{} Gardening techniques: Composting, weeding, water collecting, digging and no dig cultivation


Introduction: water collecting, water conservation
PHD digging and the problems of no-dig gardening
Criticism of biodynamic gardening and farming

Introduction: water collecting, water conservation

Above, Above, an early use of a water collecting surface, in my lower growing area The plastic surface supplies a below-ground storage container. Also shown, a wooden composter I made, here with a corrugated PVC roof. A wooden roof is used when the composter is used for supporting winter squash plants, as shown below. On the left, two circular structures with netting for plant protection. To the right of the composter, tall runner bean plants supported by canes. Further information: my page on support systems. (Click for link.) The beds in front of the runner bean plants make use of the PHD support system for boards (click for link) which has substantial advantages. A pond now occupies the area to the left of the composter in the photograph above. It's very useful for water storage and for watering nearby plants and, of course, has other benefits - aesthetic benefits, and benefits to wildlife.

Above, seeing the potential of a surface: the main path in the top allotment. The path is made up of wooden boards fitted onto a ladder. I fixed impermeable material to the boards and placed a galvanized metal container at the lower end to store the water.

The structures and the techniques I use for water collecting  are much more varied and elaborate now. They are described on the page Gardening / construction: introduction, with photographs in the section for 2018. Here, I provide further information, about, for example, the materials and equipment I use, including suppliers. As on the section for 2018, I've more to say about water collecting  than water conservation, but I do include some material here on water conservation techniques, for example, the use of mulches

Often, I draw attention to some additional advantages of materials, equipment and techniques for water collecting and water conservation. They can be used to provide benefits in areas other than water collecting and conservation. Relying on mains water less, or not at all, isn't achievable without expenditure of money, obviously - and isn't achievable without work, and sometimes hard work, and the expenditure of time, equally obviously. The time, money and effort can always be devoted to other objectives - and not just objectives to do with growing. It's easy to justify if the benefits are more wide-ranging.

Like water collecting and conservation, composting can provide real benefits. Not much money has to be spent to carry out composting - a proper composter isn't a necessity at all - but the results can't always be justified, it may be felt, by the care and the effort. This is also the case with water collecting and conservation. The benefits of providing water for plants without dependence on mains water, or not nearly as much, can surpass the rewards of composting, in my experience ,but the work and time required are much greater, and the expense much greater too.

I don't provide guidance at all on 'standard stuff.' I don't explain how to construct a pond for storing water - and helping wildlife and creating, if possible, beauty. Helpful information about excavating, laying pond liner and filling the pond with water is plentiful. I don't explain in very great detail how to construct the water collecting surfaces I've designed. I hope the information I do give will be useful. It generally concerns matters which aren't standard. To give a minor example, it can be much more convenient to fill containers with water to weigh down the edges of pond liner before starting to fill a new pond with liner rather than to use rocks or bricks. Water containers weigh not nearly as much as rocks or bricks, until they are filled with water. It's less effort to bring them to the site of the pond, unless a quantity of rocks or bricks is near the site to begin with. Even then, rocks or bricks may damage the liner, whereas a water container with rounded edges and contours won't.

PHD digging and the problems of no-dig gardening

The disadvantages of no-dig gardening outweigh the advantages by a large margin, I argue. I outline the advantages of digging. I own a digging hoe and have sometimes used it instead of a spade but I think the use of a spade has substantial advantages. First, I outline some severe disadvantages of no dig gardening. The introduction, consisting of images and text, is followed by more detailed explanations. Then I examine the technique of digging with a spade and make a distinction between lift digging  and innovations of mine, no-lift digging and part-lift digging. No-lift digging in particular takes far less effort than lift digging, the usual, the established method. It avoids the need to lift the load - the soil - against the force of gravity. So far as I'm aware, the distinct advantages of no lift digging (and part lift digging) have never been described - astonishing. The explanations are followed by a summary with images. All the images in this section show my lower allotment.

Here are potatoes growing in the allotment (variety Kestrel, second early.) I've grown potatoes every year since taking on the allotment. I've rarely added manure and never added compost. I've never prepared the ground thoroughly - by making a fine tilth or any other means except digging. The digging hasn't amounted to back-breaking work and the technique of no-lift digging which I developed in 2020 and now use makes digging almost effortless.

Potatoes are a good crop to grow in land which hasn't been cultivated before. Earthing up to form ridges in the soil is easy work and it benefits soil texture enormously. The clods of rough ground are broken down by growing a potato crop and the dense foliage of the potato plants deters weeds very effectively.

I can't imagine growing potatoes by no dig techniques. I can't imagine using scarce - precious - compost and less scarce but valuable mulching materials for growing potatoes. For growing potatoes and all other crops, the work of transporting compost from the unloading area to the growing area seems far too much work for me. If the compost isn't bought but made is a composter, the work involved is substantial. If the heap is turned to increase the heating effect and kill weed seeds effectively (or, perhaps, not so effectively) then the work involved is very substantial. If the compost isn't turned then adding compost adds weed seeds. If the compost is turned then adding compost is likely to add weed seeds, although far fewer. Collecting mulching materials is a necessary task, but collecting the massive quantity of mulching materials needed for no dig gardening is a different matter. I wouldn't contemplate doing it.

I do buy bags of compost (peat-free) for purposes of propagation, for growing tomatoes in the greenhouse, and now for growing lettuces. Shown here, lettuces growing in containers. I've an aversion to slug damage in lettuces and this method avoids the problem completely. The containers are well above soil level.

Below, lettuces of various varieties and at different stages of development growing in soil in the same bed as potatoes.

I grow courgettes every year and, as with almost all crops, follow the principle of minimal soil preparation. I always dig the ground, which is the bare minimum, and in the case of courgettes do add some manure, although not very much. What I don't do is to add10, 15 cm or some other depth of compost to the soil, sow the seeds in the compost and then apply a 10, 15 cm or some other depth of mulch. The large leaves of courgettes keep down weeds to a large extent.

Similarly with the growing of winter squash plants, shown in this image, to the left of the yew tree. The wild flowers to the right of the yew tree are corn cockle (Agrostemma githago.)

More images of winter squash plants, supported by the wooden composter, a multi-function structure:

Similarly with brassicas. I do use straw and manure, as this image shows, but much more sparingly than in the no dig method. The straw bale and the manure making up the manure heap are bought and delivered. My two allotments are on a slope. To transport these materials involves moving them uphill. Complete self-sufficiency is impossible but I prefer to be as self-sufficient as possible. No diggers have to obtain (often by buying) materials to a greater extent than myself. A perfectionistic approach to bought materials is often impossible. So, a new digger may well have to accept straw and manure with chemical residues. I' don't have available a chemical analysis for the straw and manure I buy, but I can claim that I reduce the risk.

I emphasize the importance of the planting hole. I don't always add supplementary compost or well-rotted mature when planting a tree or another young plant but often I do, to give the plant a good start. Very often, I've done nothing to improve overall soil fertility in a bed or other planting area. All the apple, plum, fig and hazel nut trees I've planted have been planted in areas of poor fertility and sometimes in atrocious areas, unusable for most purposes. 

Rhubarb is a crop which surely doesn't benefit from the supposed advantages of no dig gardening. The roots con obtain nutrients from deep in the soil - a thin layer of compost applied by a no digger will have marginal benefits. The large leaves suppress weeds. A layer of mulch isn't needed.

Further comments on no dig gardening, its disadvantages and lack of advantages: 

In the no-digging system, soil fertility can be improved but in important respects the soil remains unimproved.

Digging a garden or allotment gives the opportunity to remove stones and many other objects. When I took on my allotments, I discovered that one large area had been used as a dumping ground for rubbish - a thin layer of soil covered plastic, rusting metal and other debris. I removed most of the debris but couldn't remove it all. Digging over the years has given me the chance to remove everything, or just about everything. Each year, wherever I dig, I find bits of plastic which got there before I took on the allotment - but the thin strands of plastic I find came from the landscape fabric I used to kill weeds when I took on the allotments: another reason for avoiding these materials. Even though the strands are very thin, I'm glad to have the chance to remove them. Digging also gives the opportunity to remove stones, large and small, and to gradually build up a soil which is nearer to a fine tilth.

A no-dig garden or allotment may conceal a wide assortment of unwanted objects for year after year. The unwanted objects are easily removed in digging systems. The soil in no-dig plots isn't improved over the years by removal of stones beneath the surface and those other objects beneath the surface. Removal of stones on the surface and near the surface - not all the stones, some of them or most of them - will give a higher germination rate when seeds are sown. A high level of fertility is unnecessary for the germination of seeds and the early growth of seedlings. Soil improved by removal of stones is perfectly adequate.

Digging gives the chance to know the soil better, to feel a closer connection with the soil. In the case of no dig gardening, what lies beneath the surface of the soil is permanently hidden, or hidden for as long as the plot is maintained by no-dig methods.

The layer of fertile compost in no-dig systems is unnecessary. The uniform layer of compost added in no-dig systems improves general soil fertility but only marginally. It doesn't benefit the further growth of the plant very much. In digging systems, the compost can be applied where necessary, where it has the most benefits, not over the plot as a whole.  Of course, there are lucky people who are blessed with stone-free soil, or large stone-free soil, soil with no contaminants, but I and many other people aren't in this fortunate position. For me, no-dig gardening is out of the question.

A note on the removal of stones. Obviously, there can never be complete removal of stones. The larger stones are best removed by hand. A soil sieve can be used to remove smaller stones but the ones available to gardeners are almost useless for larger areas, I find. I designed a soil sieve which makes use of readily available material, galvanized welded mesh sheet, which is formed into a circular shape in next to no time for use as a soil sieve. In the case of commercially available soil sieves, the stones remain in the sieve and the sieve quickly becomes clogged up. In this design, the stones fall out of the way and if the design is placed in a wheelbarrow, the stones are collected there. It's much larger than those other soil sieves and can deal with much greater quantities of soil, but after unrolling, the flat galvanized sheets take up hardly any space and can be stored easily.

A thick layer of mulch can smother weeds in a no dig system but in general only the less harmful weeds, the weeds which are 'mere beginners.' Obviously, Japanese knotweed isn't deterred by a layer of mulch but similarly with a range of other weeds, such as couch grass. Dandelions pose problems for me but adoption of no digging would do nothing to solve the problem. Every year, for days at a time, vast numbers of little parachutes descend on my allotments, each one carrying a dandelion seed. The air is full of them. A layer of compost or a layer of mulch on no dig beds would suit them very much. I remove many dandelion plants in the process of digging beds. I don't have to dig holes specially to remove the dandelion plants, the opportunity to weed is an additional advantage of digging. Once dandelions have taken a hold, the primary technique I use is flame weeding with heavy duty equipment. This destroys only the aerial parts of the plant, not the underground parts. In no dig gardening, it's impractical to use flame weeding on the beds. If straw is used as a mulching material, it's in loose form and is flammable. I do use straw as a mulch, but only with crops where flame weeding won't be used. Flame weeding isn't a suitable technique to use with beds covered with compost.

A note on digging technique

Lift digging (my own term for the usual, established technique) is when the load - the soil (or soil + other things - stones or plants) on the spade after the handle has been pushed into the ground  is lifted with both hands. In 'simple digging,' the spadeful of soil is lifted, then the spade is turned upside down so that the soil drops back into the hole left when the soil was removed, and the soil is then chopped up with the spade. Or, the lifted soil is transferred to another place, which may be nearby or further away, as with the methodical techniques of single digging and double digging. In double digging, the soil is dug to a depth of two spits, not one. Double digging should be avoided whenever possible - it's a labour-intensive technique.

In no-lift digging (again, my own term), I push the spade into the soil with both hands. Then I use just one hand to push the handle of the spade downwards and towards me. Stepping back a very little distance can make this motion easier, but it's perfectly easy in all but the hardest of ground. As a result of this flowing action, which needs hardly any effort,  the handle of the spade is much nearer the ground and the load, the clod of soil (with, perhaps, stones and plants) has been lifted up. This part of the ground being cultivated has had its connection with the surrounding soil severed. The reason why the action is so easy (why the 'effort' requires so little force) is that the spade is being used as a first-order lever. Part of the back of the spade acts as a fulcrum.

Then, there are alternative courses of action:

(1) The spade is withdrawn and with either one hand (if the clod isn't compacted) or with two hands (if the clod is compacted) the spade is thrust into the clod a few times, to begin the process of de-compaction, as the first stage in the formation of a fine tilth, if that's the objective. For many crops, though, no further action will be needed. If further action is taken, this is achieved by methods other than digging.

(2) This action is essentially very simple even if describing the action may seem a little complex. If a weed is part of the clod, after the handle of the spade has been pushed downwards, to separate the clod from the surrounding soil, then the handle is pushed back to the near-vertical position and at the same time moved upwards, until the lower part of the spade is behind the upper part of the clod. Moving the spade forwards tips the clod upside down in most cases, so that the leaves (and flowers, if present) are now covered by the clod of earth and the root is inverted. A weed deprived of light, completely or almost completely, and deprived of water, almost completely - the root can absorb water in the clod for some time - is far more likely to die or be weakened. In this case, the clod isn't sliced.

In part lift digging, some of the material on the soil is lifted, but not necessarily with the spade. One or both hands can be used instead.

If there's a weed growing in the clod, then before slicing the clod a number of times, it can be sliced once or twice to 'trim' the clod, so that there's less soil adhering to the weed - taking care not to cut the weed's roots. The weed can then be lifted - in many cases it won't be a heavy load - with the spade or by hand and it can then be placed in a container for disposal. As in the case of no-lift digging (2), weed control is integrated with digging the bed or other area of soil.

I don't compost the weeds removed in this way. I don't in general carry out composting where the contents of the compost container reach a temperature high enough to kill weeds and weed seeds. I use a 'sludge' technique. I put the weed in a container of water - below, there's a photograph of a wheelbarrow lined with plastic sheet which is impermeable to water. Immersion in the water for long enough kills the weeds and the weed seeds. The soil taken from the ground with the weeds goes into the water container as well and the end result is a 'sludge' which makes a contribution to soil fertility when it's applied to the soil.

Summary of no lift and part lift digging

After the spade has pushed into the soil and been moved, with one hand (the 'effort')  from a near-vertical position to a position not far from the horizontal, the spade acting as a lever. The load, the clod of soil, has been separated from the surrounding soil and lifted, with hardly any effort.

The clod is then sliced with the spade - a few times if a coarse texture is allowable, more times if a finer texture is needed.

This clod contains a very obvious weed, a dandelion plant.

Weed-containing clods like this can be treated in two ways. The clod can be inverted, without the need to lift it, by twisting the wrist. In this case, there will be an earth layer covering the leaves (and flower, if present) of the weed. The weed will be starved of light. This is an instance of no-lift digging. Alternatively, the clod is trimmed so that the part containing the weed can be removed, with less soil: this is digging by part lift. The part lifted is the weed with some soil.  The rest of the clod, which is not lifted,  is then sliced to give a finer texture.

The part removed can be placed into a container of water, in this case, a wheelbarrow with plastic sheet insert, to begin the process of weed-killing and weed seed killing (if the dandelions have seed heads.)

Part of this allotment, brought into cultivation a long time ago, was found to have a very large amount of rubbish under the soil surface - rusted metal and plastic amongst other things. The flat soil was covered in grass and looked good, but the layer of soil was very thin, only a few centimetres. if the land had been cultivated by no-digging, the rubbish might easily have not been detected and remained there.

Below, more rubbish in and on the soil in a corner of the allotment, the last to come under cultivation:

No lift digging retains some advantages claimed for no dig cultivation.

It's often claimed that no digging maintains soil structure and that mycorrhizal fungi are hardly disturbed. No lift digging maintains soil structure to a great extent and disturbs mycorrhizal fungi hardly at all. The effects on soil structure which do take place are beneficial - for example,  compacted soil is loosened. No dig gardening doesn't improve compacted soil. It's also claimed that because the soil is not inverted in no dig cultivation, weed seeds are not brought to the surface, where they may germinated. In no lift gardening, the soil is not inverted and weed seeds are not brought to the surface. It's also claimed that in no dig gardening, worms are more likely to pull plant material making up the surface mulch to lower levels of the soil. In so doing, the worms open up the soil, improving drainage and absorption of water. No lift digging opens up the soil to a far greater extent than no dig cultivation. No dig cultivation does nothing to open up the soil, to reduce compaction of the soil. The action of the worms would be supplemented to a very great extent by this preliminary work with the spade (work which, as I've explained, is far from laborious.) The mulches applied by no dig ideologists have more than one function. Anyone, digger or no digger, can apply a light mulch which provides food for the earthworms. No diggers also use mulching for weed control. There's nothing which prevents a digger from adding mulches too, although it should be recognized that for the more problematic weeds, and these include very common ones, mulching is a poor method of control - not just a poor method of control, but one which deters or prevents the gardener from using far more effective methods.














Sections on water collecting and water conservation and criticism of no-dig gardening and biodynamic gardening are in the column to the right.

Introduction: composting
The PHD solar composters
Hedge, wall and fence composting
Obtaining compostable material and bed-extension
Disadvantages of plastic composters
The main composter
Other aspects of composting

See also other gardening pages:

Gardening/construction: introduction, with photos
Gardening: beds and boards
Structures: plant protection and support
Structures: greenhouse and cloches
Some design principles in gardening

Introduction: composting

Above, the new PHD solar composter, one of the extensions to the greenhouse: a large composter, with polycarbonate  sheets on all sides. On this side, the polycarbonate sheets are curved. (The sheets shown in this photograph have been replaced with longer sheets which now have greater curvature, giving greater interior volume.) These sheets, and the other sheets, bring about internal heating of the composter by the greenhouse effect, increasing the rate of microbial action whatever the external temperature, so that composting is faster and more likely to achieve the heating effect which kills weed seeds.   The composter is a 'walk-in' structure: it has plenty of internal space so that the compost can be turned (with a manure fork) very easily. Below, view into the interior of the composter, after removal of the door, which is made of flat polycarbonate sheeting. The compostable materials are covered with flat polycarbonate to increase insulation. Photograph taken 19.04.2020, a few days after the design idea, which was followed by very rapid construction. After completion, other gardening tasks, such as watering plants, had to take priority over accumulating more compostable materials to place in the composter.

Above, two photographs of the first composter I designed, in place for many years and still in place. A composting structure, like other gardening structures, should preferably have more than one function, if the supplementary functions don't compromise the primary function. This composter can be used for plant support whilst continuing to make compost. Below, the roof of the composter used to support  winter squash plants:

The composter can be used for protected cropping, as a kind of cold frame. A simple supporting structure can be fitted inside the composter.  It supports a growing container fairly near the upper surface. The plants growing here will benefit from the increased temperatures..  There's plenty of room for compostable materials below the supporting structure. This wooden composter can be converted into a solar composter. The wooden roof is replaced with a flat polycarbonate sheet or a corrugated PVC sheet.

There are TV programmes which pretend otherwise, but fruit and vegetable gardening on any scale, for any length of time, involves disappointment as well as fulfilment. The harsh realities come in many different forms: weeds, the worst of which can seem like one of nature's bad jokes, although it would be difficult to see the funny side of Japanese knotweed or some other weeds, pests - insect, bird, mammal, human (allotment vandals included here in the category of pest),  plant diseases, pests which spread plant diseases such as aphids, weeds which are the hosts of disease-causing organisms (yet another disadvantage of weeds), watering in times of drought, the time-consuming watering which isn't just a token gesture but enough to satisfy the voracious thirst of potatoes and other crops and ensure a good yield (subject to potato blight and perhaps other diseases), the difficulty of obtaining a good yield.

Even if most things go well (it's unlkely that all things to go well - if temperatures are right and rainfall is just right, not too much, not too little, things are going well for the weeds as well) then there can still seem  a disproportion between effort and yield. Some crops are markedly superior to others in this regard. Runner beans give a better yield than broad beans, courgettes give a better yield than peas.

Composting gives a low yield. The  disproportion between effort and yield is  marked. A large mass of compostable material gives not nearly as much compost as the gardener would like or the soil needs. To collect a large mass of compostable material in the first place is sometimes impossible, or requires so much effort. The end product is very desirable, but its contribution to soil fertility - the soil fertility of the whole growing area - could be viewed as  more peripheral than central. In economics, there's a great gulf which is often cited, the gulf between infinite wants and scarce resources. In gardening, there's a gulf between the needs of the soil and the scarce resources of compost.

Every gardener should compost - it would be a breach of gardening ethics in most cases not to compost material which can be composted, or have the material which could be composted transported to a distant site. Composting has many more benefits than soil improvement, even if soil improvement is a central objective. All the same, a gardener has to be careful not to give too much effort to composting at the expense of other gardening tasks, and non-gardening tasks and duties, for that matter.

There are many  dedicated composters who devote great effort to securing diverse materials to build a well-balanced heap and who turn the heap to ensure that the heating effect continues. I'd describe myself as a dedicated composter in many respects. At the end of it all, the amount of compost produced is still unlikely to be massive, on the garden scale.  Manure, unlike compost,  is generally obtainable in large mass and makes correspondingly greater contributions to soil structure and soil fertility, despite the lower concentration of plant nutrients in manure. Composting should be viewed as a gardener's duty, an absorbing interest as well, perhaps - it's an absorbing interest for me -  but no more than that - not the semi-sacred preoccupation of some organic gardeners.

My discussion here is in accordance with this thinking. I discuss ways of increasing the supply of compostable materials and ways of saving work -  the work of bulk handling, when compostable materials are available in quantity, and work once the composting process is under way.  I also discuss compost containers - plastic, traditional wooden, and the composters I use myself, designed to minimize the effort in producing compost: this valuable material, but one whose worth can easily be exaggerated.

So far as possible, composting should be integrated - unobtrusively, as I see it - into the other aspects of gardening. I discuss some gardening techniques which have a linkage with composting, such as hedge-cutting and weed clearing. Although nettles are a much finer compostable material than hedge clippings, hedge clippings may well be  obtainable in much greater masses than nettles - although nettles can be very prolific and useful contributors to composters.

As well as the composter above, I use composting systems which have a larger area than most of the ones commonly used, including hedge composting (there's also wall composting and fence composting). These techniques don't make use of a composing bin or a composting structure.

The PHD solar composters

Another view of the large PHD solar composter, one of the extensions to the greenhouse. Making it cost me nothing.  The curved polycarbonate sheets shown in the photograph to the right of the main greenhouse structure have been replaced with longer sheets, giving greater curvature and increasing the internal volume available for composting. These polycarbonate sheets were old sheets which I had available. The greenhouse offers great flexibility. This is one extension to the greenhouse. There are other extensions with very varied uses.


Looking into the interior of the composter a few days after the design idea and the construction of the composter. A small quantity of compostable material has been added. On the right, upright, the straight polycarbonate sheet which is placed over the compostable materials to increase insulation. This is a 'walk-in' composter. In most cases, the work will be done from just outside the composter. The large internal space allows easy mixing and rearrangement of the materials after the internal temperature of the materials has fallen. (I have a compost thermometer for measuring and monitoring the temperature in the interior of the materials.)The fact that the walls of the composter are constructed from polycarbonate and the greenhouse walls are constructed from polycarbonate (and some corrugated PVC sheets) rather than glass makes working in close proximity to the walls safe. The partition wall between the composter and the main greenhouse structure accepts multiple layers of polycarbonate sheets. In constructing the composter, I used various old polycarbonate sheets to increase the insulation levels. Photograph taken 19.04.2020.

More material was soon added: nettles, climbing rose prunings and a layer of straw, which provided higher C material to make a more balanced C/N mixture.


Length (at all levels)  1.8 metre (5'11")

Width (at soil level)  0.9 metre (3') This is extendable.
Width (max.)  1.2 metre (3'11")

Height (max.)  2.0 metre (6'8")

This is the first solar composter I used, a much smaller one, using a single curved polycarbonate sheet:

The rear 'wall' of the composter was a vigorous ivy hedge. The ivy made a contribution to compostable materials inside the composter, with good insulating value. Placing a composter next to a hedge makes constructing a composter easier and offers these further advantages. I dismantled the composter after the compost produced had been used for supplying some of the needs of two young rhubarb plants. I didn't carry out temperature measurements, using a compost thermometer, or make a methodical study of composting in this composter. The space taken up by the composter was now needed for the further growth of two trees on either side, a Bramley apple tree and a Dabinett cider apple tree. For a long time, I couldn't see any obvious site for a new solar composter but I've now found one - by converting one of the greenhouse extensions, I've made a much larger composter. This is a very recent project. I intend to make a methodical (or semi-methodical) study of composting in the composter, including temperature measurements. Given the demands on my time, the study is more likely to be semi-methodical.

The new solar composter is a 'walk-in' composter. It allows me to stand upright inside the composter and to work inside the composter if necessary. Usually, I will be working from just outside the composter but there's plenty of space outside the composter as well. This makes turning the compost and rearranging the compost material much easier.

Using the right tool  saves a great deal of work in compost making, as in other gardening activities. In this case, the correct tool is a manure fork. 'The Organic Gardener's Handbook' by Margaret Elphinstone and Julia Langley' is excellent, and has a very informative chapter on tools. This is their section on the manure fork:

'The manure fork is related to the pitch-fork, designed to lift material and throw it or load it somewhere else. It is the most useful tool for building compost heaps. You can use it to load seaweed into sacks on the beach, to throw muck into a trailer, to mix up your weeds and grass mowings into a good compost ... It is a pleasant tool to use properly, because when rhythm and balance are right there is very little strain involved. You can shift a ton of manure with no aches to show for it, and work comfortably all day with it at a steady pace.

'Manure forks have four or five rounded prongs which curve upward, and the prongs are set at an angle to the shaft to assist the lifting movements for which it is intended. If you cannot find a manure fork at your garden suppliers, try an agricultural store.'

I have an alternative way of turning and mixing the compostable materials after the initial heating phase has come to an end, so that the heating effect can resume. The solar composter is at the boundary of this allotment. There's a sloping surface which leads to the lower allotment, trellis which can be covered with boards:

The materials can be transferred the short distance to the edge and allowed to fall into the lower allotment. When the materials fall, they are rearranged: dispersed and mixed. In the lower allotment, polycarbonate sheets can easily be erected to cover the compostable materials in the next phase of composting. When the compost has been produced, the polycarbonate sheets are removed and the compost can be used in the lower allotment and the polycar

Hedge, wall and fence composting

Below, a privet hedge kept in check with material from below the hedge. Over a period of time, privet twigs, leaves, small branches were removed after hedge trimming and transferred to the bottom of the hedge. On the side shown here, the privet hedge is lower. On the other side, the hedge is much taller and the hedge trimmings were simply thrown over the hedge to this side. After partial breakdown, they were brought back to the near side and put on top of the privet hedge, as a check to the growth of the privet.

Rampant blackberry bushes at the bottom of the same allotment are being kept in check with different materials, mainly manure and straw. The manure from a local farmer is delivered and stored very near to this area, reducing the work of applying the manure. Part of the earthwork seen from above:

These are all forms of composting at a boundary. I use hedge composting in both the upper growing area and the lower growing area, in both cases near to a privet hedge. I use a long strip of land next to the hedge, about 035 m wide, as a long composting area. The hedge forms one of the long sides. The other long side is formed by boards supported by stakes, the system explained on the page beds and boards. This is a very flexible system. The boards can be moved very easily, for example nearer to the hedge or further away. When I work on beds near to the hedge, it's convenient to throw weeds and other suitable materials into this composting area by the side of the hedge rather than to take them to a compost bin or to put them in a wheelbarrow which then has to be wheeled to a compost bin. The materials are out of the way and if they're the least bit unsightly, grass or other things can be thrown on them to cover them up. The compost materials will play a part in hampering the sideways growth of the privet hedge. - these hedges grow outwards as well as upwards, of course. Whenever the hedge is trimmed, clippings fall onto the compost area, increasing the compostable material and avoiding the need to transport the clippings to a separate composter. Other boundaries, walls and fences, have similar benefits, except, of course, the benefits of restricting growth and the benefits of clippings, unless a fence supports climbing plants which are sometimes trimmed. I can't claim that this is an important source of compost, but it makes a contribution and it has a range of other benefits. Upward growth of one of the privet hedges is checked by a novel technique - using the top of the hedge as a growing bed! It retains most of the growing medium during a growing season. Since roofs are often used for growing, why not use the tops of hedges? I'm not a great admirer of privet.

Greenhouse composting

View inside the greenhouse, showing some of the tomato plants, October 29, 2018. The courgette and squash plants, the runner bean and Borlotti bean and French bean plants were cleared a few days earlier, after harvesting the crop. The tomatoes had already been harvested and the time had come to clear the tomato plants. All these plants, of course, were placed in one or another composting area.

In previous years, I haven't used the greenhouse for growing crops during the winter. After spending so many hours during the warmer months, I've tended the outdoor winter crops, such as purple sprouting broccoli, but spent much more time on activities other than the tasks (or pleasures) associated with growing, such as updating the gardening  pages of this site.

This year, I decided to retrieve compostable material and place it in the greenhouse, so that breakdown of the material could take place faster - not protected growing but protected composting. As the primary function of the beds is for growing tomatoes (I also grow a French bean or Borlotti bean plant in the summer months) then tomato plant residues are excluded. To add tomato plant residues to the soil inside the greenhouse would be mistaken. I don't need to obtain fresh soil for the greenhouse every three years, to avoid tomato plant diseases, as I grow grafted tomatoes in the beds (as well as non-grafted tomatoes in peat-free comost in containers.)

Obtaining compostable material and bed-extension

To begin with, I emphasize the well-known fact that cooked food, bread, cheese, anything that omnivorous rats can eat, should never be regarded as compostable.

Even a large allotment or garden produces a very modest supply of compostable material, and even in autumn, when such plants as  runner bean, courgette and tomato are generally  available for composting.

Anyone who takes on an overgrown, neglected garden or allotment is  fortunate, although it may take time to realize this. An overgrown hedge 5 metres or more high is a great asset. Placing a composter near to a hedge like this is often a good idea, or composting near to it without using a composter.

I've made extensive use of twigs and the smaller branches from nearby hedges to extend the growing area: 'bed-extension.' This is a form of composting. The twigs and branches form an open network, allowing weeds to continue growing for some time (the weeds include grasses, and not just 'weed-grasses' such as couch grass.) The weeds contribute nitrogen, helping to offset the woody twigs and branches, which are high in carbon. I place a thick layer of manure over the twigs, preferably manure in clods or coarse pieces, which will remain on top of the twigs and branches and not fall through. Some of the nitrogen in the manure is washed away to the deeper level and helps to speed up the breakdown of woody material. In less than a year, crops can be grown in the area, although not crops such as carrots, which are harmed by manure. Soil is spread on the manure before planting. Only a thin layer is needed.

Books and articles often stress the need for a mixture of materials, giving a good balance of textures and a suitable ration of nitrogen to carbon. What they don't stress is the disproportionate effort often needed to ensure this, the difficulty of obtaining sufficient of these varied and contrasting materials. A compost heap made up almost entirely of hedge cuttings, high in carbon, with a very open texture, despite the leaves, is well worth having and certainly much better than nothing. There's no need to worry unduly, or at all, about bringing up materials with a less open texture, with a greater concentration of nitrogen, if they are unobtainable. In time, the hedge cuttings will form good compost, even if, as always, there isn't enough of it. Lawrence D Hills claims (in his classic but flawed and outdated book 'Organic Gardening') that hedge cuttings thicker than a pencil won't decay in a compost heap. This isn't true, of course - given enough time, all wood will decay, whatever the size - but it's a good rule for the short term.

A powered hedge cutter or shears can be used for mildly overgrown hedges, but for grossly overgrown hedges, I've used a different tool, a small hand-saw and loppers. I use loppers to detach many of the smaller branches, giving access to the larger branches, which I saw away. Before very  long, a grossly overgrown hedge has been reduced to a short, very bare-looking one, which will, however, revert to its previous size if allowed. A powered brush cutter or chain saw can avoid some but not all of this work.

During the season when the pictures on the page Photographs 2 were taken, I spent a very great deal of time constructing the wooden paths, designing and constructing the raised pond and composters shown on the right, designing and constructing transframe, and on all the other work of the allotments - and, amongst other things, watching the flight of swifts. There was no time to see to the privet hedges, which grew to a great height. When I did cut them to a fraction of their overgrown size, I piled up the cut material:

This is an area which, like the area occupied now by the raised pond and composters, and adjoining it, was obviously used as a dumping ground at some time in the past. Plastic, glass and metal were visible. The soil was only of an adequate depth  in one very restricted area, where I planted an apple tree, just visible, with its supporting stake, in the photograph above, taken  later in autumn.

Since the photograph was taken, I've added a thick layer of manure and a thin layer of soil and the bed is now available for planting. Without an enormous amount of effort, a large bed has been created. I've followed the same procedure to make a second, smaller growing bed.

When possible, composting should be in situ, or not at a great distance from the compostable materials.  Bulky compostable materials should so far as possible be composted near to the supply of bulky compostable materials. Composting can often be carried out at the place where compost will be needed - composting on the growing bed, or the weed-infested ground which will be converted to a growing bed. A compost bin can often be placed on a particularly rampant area of weeds. They will continue growing for quite some time and well benefit the mix of compost materials, without any effort in cutting and transporting them. There are any number of other activities which can be carried out in the time saved.

Disadvantages of plastic composters

Plastic is generally the best material to use for a water butt - making a watertight wooden container isn't an easy matter - but not at all the best material to use for a compost bin, even when the plastic is recycled. There are various objections to the use of plastic compost bins:

  1. Recycling plastic uses large amounts of energy. This energy cost has to be set against the environmental benefits of breaking down kitchen or garden waste into compost in a plastic bin. The resources a plastic container wastes can be considered more significant than the ones it saves.
  2. Unlike metal or glass, which can be recycled many times, plastic in general can only be recycled once, due to contaminants. It's very probable that the plastic will end up in a landfill site sooner or later.
  3. Plastic is discordant in a garden or allotment, a synthetic material at odds with organic life. It's far better to restrict its use to things such as water butts where plastic is obviously the best material to use.
  4. Wooden bins are far more flexible than plastic bins, and can offer better insulation when they are placed next to each other. Three wooden bins can be placed in contact, giving the same benefits for heat insulation as three terraced houses in a row, which insulate each other. Three plastic bins are only available separately (although it would be quite easy to manufacture a set of three adjoining plastic bins) and have the same disadvantages for heat insulation as three detached houses. If a large amount of composting material becomes available, the volume of a plastic container can't be increased to take all the material.

I used a Rotol plastic composter for a time, many years ago. It can produce very good compost and the design has undeniable appeal - a conical shape which looks very good. For all that, the Rotol has the disadvantages of other plastic composters. The top diameter is 45cm and through this fairly small opening all the compostable material has to be inserted (after being lifted up to a height of around 75cm.) The Rotol composter is made of unrecycled plastic.

Composters, then, if at all possible, should be made from a renewable resource, wood, and if it can be obtained, reclaimed wood.

The main composter

This is an improved wooden composter. One advantage is that it can be placed on sloping ground.

The upper surface of the composter can be of varied materials. The version shown in the image towards the top of the page has an upper surface made of wood. This can be replaced with a  PVC top. It can be used for rainwater collection, if the composter is on sloping ground - the slope may be a very gentle one. It also increases the temperature inside the composter. The greenhouse effect increases the temperature inside polytunnels and cloches as well as greenhouses, but it can also be used to increase the temperature inside a composter. The biological processes which produce compost are speeded up and the compost is made in less time.  When the composter is empty - and when the composter is almost full - materials for composting can be grown inside the composter to make a contribution  to the common problem, lack of compostable materials, and the PVC panel enables them to be grown more quickly.

The composter is solidly constructed and large but it can be moved from place to place without difficulty, after it has been dismantled. (When I constructed a solid and large workbench for my workshop, I designed it to be easily moved. The bench can be raised using a hydraulic jack, castors can then be fitted and the bench can be moved from place to place. Alternatively, the bench can easily be dismantled and the separate parts taken to a different location and reassembled.)

Other aspects of composting

I don't deal here with large-scale composting, the composting systems needed if compost is to be sold, the composting systems subject to legislation, the composting systems which require an energy input (such as the composting systems produced by Accelerated Compost Ltd) with in-vessel composting systems in general.

The advantages of the restrictions? The advantages of composting in the garden or allotment, rather than sending the material to an in-vessel composting system, are very substantial ones. Compostable materials are mainly water, and transporting heavy masses of water - along with the valuable organic matter - may make economic and environmental sense, or it may not. Not if the distance is great. Like paper recycling, organic waste recycling can have great benefits, negligible benefits or no benefits at all, and one of the most important considerations is the distance the compostable material has to travel - the 'composting miles.' The reason is to do with use of fossil fuel, of course. In situ composting, composting in the garden or allotment, has the advantage of composting distances amounting to yards not miles.

Another advantage of in situ composting is the benefit to wildlife, unless the composter is a closed vessel, such as a compost tumbler. The composter as a valuable wildlife habitat is often overlooked, but Ken Thompson's very lively, very interesting and very informative book 'No Nettles Required: the reassuring truth about wildlife gardening' outlines the advantages to wildlife. Ken Thompson is a researcher at Sheffield University and his book gives some of the findings of the 'BUGS project.' BUGS stands for 'Biodiversity in Urban Gardens in Sheffield.' The project was supported by the major government funder of environmental research, the Natural Environment Research Council.

Of compost heaps, he writes (Page 76, 77): 'Unfortunately, the BUGS project had neither the time nor the money to look at compost heaps in detail, but other research (much of it from Scandinavia) reveals that compost heaps are hugely important wildlife habitats in their own right. This is because warm, decaying plant material is a habitat that would otherwise be absent from gardens. Reptiles in particular like these conditions, and a survey in Bristol found that gardens with compost heaps were twice as likely to have resident slow worms as those without compost heaps. Given the appetite of slow worms for slugs, this has to be another good reason for starting a compost heap...compost heaps go a long way towards replacing a whole catalogue of wildlife habitats that would otherwise be rare or absent from gardens, and are increasingly rare in the wider countryside. Another interesting feature of compost heaps is that by providing a warm, insulated habitat, they allow many species to spread further north than they would otherwise do. Many native species live further north in compost than in any other habitat...' And, in a summary box: 'Compost heaps are...a uniquely valuable wildlife habitat...No gardener with any interest in wildlife should be without one, however lacking you may be in the raw materials.'

Rainwater collecting: introduction

Gardeners in arid areas have always had to find ways of saving water. Now, in this country, rainfall isn't taken for granted, and there's more and more interest in ways of conserving water. In this section, I discuss amongst other things ways of collecting rainwater from hard surfaces such as paths.Gardeners in arid areas have always had to find ways of saving water. Now, in this country, rainfall isn't taken for granted, and there's more and more interest in ways of conserving water. In this section, I discuss amongst other things ways of collecting rainwater from hard surfaces such as paths.

Techniques and equipment  which don't work or which require an  effort completely disproportionate to the results should  be abandoned or modified or at least recognized for what they are: token gestures. An example: water butts, intended to make a contribution to water collecting. Their contribution is negligible. This is for the obvious reason that the collecting area is very small. For a water butt with a diameter at the top of 0.4 m (there are many water butts with smaller diameters than this), the collecting area is only about 0.12 square metres. In general, even five water butts will collect a negligible proportion of the rainwater which falls on a growing area and will make a negligible contribution to satisfying the demand for water. Virtuous feelings of contributing to 'conservation of resources' aren't sufficient justification.

Water butts are most useful for storing water which has been supplied by a tap - if, of course, a mains water supply is available. There's a water tap near to my allotments, but the supply of water has sometimes been interrupted and this has happened in spring, during a period of extended drought, when I was planting asparagus and other crops, I used up all the water in the large tank which stores water collected from the greenhouse roof, which holds 1 000 litres (a tonne of water) and after that, my only supply of water came from the small pond in the upper allotment. Since then, I've extended the facilities for water collection and storage in the ways I describe here. If gardeners in this country can't take for granted an assured supply of mains water and adequate rainfall, gardeners in arid climates face much greater difficulties, of course. It's possible to collect only a proportion of the rainwater which falls on a growing area or an area near to the growing area. It's obviously not possible to make the whole of a growing area into a collecting area, but it's necessary to have available collecting areas much larger than the collecting area of a water butt, or a number of water butts. I use paths and reservoirs to collect water.

Rainwater collecting: using paths


In this photograph, just visible, on the left, is a black water butt in my lower allotment. The water butt collects a little water but its main use is  to store water from a much larger collecting area. (The wooden structureto the right of the water butt is a transframe, shown here with only a PVC top-panel, no side-panels. The PVC top panel can be fitted with a section of guttering and can be used for water collection too.)  The  two principal hard surfaces shown in the photograph are  the two paths constructed from wooden boards, with raised wooden edging. I've laid down heavy-duty plastic sheet material on the path on the left and covered it with netting (not clearly visible in the photograph) so that it's possible to walk on the path without slipping. The rainwater which falls on the path runs down  into a container at the bottom of the path, buried in the soil. A wooden board covers the container. Containers of very large capacity are obtainable which can be buried in the soil, but the container here is much smaller. At intervals, I pump the water from the buried container into the water butt, using a  hand pump.   The pump can be used to pump water to growing areas or other water storage containers uphill. Alternatively, a watering can can be  submerged in the water container. This is often a convenient way of using the water.

This method of collecting water wouldn't be possible in the case of a path which is on level ground, but the slope needn't be at all steep. Paths on gently sloping ground can be used for water collection.

The system shown can be regarded as a prototype, but the only  improvements needed are to do with appearance, not functionality. The system works perfectly, and the volume of water collected is substantial - given a modicum of  rainfall, of course.

More recently, I've developed techniques, not described here, for rainwater collection which don't require the conversion of paths.

Rainwater collecting: a raised reservoir / pond

The image shows  another large water collecting surface, a reservoir. 

The bulky material on either side of the reservoir withstands the pressure exerted by the water in the reservoir. There are supporting structures hidden from view but these are cheap and simple to make. Their role is to support and keep level the rectangular edging of the reservoir. The reservoir can be constructed on sloping as well as level ground - the ground here is sloping and uneven - and doesn't require a wall as the boundary on one side. It can be constructed anywhere in a growing area, in fact.

The wall here is south facing, so this is a very favourable situation for growing, but the soil in this area is very thin. Beneath it is a deep accumulation of rubbish which must have been deposited a long time ago - broken glass, rusting metal and plastic.  The  beds on either side of the pond allow crops to be grown here now.   

The reservoir is functional. A primary function is collection of rainwater which can be used to irrigate crops, using the handpump, water syphoned from the reservoir or a watering can. It would also be possible to add an overflow system which includes piping. It's intended, though, to be more than functional, a pond  So, one of the things I've planted in the pond is the native white water lily, Nymphaea alba  (dormant at this time of year, of course). The rectangles of soil and water form an effective contrast, I think.

This shows the areas of the water-collecting surfaces in my allotments in square metres.

water butt 0.4
small pond 0.7
PVC top-panel of transframe 1.5
reservoir 2.7
water-collecting path 6.3
greenhouse 36.5

The greenhouse is a comparatively large one, over 11 metres long. Growing areas are water collecting areas as well, of course, but not the growing area inside the greenhouse. The large contribution to water collecting made by the greenhouse roof is subject to this {restriction}, then: not all the water collected by the greenhouse roof can be used in other areas.

 The water collecting path is narrow. Adding a water collecting surface to the wider and longer curved path to the right would increase the water collecting surface significantly. The method used for a straight path has to be  modified for a curved path but is straightforward to implement.