Archive | composting

Clearing, caretaking and composting

It’s been that busy time clearing the remains of the flowering season and trying to get things put to bed for the winter. Doing this properly will save you time and effort both now and next season, as well as getting the soil in the best place for growing next year.





First things first, do you need to? It is always better to have something growing or covering the soil. The soil around roots is the most biologically active part so clearing and composting old crops is never as good as letting them rot down in situ. This is where a ride on mower can be rather handy or a strimmer if not, or it if is too wet. A hedge trimmer is also useful to separate out staking and support netting by cutting above and below. Tunnel crops are always coming out to make room for the next course and so will need composting on your heap.


Ride on mower clearing



If you have been using mypex or membrane to grow your annuals/biannuals in, you shouldn’t have too many weeds and so you can let the mypex cover and protect the soil, let the remaining flowers rot down over the winter and you can get on with something else (an easy decision to make as the weather deteriorates). If you haven’t used mypex or ground cover then you will probably have more weeds and want to strim/clear and cover.



All that organic matter can be left to decompose over the winter, preferably covered with mypex or black plastic to prevent weeds growing and allow worms to move up to the surface freely. An alternative to covering with plastic is a liberal and generous mulch of something sterile, green waste, DIY compost (if you made it well!) or even straw. Anything to stop the winter rain trashing the soil and to prevent excessive soil leaching. You will need considerable amounts though, in order to stop light getting to any leftover weeds.



Commercial green waste being delivered

Commercial green waste being delivered





If soil temperatures are still warm enough, Sept or possibly early October you can try and get some mustard established as a winter cover crop. Depending on where you live and the severity of the winter this may not make it through to Spring but will have suppressed weeds and donated lots of organic matter to the soil before it expires. A rye/vetch mix is also an option here, if you don’t need the soil for early crops, as it will add more organic matter and N, and really keep weeds out of the picture.





Everyone has their own take on this and it’s a really important part of recycling fertility and physically dealing with all the material you will be producing, especially from covered cropping. Here are a few pointers for flower growers, especially if you are newbies or have not been producing anything resembling the crumbly, friable, sweet smelling goodness that everyone else always seems to manage to.


The End Result



The first issue is that of the Nitrogen : Carbon ratio (or ‘greens’ vs. ‘browns’ in old allotment speak). Our heaps of flower farm waste are going to be simply too woody to really break down properly and so will need some amending. Ideally with something wetter, greener and with more Nitrogen than all those woody stems – like the veg waste from your kitchen but in larger amounts. Practically this means some sort of manure to be mixed in at regular intervals, we use chicken manure, horse manure (ideally without bedding) or fresh digestate (from a digester). This added Nitrogen will allow the first set of microbes to multiply rapidly and start to heat up the heap.

Secondly, most of our cleared material is bulky and will need physically breaking down before it can decompose properly. This can mean shredding (although I only manage this once or twice a year) or usually hedge trimming larger stuff with considerable stems. At any one time I typically have a pile of waste next to the pile to be added once cut up or weathered for a few months. Too much bulky material will lead to large air pockets and dry heaps that won’t decompose. Shredding really eats through all those piles of stuff, turbocharges the entire process with all that extra surface area for microbes to work on and may be an important factor if you don’t have much space for your heaps.


Compost heap

MAY NOT BE THE PRETTIEST PART OF YOUR FLOWER PATCH (but the blue Europallets are the best..)


Practically, compost heaps made of pallets work really well – they will need some serious bracing or they can also be made of straw bales if they are easily available. I have 3 heaps (3 -4 pallets along each side) so that I can leave them for 12-18 months with no mixing- I just walk/jump on them to pack them down after adding manure. They will rot down to a third of your finishing height, so you need to keep piling on material until it’s practically impossible. They won’t look pretty and so you may be tempted to hide them away but they still need to be accessible.



STARTING TO STEAM UP DURING THE FIRST FROSTS – a pretty picture of a compost heap


And so at this point of the year, once all that is done you can start to take a breather, unless you haven’t tackled the dahlias of course which has not been easy during this wet autumn.




Machinery musings for the flower grower


As horticulturalists, we all have to use our bodies about ten times more than the average punter, so I think we are in the best position to appreciate the odd spot of motorized help. I know it can be daunting to the newbies out there but getting to grips with some machinery is going to be essential to your growing business and fading body. So I have outlined a few options for making your life easier with small machinery, but you are going to have to fill up the odd jerry can on the way. I have saved rotovators for another day…


Hedge Trimmer

A beefy hedge trimmer can be very useful, as well as doing the obvious gardening duties. It can help you chop up woody waste and bulky stems on the compost heap to permit faster breakdown and allow rain to penetrate the heap. You will have lots more bulky and woodier material growing flowers, so your compost heap needs to be adjusted accordingly – you will need to find some greener, more nitrogenous material ideally to move things along. If you have a hedge trimmer it can save you getting a shredder and also makes clearing easier. You can sometimes cut down stems above and below bean netting to make extracting it easier from larger crops – there’s a Top Tip.



I myself haven’t got on with the multi tool system with the various ends that attach to a 2 stroke unit, I find the Ryobi one I have (for emergencies) underpowered and a real pain to use for anything. It’s a very attractive proposition however, it’s probably just another example of ‘you get what you pay for’ or ‘should have bought a Stihl’.


Ride on Mower


NOTE MACHINE FOR SPARES IN BACKGROUND, never been able to get the Ag tyres off it

I think these are almost essential kit to help out growers on a small scale, especially as 2nd hand decent machines are still available, they are simple to maintain with lots of spares and technical info freely available. Apart from mowing grass paths whilst you are carting waste or manure in a trailer (2 jobs for the price of one), they can also clear some crops and cut green manures.


Green and Gorgeous trailer


In conjunction with a small trailer they really can be motivational, compared to barrows that get full up with plant material in a jiffy (even with a 120L one). It can make clearing crops or cutting back with more than 1 person much more practical. They can make mucking beds easier as you can shovel directly from the back of a trailer…Ok, I’ll stop going on now.


MOWER FAIRYLAND or a trailer full of weeds…

The kind of thing I’m talking about is a Mountfield, Countax or Westwood and old enough to consist of  a lawnmower engine, with belts that run a cutting deck and back to a simple gearbox that drives the wheels. Usually 8 to 15hp in size, I have a 13hp Westwood that was only £350 on ebay and can tow large chicken coops. All the moving parts are on show and it is usually easy to spot problems – many parts and diagrams available from this website, Westwood Tractor Spares (they support lots of other makes too). If you do keep it cheap and cheerful with an older machine then if mechanical problems are more serious than swapping out easy parts (starter, solenoid, belts, blades, battery, possibly carburettor) then keep it for spares and get another one!



So, it’s not the first thing to go and buy as they are expensive but they enable you to compost more effectively, although you have to factor in the time taken to shred your waste. You can also shred back onto beds directly and let material break down in situ (ok, not rose clippings but you’re burning those right?), which is quite a useful winter cover idea and labour saver. I covered a bit on our shredder in a composting blog a while back.



Compact tractor

Our site at G&G was designed with access to a compact tractor, (up to 20hp) like a Kubota/Iseki/Yanmar, so we have wide paths accordingly. They can be a really good investment if you have a larger plot as they can do all the things a ride on can but with the bonus of rotavating/ploughing, spreading manure too. If you get a larger one, a loader/bucket on the front is feasible and it can be your ‘goto’ solution for everything (See Floret’s Farm for example).



We were able to borrow the farm’s Kubota initially when we started out growing vegetables – a bright yellow ex-gritting thing from Scotland that even had a cab, which was a real squeeze. We don’t use one now as we have a large tractor and C8 rotavator but I wouldn’t say no if one was available. We have gardening, market garden and field scale plots at G&G so that visitors/attendees can see the space that suits them, but we always stress planning your beds around practical aspects like machinery, as well as the more obvious factors like irrigation, shelter, aspect and soil considerations.


THE SCOTTISH JALOPY with a Kubota rotavator

The Japanese/Asian brands I mentioned earlier are the most common at this size, especially second hand. Kubotas certainly hold their value and tend to be pretty bombproof and go forever. Beware the cheap Chinese rotavators and toppers often supplied with compact tractors as ‘smallholder packages’.


Maintenance and Repair

So, of course with some considerable gain comes a little pain – there will be a spot of winter TLC. I tend to just make sure I look at the filters (cleaning air, replacing fuel), with general greasing and lubrication and an do an oil change every year. Anything else is a bit OTT for the mostly old and tired fleet of machinery I have, but there are many resources online now and many hours can be wasted on YouTube in this area…You are supposed to run the fuel tank dry for winter storage, but hands up I have never been able to be organized enough to do that – preferring the ‘use it every now and then’ to stop it completely seizing up or giving it an excuse to let you down come Springtime.



Obviously Ebay is a great starting point to familiarize yourself with makes, models and prices with garden maintenance shops also selling older mowers and strimmers. The down season is perfect to spend some months keeping an eye out online. The usual ‘buyer beware’ common sense rules apply here, so do your homework and try and have a conversation with the buyer. If they don’t know anything about it or how they have been maintaining it, it could well be stolen or not in very good condition. You have to be prepared to be a tyre kicker sometimes when handing over cash after inspection and the machine is not a good deal. I have only done it once and got a barrage of swearing as I walked all the way back to the car. But I have also paid cash for a 2nd hand Stihl strimmer in a dark car park ten years ago and it’s never let me down.


So do share any other favourite motorized aids for the flower grower, or if you’ve gone cordless instead!





Walk the Plank

Everyone has their own way of making the perfect compost heap, and the same applies here at G & G, although the move to more and more flowers has resulted in big changes to the 'Mix'. I have for several years been using enclosed pallets, each heap 3 or 4 pallets square. I have given up turning these large heaps now (phew!), as using a tractor made such a mess without hard standing, and so keep them for 18 months at least.



The sheer volume of woody material coming in from the cutting gardens has meant that I have resurrected my old shredder to help. It had a cheap 'Chonda' engine with serious issues and so this winter I gave up trying to fix it and just replaced the entire engine with a new Villiers one. The mechanics of necessity if you like….




The shredder itself I run without any screens or protectors, so that the material is coarsely shredded and flies out mostly onto the heap itself. This means that rain can penetrate the heap, avoiding large dry areas of intact stems.




I am lucky to have some great materials on hand to add to all this carboniferous forest, such as horse muck, chicken poo, leaves, veg waste and grass clippings. Barrowing up can get a bit hairy at the end of the cycle and in late summer, but you have to resist the temptation to build more and more  heaps (especially when they are a trifle 'shanty chic'). All that material soon subsides!




The end result is always surprisingly good and has mulched all 600 roses this year. The incredible amount of seed in the compost has not been the problem I feared, there can be a small annual flush after spreading, but it's not a problem at all.



Ashley Pearson