Composting at home

Open compost bin. Photo Kevin Line

I started totally using peat free compost in 2004 when working for BBC Gardeners World.

I also had always followed the ethics of the gardener and conservationist Geoff Hamilton prior to that, but for 17 years now have been totally peat free. In 2011, some paid writing work for the BBC took me off to some practical sessions at Ryton Organic Gardens in Coventry, this involved the use of various types of mulches and the best season to apply them in the garden, and where.  

A recent Royal Horticultural Society survey of gardeners using peat free potting compost compared to 2013 shows these results:

  • 36% of gardeners use peat free compost.
  • 93% of gardeners have used peat free/reduced compost compared to 25% in 2013.
  • 122% increase in bags of potting compost: on average 4 bags, compared to 1.8 bags in 2013.

A statistic in peat conservation shows that peat that forms blanket bogs can reach a depth of over 5 metres, and accumulates at approximately half a millimetre per year. Efforts to reduce commercial peat cutting and the demand for horticulture are ongoing.

The whole sense and strong feeling of the ethics of organic gardening has grown within me; peat free gardening through to Veganics - vegan gardening - has gone from strength to strength. Inextricably, it is all linked to wildlife gardening and the care of the  environment. 

The way in which the soil is managed through the no dig system, to good compost application and mulching, increases the biodiversity of wildlife within the soil. In turn a good healthy soil increases the food chain for the wildlife garden: attracting birds to eat the worms. Every content that inputs into our compost from plant debris from the garden, propagation compost waste, has been been grown without the use of peat. My term for the by product is called Gardeners Gold (home made compost).

It is without a doubt achieveable to grow good strong plants without the use of peat! Home composting helps the environment, saves money, energy, and CO2 emissions as part of the process. All of this thinking forms the ethos of wildlife-friendly gardening. I grew these echium flowers in peat free compost comprising composted bark, loam, and coir. I am soon to plant these annual flowers out into the border. Echiums are a real attraction for bees, a sure winner, and the subtle blue flowers  add a striking appeal to any wildlife planting scheme.

Dalefoot Composts in the Lake District produce peat free Composts.

  • Wool compost: This comprises a blend of British wool to retain moisture, bracken and comfrey, rich in essential nutrients.
  • Lakeland Gold Compost -  comprising composted bracken.

I have trialled both composts to great effect, Wool compost for potting on and growing plants, and Lakeland Gold Compost as a soil conditioner! 

Peat free composts can comprise green composts from our collection bins, coir, composted bark, a mix of sand, perlite and vermiculite, with the addition of seaweed feed.

I have experimented using just straight coir compost which is light, and clean to handle. If I'm perfectly honest from my experience,  I would not recommend using it alone as I think it lacks sufficient nutrient value. Having said that, if supplemented  with liquid sea weed feed, or mixed as a blend with other peat free mediums it's a  useful resource as a growing medium. 

I am currently using a three cycle system of the black composting bins, usable compost can be blended within a three month period using this system in each container, depending on the amount of recycable garden material you have to hand! The garden debris heats up quickly using this system within the enclosed lidded container. 

It's important to use a mix of materials. Grass alone heats up very quickly to the extent it can become too hot to hold your hand in after a short period, but grass alone creates anaerobic conditions, (no oxygen) this just creates a slimy mush. A good mix of vegetable debris, plant debris, vegetable peelings mixed with the grass really gets things moving. I also add some twiggy debris to create more air spaces within the debris which speeds up the decomposition process. 

In the open wooden larger composting frames I use two sections, but three can be used. This composting process runs through a process of six months. 

The thing I really enjoy about home comoposting  is knowing that you are playing a hand in increasing the biodiversity of the wildlife garden. It's great when you check your compost to witness all the creature activity such as millipedes, centipedes, a host of worms, and an aray of insect activity, all of which teams up to break down the compost. Creatures enter the closed lid compost bins from soil at the base.

Open compost bin. Photo Kevin Line

Open compost bin. Photo Kevin Line

Composting tips

  • Always be careful when forking out the compost to look for our garden wildlife friends.  Frogs and toads, as an example, are not unusual visitors. I once discovered a nest of grass snakes! 
  • In the autumn I spread compost over the soil, let the critters work their way in after a few days, adding to the diversity of wildlife. I then gently fork into the top few  inches of soil as a soil conditioner,  then leave  for the winter.
  • In the spring, I spread a more advanced cycle of compost over the soil, same thing, let the wildlife critters make their way into the soil structure. I then gently fork  the compost into the first few inches to feed the soil for spring planting. 

Our Wildlife Garden Lives And Breathes! 

Kevin Line

Kevin Line

Kevin is a lifetime Plantsperson, Horticulturist, Gardener & Conservationist, whose work spans over 40 years. He has worked for the National Trust, BBC Gardeners World and as a Head Gardener (North Cotswolds). Kevin works as a freelance horticultural plant consultant which includes advising clients on planting for wildlife friendly  gardens. He was previously the plantsperson at Lakeland Leisure Park, Flookburgh, also working in the area of conservation and ecology. Prior to that he developed a wildlife garden in Bowness On Windermere for three and a half years. The garden opened in 2019 under the National Gardens Scheme and proceeds were raised for Cumbria Wildlife Trust.

Kevin has a strong passion for wildlife gardening and is a member of Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Botanical Society Of Britain & Ireland and the RSPB. His passion and deep-rooted interests extend to wildlife & habitat conservation.