – one large and two smaller cubicles.

The family also kept a lawn clippings heap at the bottom of a hill, and another heap under an oak tree.

“This had netting around it for leaves and grass.  It took longer to break down than the mixed heap but at the end of the year was a lovely dark mulch.”

The modern way

Now Katherine uses plastic bins, the same as Maxine.  “I inherited these, although I admit that I secretly lust after a wooden set like my dad’s.”

She says one of the tricks is chopping things up, especially sticks.  “This can be hard on the hands but there are some great little electric mulchers on the market which make the job easier.”

She suggests:

  • Start the heap on the ground with coarser material at the bottom.  Use chicken wire between the ground and pile to deter rats
  • Next put in a green layer and then just pile everything in in layers
  • Animal and chicken manures are good – but not too much at once
  • Add a small handful of dolomite occasionally.

“I grow comfrey next to my bins, and put leaves in regularly.  They are deep rooted plants and capture minerals from the soil, plus they heat the heap.  Never put in any cat or dog droppings, although hair is good.”

Feeding the fields

Soil improvement in fields is a different proposition – “Encouraging life forms in the soil is good, especially worms.  It might pay to aerate fields mechanically initially, and add lime or dolomite.”

Liquid fertiliser is easier to apply than trying to spread compost over large areas.  “This can be made in plastic drums, with a lid, putting horse manure and green composting materials into a sack and dangling it in the drum full of water.   After a month or so the diluted liquid can be spread on the fields – there are contractors who will do this for you.”

Changing philosophy

While she grew up with a large, productive garden, there are philosophical differences between the way her father gardened and how she now goes about it.

“Many of the older generation gardened in an English style, with separate vegetable and flower beds and the rest in lawns.  My garden is a rambling mixture of herbs, flowers and veges.”

She prefers not to use spray, even organic ones, and encourages predator insects to her property.

“The waxeyes are my aphid control and I do snail patrol with a torch regularly.  She finds it amazing that much waste sent to landfills consists of organic produce – “when it’s so easy to deal with, even on a small section, by composting or worm farming.  And there’s nothing better than growing your own food, which grows in your home made compost, and listening to the hens chatting.”

© Annette Taylor