Compost heaps in late winter

Compost heaps in late winter.

Compost heaps in late winter are more easily worked in dry weather.

  1. Bernard Preston
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  3. Compost heaps in late winter

By Bernard Preston

There’s a definite decision to be made in gardening; either you make compost heaps, or you send all that friable material to the dump, and buy inorganic fertiliser.

There is a real cost to be counted; it’s not pounds and dollars, or rands and cents but the sweat off your brow that drips into and enriches the soil. And perhaps the cost of consulting your doctor or chiropractor; it is hard work.

Let’s start there. Before you begin working the compost heap, approach it in the same way that a sportsman or woman would prepare for a match. Limber and warm up, and stretch before starting, or it may prove a costly and painful exercise.

Focus particularly on the shoulders and the lower back, but in fact it’s plain good exercise for the whole body. It really does beat the gym in my book. And when that little voice says STOP, then obey. Enough is enough.

Today I managed seven large barrowloads when the warning came; so I stopped and went in search of my camera. It amounted to about an hour’s solid exercise for heart and lungs, muscles and joints; with something to show for all your hard work.

Late winter means that your compost heaps are bulging with all the summer prunings, mealie stalks, dead climbing bean plants and autumn leaves; and a whole lot more.

Underneath lies the black gold that you are after. You need to get it out and into the garden beds before spring arrives.

We put all our vermi-compost from the worm farms into the heaps; it’s alive with wrigglies and their eggs that hatch and move into the pile, continuing their work of producing humus; the stuff that makes your plants take off.

I used to think that humus and compost were synonyms, one and the same thing; not so. Humus is that part of the compost heap that is resistant to the action of the microorganisms that are eagerly turning your organic cuttings and trimmings into minerals, nitrogen and other material. What remains is humus, forming a permanent structure of the soil; it makes the earth soft and crumbly.

Rough compost material.

This is the rough material removed from the top of the pile revealing the black gold beneath. Several barrowloads of vermicompost have already been added; it's living material and the worms will spread through the heap.

Soon we will plant butternut seeds into it in spring after the first rains.

In particular, it naturally contains a chemical called humic acid that facilitates the absorption of water and minerals and other nutrients from the soil, greatly increasing yields without the addition of inorganic fertiliser.


In late winter, this black gold is covered with layers of organic plant material that you have been adding that has only partially undergone this process known as humification.

Google it; it’s interesting. Soon the spring rains will arrive, we hope, and we’ll be tossing butternut seeds onto the compost heaps; thereafter you can’t touch them for nine months.

So now, before the rains, this humus is dry, light and relatively easy to work; in looks like dark, beautiful earth. Having first limbered up, use a garden fork to move those top layers of partially decayed plants to an area adjacent to your compost heap, revealing below the mature humus that you are seeking; that’s the stuff that will make your plants take off.

Interestingly, you will find very few earthworms; they have done their business and moved on to fresh material. They particularly like old logs incidentally; retain them.

Compost heaps in late winter

Compost heaps in late winter should be processed before being planted with butternut and pumpkins.


Using a shovel dig this black gold out and spread it over your garden in preparation for a Spring planting. If you have a relatively small amount, concentrate it where you are planting seedlings.

Now you can toss your butternut and pumpkin seeds onto the compost heap. In six months time you’ll have a harvest of food that will keep you in soup right through next winter.

Add to that, researchers have found that city dwellers are 40% more likely to suffer from mood disorders, and twice as likely to develop schizophrenia. Is it time to get cuddly with a compost heap?

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