Every wildlife gardener should have a compost heap. We all collect our waste for recycling every week, so it’s just a matter of redirecting some of this to our own gardens where it can do even more good for the environment.
Composting is cheap and easy and creates a wonderful end product that feeds the soil and improves its structure.
Most of the composting process is carried out by tiny animals, fungi and bacteria, almost invisible to the naked eye. Slugs and snails, woodlice, millipedes, earwigs, worms, beetles and other creatures consume the decaying matter and these attract hedgehogs, birds, frogs and toads who feed on them. The decomposition process generates heat which makes the heap an inviting place for reptiles like lizards, slow-worms and, if you’re lucky, grass snakes to hibernate.
In your garden
Essentially all you need to make compost is a pile of garden and kitchen waste! Place it in an out-of-the-way but sunny corner of the garden where animals can visit it in peace.
Choose the type of compost heap which best suits your needs:
- An unrestricted heap might look a bit untidy but is more accessible for larger animals like hedgehogs and toads.
- Plastic or metal containers might be more practical in a smaller garden, and will be colonised by worms and invertebrates, but they are unlikely to accommodate larger creatures which will have difficulty getting in.
- A traditional boxed compost heap is probably the happy medium and is reasonably simple to build. The compost sits directly on the ground which means easy access for worms and other creatures.
In six months, the compost should be ready to use, although it takes longer in winter. It’s a good idea to have two heaps on the go to stagger the production and provide a constant supply of compost.
- Just adding garden and kitchen waste on an ad hoc basis to your heap will produce compost but there are some basic guidelines which should increase its chances of success:
- The micro-organisms which do the decomposing favour a mixture of fibrous, material, like woody prunings, cardboard and paper as well as easily broken down things like vegetable peelings, teabags and soft plant material.
- To function at their best they need warmth, moisture and oxygen. A compost container should therefore allow air movement, retain heat and moisture, but exclude rain and cold. Something like an old piece of carpet used as a cover helps to achieve this.
Check the heap every couple of weeks:
- If it seems too dry add some water.
- If it’s on the soggy side, add some woody material which is more difficult to break down, cutting up or shredding any large stems.
- If, after a few weeks nothing seems to be happening, adding some nitrogen-rich materials like poultry manure, nettles, comfrey or urine should get things moving.
A compost heap always benefits from being turned over with a garden fork from time to time, to introduce oxygen into the centre. Be careful not to disturb anything that might be nesting inside.
- Turning your compost during the summer is less likely to disturb anything asleep inside. Thrushes and blackbirds appreciate this especially when the ground is hard as you will probably produce a nice juicy earthworm or slug for them. Visit the website links to check what not to add to your compost, for instance certain weeds, diseased plant material and meat or fish which are likely to attract rats.
- Avoid chemical activators which may be harmful to wildlife.
- Screening your compost heap with some shrubs keeps it out of sight and provides cover for visiting animals.