The Ancients

The Garden is open again and we’re all looking forward to seeing visitors back, and they’ll be back in time to catch the optimism of spring throughout the displays. Tulips in the Mediterranean, magnolias in the family beds and ruffled new leaves clambering out of buds and stretching into action. They’ll also see carpets of flowers that we didn’t plant, they were here before the Botanic Garden and maybe before whatever was before the Botanic Garden; they’re Anemone nemerosa otherwise known as wood anemones. (more…)

The hows, whys and wheres of composting…

By Alida Robey

I have had some intriguing responses to my previous post on composting– most commonly “Hurry up and tell us how to do it!” ; so without further delay, I give you the why, where and (most importantly) how of composting….

Why compost?

There is so much more to composting than simply meeting our own personal needs.  For me, the global urgency is such that I would have us label all shop bought fruit and veg: WARNING: Not composting will lead to the depletion of our soils! Here’s why:

Compost helps regenerate soils and improve soil structure

Current agricultural practices suck nutrient out of the soil. The resultant produce has less nutritious value than in previous generations, [1] meaning we are needing to eat more to get the same nutritional benefits. [2] Commercial fertilisers are designed to promote maximum growth, not necessarily superior nutrient content of the fruit and vegetables produced. Nor do these fertilisers benefit  soil structure and health. The fibre of compost added to soil helps improve water retention and also helps moderate temperature extremes.

It provides a slow release of nutrients (especially nitrogen)

Unlike synthetic fertilisers, compost adds a bank of biological activity to the soil, which encourages beneficial worms and helps to make significant quantities of nutrients (such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) bio-available slowly over time.

Composting keeps organic waste out of the landfill

About a third of household waste is likely to be kitchen-generated organic matter. Composting it yourself reduces increases in your council tax by saving some of the huge costs of domestic waste collection transport and disposal. Also, organic matter in landfill produces methane (a greenhouse gas  that contributes to global warming) and nitrogen-rich leachate (pollutes rivers and streams).

Composting transforms plant material, food waste and other organic matter into humus or compost, which is a richly nutritious soil-like material with the added benefit of microorganisms that help plants take up  the goodness in the soil. In other words, it turns otherwise smelly, unwanted waste into something really productive and pleasant to handle.

Where to compost

A community composting bin in the Shelton Community
Garden in Shelton Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire.
Photo credit: Joshua Whiton via Wikimedia Commons

The traditional means of composting is a bin, a heap or an enclosure in a sunny spot in the corner of a garden.  However, you can do some very effective composting even without a garden of your own:
Community composting bins require one or two people to maintain but can receive compostable materials from a community. The compost can then be used for community gardens or by individuals in the community . They can be located in parks, communal gardens, unused corners, on the edge of school grounds and other public/semi-public spaces. 
Wormeries are a wonderful alternative for those in apartments or with limited external space.  A wormery is usually a small stack of trays, which is home to a colony of compost – eating worms (NOT earthworms) that will convert most kitchen waste into wonderfully nutritious ‘worm wee’ and worm castings that can be used to feed indoor or outdoor plants or given away to friends and neighbours to use on theirs.

How to compost

This is what I consider to be the basics.  Once you have tried some of this and found it’s not going as badly as you had imagined, then I suggest you access some of the online information that will help improve your productivity. 

What goes in?

IN: 
Veg peelings & fruit
Coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells – crushed by a crunch of your hand
Cardboard (torn up no larger than a standard envelope), tissues, loo roll tubes & waste paper – shredded or scrunched up.
Especially welcome are egg boxes (ripped up a bit) and the contents of  paper shredders
Grass-cuttings (so long as you haven’t used weed-killer) and discarded pot plant contents including old compost and dead flowers
Plant prunings – chopped up to help decomposition
Weeds –  so long as they are not in seed, otherwise you will have them sprouting merrily back in the soil.
OUT (of compost bins but IN for wormeries)
Pasta, rice, couscous
Beans, pulses, lentils, cereals
Bread, chapatis, biscuits etc
Plate scrapings
Cheese and dairy products
Meat, fish and bones
Cooked potatoes
The reason many of the items above are excluded from compost bins but not wormeries is their attraction for vermin.
OUT (of everything)
Nappies
Cat and dog poo from animals that have been wormed.

Location, location, location

A typical compost available from
local councils.

For general composting, find a warm sheltered corner preferably reasonably accessible so you are not put off taking stuff there.  Set up your means of containing your compost, a compost bin or bins is the easiest, but a boxed-in area or even just a pile will do.  Your local council may, like Bristol, sell plastic compost bins and deliver them, all for as little as £12-15. You need to bear in mind that you will need to be able to turn the contents occasionally and that worms need access from below.

The great compost bake-off

Underlying the composting process is the chemical transformation of carbon materials (shredded paper, straw, vacuum cleaner dust, leaves, egg boxes, egg shells) and nitrogen materials (grass clippings of untreated grass, weeds, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds) into a whole new product – compost.  It is a bit like baking a cake where the ingredients are deliciously transformed by mixing and baking.  We can control the conditions in our compost to encourage the materials to decompose faster and effectively (i.e. to produce a really good cake rather than a baked lump of goo).
The other factors your composting recipe needs to include are a mix of particle sizes that assist aeration and hold enough (but not too much) moisture.  As with the cake, the mixing and aerating are important success factors between it just working and it being great. If it’s getting smelly, add more carbon materials and aerate it more frequently by turning it over.
Depending on your method, the transformation process can take just a few months.


Layer dress

Start layering your contents, bearing in mind the need to mix carbon and nitrogen items (roughly 2 carbon:1 nitrogen, but adjust according to whether it seems to look and smell healthy).  And just keep adding, remembering that it will all break down a lot smaller. I prefer to have 2 or 3 bins, and empty them out completely from time to time, retrieving the made compost from the bottom and piling the rest back into one bin. This can be a lot easier than turning the contents of individual bins. You can keep one bin of nearly decomposed compost at the ready for when you want to use it in the garden.
Happy composting!

Further resources about composting:

References:

[1] World Economic Forum (14 Dec 2012) What if the World’s Soil Runs Out? Time 

Bristol is buzzing, how the city is helping pollinators

By Helen Roberts

There has been a substantial amount of press coverage recently on the plight of our pollinators. They are now less abundant and widespread than they were in the 1950s. A number of threats are responsible, including habitat loss, disease, extreme weather, climate change and pesticide use.
A swathe of flowers for pollinators bring a
lot of cheeriness on a grey autumn day on
Horfield Common, Bristol.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple
There is not one smoking gun among these threats, but rather the combination that has endangered some species in the UK. Loss of wild flower rich habitat (due to intensive agriculture, industrialisation and urbanisation) escalates the effect of disease, extreme weather, climate change and pesticide use. Without food or shelter, pollinators are more vulnerable.

 Whilst visiting the University of Bristol Botanic Garden this autumn, I noticed the abundance of pollinators busily visiting many different flowers from the orchid look-a-like flower of Impatiens tinctoria to the swathes of Rudbeckia sp. and Verbena bonariensis. This year saw the 6th year of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden hosting the Bee and Pollination Festival in September. The Community Ecology Group from Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences was exhibiting and promoting their research as well as the exciting Get Bristol Buzzing initiative.
To find out more about pollinator research at the University, I met up with Dr Katherine Baldock, a Natural Environment Research Council Knowledge Exchange Fellow from the School of Biological Sciences and the Cabot Institute, to discuss the group’s work.
“Most people know that pollinators are important, but quite often don’t know what to do to help them, “ explained Katherine. “And this is where our research at the University comes into play”.
The aim of Katherine’s fellowship is to improve the value of the UK’s urban areas for pollinators by working with various stakeholders, such as city councils, conservation practitioners and the landscape industry. 

Translating science into solutions

NERC KE Fellow Dr Katherine Baldock.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple.

Up until 2014, Katherine worked on the Urban PollinatorsProject, which is researching insect pollinators and the plants they forage on in urban habitats.
Building upon research from this project and her current Fellowship, Katherine and her Bristol colleagues have contributed to the development of  a Greater Bristol Pollinator Strategy(2015-2020). The University research group has teamed up with Bristol CityCouncil, the Avon Wildlife Trust, Friends of the Earth Bristol, Buglife, SouthGloucestershire Council and the University of the West of England to implement this with the aim of protecting existing habitat and increasing pollinator habitat in the Greater Bristol area.
The group is also raising awareness of the importance of pollinators to a wide-ranging audience within the city and further afield. This is the first local pollinator strategy within the UK and follows closely in the wake of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ National Pollinator Strategy launched in 2014. It will help to promote aspects of the national strategy relevant to urban areas and hopefully set a precedent for the development of other local pollinator strategies throughout the UK.
The local pollinator strategy outlines actions that will help fulfill the strategy aims, including:
·         formation of a Local Pollinator Forum intended to share knowledge and best practice,
·         establishment of a joined-up approach to pollinator conservation by linking projects through the Get Bristol Buzzing initiative,

·         working with the public in local areas to explain actions they can take as individuals.

“Urban green spaces are important corridors for wildlife and help to provide linkages across the country”, explained Katherine. I envisaged a series of insect aerial motorways linking the whole of the UK, invisible threads connecting countryside, urban fringe and city centres.

The bee link-up

The Get Bristol Buzzing initiative is doing just that, as one of its strategic aims with the local pollinator strategy for 2016-2020, is to “Map pollinator habitat and identify target sites that allow habitat networks and stepping stones to be created to enable pollinators to move through urban areas”.
Katherine talked about how engaging the public at ground level was really important to Get Bristol Buzzing. The initiative is the pollinator component of My Wild City, a project whose vision is for people in Bristol to help transform spaces into a city-wide nature reserve. A number of interactive maps have been created that allow people to add what they have been doing in their area to help wildlife. The Get Buzzing initiative will feed into these maps.
Kath said, “The fact that you can add yourselves onto a map makes the Get Buzzing Initiative really visually appealing to people and much more personal.”

So, what can you do at home to help urban pollinators?

·         Plant for pollinators. Think about what plants you have in your garden. Could you change the planting or improve on it to make it more attractive to pollinators? Think about growing species that have nectar and pollen rich flowers and let your lawn grow longer to allow plants to flower.
·         Avoid pesticides. Most gardeners like their plants to remain pest free but avoid the temptation to use pesticides and accept the fact that you will lose some plants to pests. Instead try to encourage wildlife that will devour those pests or cultivate plants that will deter pests. 
·         Provide habitat. As pollinators need a home, you can always make your own nest boxes if you want to give your pollinating visitors a helping hand by drilling holes in a log or by bundling up lengths of hollow sticks such as bamboo. Visit the Botanic Garden’s bee hotel for inspiration!
“Setting aside a wild bit of garden can help pollinators by providing food, but provides nesting sites too”, remarked Katherine.

Additional information:

·         The Urban Pollinators Project was recently listed as one of the top 10 ground-breaking research projects in the Daily Telegraph. Read more.

·         Results from this research have recently been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B with more publications in press. A list of publications can be found here.

·         You can read more about Dr Katherine Baldock and the Urban Pollinators Project on page 7 of the 2015 edition of the Cabot Institute’s magazine.

Why doesn't everyone compost?

By Alida Robey

Composting was an inherent part of how we lived when I was growing up – nothing was wasted.  Food scraps went to the chickens, kitchen and garden waste to one of several  compost heaps and leaves were piled into a pit for future leaf-mould.
Today,  I live in a flat with a small decked courtyard. I have access to five compost bins in an area of communal gardens in Clifton (Bristol, UK); this means with almost no effort at all the only rubbish I produce is recycling and an occasional black bag of non-recycleable inorganic waste. I don’t even have to keep a compost bin at home. And still each week along my road I see quantities of black bags destined for landfill spilling out onto the pavement with fruit and veg and greenery.  Given the years I have spent trying to coax friends and neighbours in different locations to compost, this scene is a heart-rending weekly reminder of my lack of success in this personal campaign!
So when I was camping a few weeks ago, and had ready access to a group of highly educated and motivated young people, I decided to get some clues as to just why, I have had such disappointing results!  Just what is it that gets in the way of perfectly sensible people doing a perfectly sensible thing, which is so crucial for soil regeneration?
The group I talked to all had higher education degrees of various disciplines; they ranged in age from 22 to 43 and three of them were parents of young children; one is a science teacher and one has a mother who is a professional gardener; one has parents who spend their weekends on the allotment.  I was hopeful of finding motivation and some enthusiasm and knowledge.  I set forth with a few simple questions to find out just what their position was on the matter of composting.
Whilst this group may not be representative of anything remotely statistically significant, it did illuminate some interesting gaps in knowledge and understanding.
Composting is critical for regenerating soil.
Photo courtesy of Joi Ito, Flickr Creative Commons

What is composting?

I thought I had better start by finding out whether we were talking the same language. It was something of a shock to find that indeed we were not! To one individual it meant putting food waste in the council bin, while others provided me with a highly scientific portrayal of the biological process with little appreciation of the practicalities and its application in the garden;  one respondent assumed compost  was useful only for growing vegetables and another that it created a ‘sludge’ to go on the garden.  They had parts of the composting story but were unable to say accurately what should/should not be included in making compost and expressed no appreciation of the need to compensate for soil depletion on a localised or a more global level. 

Where did you learn about composting?

I had spent some years in New Zealand where our local Council bombarded us with information leaflets, subsidised the purchase of composting bins and where volunteer projects seemed to be run in many junior schools. The Council itself distributed free ‘worm wee’  to employees which it had generated from wormeries fed from kitchen canteen waste.  I assumed that most children these days (whether in New Zealand or Britain), were growing up well primed by the education system to look after the planet. 

Yet, it seems as if the school system had failed to equip my group of young interviewees with the basics. While some people’s composting knowledge had been passed down from relatives or acquired on the internet, many couldn’t recall exactly where they had learned about composting. ‘I learnt about it at school, not actively, just picked it up along the way,’ said Dom.  It would seem as though composting skills are acquired rather passively.

Do you compost?

It was time to get to the heart of the matter.  Not one of them had made and used compost.  One was in the process of filling a compost bin and had not yet generated usable compost. Even use of Council –provided and collected food bins was hit and miss.

Why don’t you compost and what would it take for you to do so?

It was clear from the responses that they all felt they had to have a vegetable garden or allotment for it to be worth their while to compost.  As Helen, who does have a fair sized garden said,  ‘I’m not big into gardening.’  What took me by surprise was the response of Adam, a 43 year-old father who votes for the Green Party and is interested in global environmental issues. He saw green waste going into the landfill as ‘harmless’ – ie non-toxic, without appreciating that it should be being actively used to replenish depleted soils. He had no real sense that global issues were in any way within his scope to influence, starting  in his own back garden.

Food scraps ready for the compost. Photo courtesy of
szczel, Flickr Creative Commons.
I had expected some antipathy to ‘smelly’ processes seen by many as attracting vermin or a strange but common wariness of having to handle worms. Not so this group. They didn’t feel there was anything stopping them composting,  but had no idea why they should do so and what they might be able to use it for, let alone how they might confidently go about it.
So where did this leave me?  I have to admit I was fairly despondent thinking of this as the next generation of gardeners and in charge of our fragile planet.
It struck me that these young people, though versed in some of the technical aspects of c
omposting, lacked any real sense of the practical processes and applications for compost. Nor did they have a sense of urgency about soil depletion and regeneration. While some of my fellow campers were able to explain the nitrogen cycle and complexities of bacterial decomposition, they couldn’t, for example, tell me what to put in the compost.
We are failing to equip school leavers and tertiary graduates with the basic core skills at their easy disposal for generating our rapidly depleting soil and minimising waste, let alone motivating them to do anything about it. In a world that exudes a sense of helplessness in the face of global trends we have not succeeded in showing them even the basics of what we can all realistically and fruitfully be doing towards the health of our planet, our communities and our own households, parks and gardens. In my next post, I’ll write about how and why we should be composting in our urban communities.

Alida Robey has a small gardening business in Bristol. For several years in New Zealand she worked with others to support projects to establish composting on both domestic and a ‘city-to-farm’ basis.