Gardeners’ gold

Healthy vegetables.
Healthy vegetables.

THERE’S an old saying that goes: You get as much out of life as you are willing to put into it. The same applies to gardening.

It certainly relates to a consistency of effort and expertise over all four seasons. But there’s another important item missing and this is the time of year to put it right. If you want healthy crops, be they vegetables, fruit or ornamental in nature, you must replenish the soil.

A well-tended allotment.

A well-tended allotment.

Just think for a moment about the raw nutrients and water any successful crop takes from the ground it is grown on during its life cycle. Nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and several other elements are absorbed by the roots, transported to the leaves, and processed into food the plant can utilise.

However, none of this is possible without a good basic soil structure and decent humus content, capable of holding and releasing those nutrients as required.

I was called to a friend’s garden one hot July to determine why a previously healthy vegetable crop was visibly deteriorating. Each row; cabbages, beans, lettuce, etc. was wilting, with the owner wondering out loud which disease was responsible. None as it turned out. A spade into the soil determined that it was very light and sandy with a low organic content. With no humus to absorb and retain moisture or nutrients, the plants were collapsing.

An extreme case, yes, but with it comes a reminder that this is a good time of year to replenish the organic content of your soil. But how will it be done? If there’s a handy supply of cow or horse manure nearby – lucky you! If not, there are other options, the best of which is composted garden waste.

Commercial composting.

Commercial composting.

In a corner of the garden, well disguised behind two slow-growing conifers, we have a traditional wooden composting unit. It was bought at a garden centre some years back, and has more than returned the initial purchase price in terms of rich, dark organic produce. I’ve seen many similar structures easily cobbled together from a discarded wooden pallet.

Although this is a very effective unit for transforming green and brown vegetable matter into ‘gardeners’ gold’ when the input is balanced and air plus moisture are present, the process, even in summer, takes several weeks.

However, if you’re interested and can’t source one locally, Harrod Horticultural – – stock a model that is one metre square, by 60 centimetres high. It is priced at £40.95.

Plastic-based ‘Daleks’ are not without their drawbacks either, but are useful where space is limited. It is not realistic to anticipate harvesting a complete bin-full at any given time, more likely that a quarter to one third of the contents will have decomposed, depending on the season.

Hungry marrows need food.

Hungry marrows need food.

Up to recent times the fastest acting composting units have been those set on a drum (compost tumblers) that can be turned daily to stimulate aerobic bacteria within.

In ideal conditions the process should be completed within six weeks. The main limitation though has been the initial outlay. The small capacity model (140 litres) costs £198.95 and the biggest (635 litre) £394.95 in Harrod’s current catalogue.

Central to the success of this rapid compost-producing process is the daily drum-turning which agitates the contents, allowing air and warmth to stimulate beneficial bacteria within.

The built-in handle has a cog mechanism to make turning easier but the downside is a recommendation that the process be repeated six times each day. There’d be no need for gymnasium membership if you had a giant tumbler!

What the composting world has needed for some time is a system that is relatively fast, efficient, less expensive than the cheapest hand-turned tumbler, able to process a wider range of waste, but above all simple to use.

Interestingly, a recent invention from within our own county may well have ticked all those boxes and raised the bar a little in terms of progress.

Two months ago the HotBin was launched by AC Innovations, a Morpeth-based company which designed and developed it.

The big selling point for me is its ability to accept a wider range of household food waste, something that is frowned upon in existing composting systems because it attracts vermin, emits foul odours and results in a gooey mess.

I have travelled around the county for the local authority with a series of composting road-shows, and know from experience that most of us understand the food waste problem. Tea bags and vegetable peelings are a valuable green offering to the composting process but meat, fish, and cooked food left-over goes into the trash bin then off to landfill.

As a nation we are burying almost seven million tonnes of wasted food every year. The HotBin could be a step on the road to redressing that balance.

This was the intention of Tony Callaghan, the brains behind the invention. After creating a device that worked to his satisfaction, he realised that it might appeal to a wider audience and what better institution to offer it to for trials than Garden Organic, the Ryton-based home for all things organic.

After testing for its ease of use, effectiveness and quality of compost produced, they found it a huge success. That is proof enough for this fellow to try one.

The HotBin looks rather like a wheelie bin in shape and size, and as Mr Ford once said of his Model T car: ‘You can have any colour you like as long as it’s black.’ It is constructed from expanded polypropylene, has a 200-litre capacity and weighs seven kilogrammes. The system is airtight and has a thermometer attached to the lid, but there are so many other helpful features including a winter kick-start heater, bio-filter to stop those foul smells, raking stick, etc.

The HotBin costs £138 and comes with a three-year guarantee. But do read the impressive endorsements offered by people who have tested the product over the past 12 months, and find out more about it online at

If like us, you have more green garden waste than you can manage to process, the answer is subscribing to the fortnightly collection service offered by our local authority.

We have two large bins and they are always full, simply because the composting box continually runs at capacity. This begs the questions: What do you use your composted material for and what happens to the collected material?

Material that emerges from the small base flap of the composter is odourless, clean to handle and well-decayed. It is fed from a bucket into the planting hole for any new herbaceous, fruit or ornamental plants. Any left-over is forked lightly into the soil when applied as mulch.

The collected bins are transported a mere five miles to a local farm, the contents spread out in windrows and constantly turned by machinery as decomposition takes over. The end product is ‘comvert,’ a peat-free soil conditioner that is graded by size and sold in bags at your local recycling unit. Find out more online at

Never turn your nose up at good organic matter, you cannot overestimate its importance to the soil.

Footnote: Alnwick Garden Club meets next Tuesday, January 31, at 7.30pm in the Town Hall, with resident speakers-demonstrators David Parker, Jean O’Hanlon and yours truly. All are welcome.