The Gardeners Perfect Project

garden party

Have you ever wished for a project which relied on the human tendency to get carried away with enthusiasm at the start but then rapidly lose interest? A project which takes a small bit of work to set up put pays huge dividends? A project which saves you money week-to-week, but then has an additional large saving at the end? Then I have the perfect project for you – start a compost bin (and there you were beginning to worry that I was about to pitch you a sub-prime loan investments with guaranteed rates of return).

Now bear with me, I know compost bins don’t sound glamorous but if you are going to look after your garden over a long period of time they are a real necessity – they provide a place to ditch all the green cut-offs and mowed grass, all your organic house hold waste (both of which mean you don’t need to add these to your domestic waste bins which saves money week to week) and after about 2 years (the length of time in which you will have lost interest and then returned to it) it provides  nutrient-rich compost which you no longer need to buy at e8 a 50l bag. Plus it has the added bonus of being good to the environment.

Now there are a few myths about compost bins I would like to dispel from the start:

  • 1. Compost bins smell – they don’t. If you use the right mix of ingredients there is no noticeable odour
  • 2. Compost bins attract rats – wrong again. Rats don’t eat vegetation and as there is no meat waste in these compost bins there is nothing to attract any type of creature.
  • 3. Compost bins are big and ugly – not the way I do them!

To start you need to decide how much commitment you are going to give this bin. Early on I decided very little, so little in fact that I didn’t bother to build it (which you can do very easily with some 4x4s or some old pallets) instead I went down to B&Q during a sale and picked one up. I choose a basic plastic model that was little more than 4 sides and a lid that set me back about e40-e50. (The actual one I choose is no longer available – but this is very similar except circular I chose plastic over timber because the timber one was about e200).

You can get complicated two-bay or three-bay models which allows the different bays to be at different stages of readiness, and there is advice about accelerants and turning with a pitch fork – but to be honest, as a novice this all sounded a bit too much like hard work so I thought I’d master one-bay, let nature take its course and move up from there.

Next step is to pick a good spot in your garden. To work compost bins have to sit on soil – they rely on worms coming up through the ground to eat the rotting waste (lovely image). Once you have chosen a spot, it is a huge amount of work to move it (I say this from experience) so don’t rush and choose wisely – preferably a place that is not in the direct line of sight from a window, or right beside a seating area, but easy to reach from the back door (you will be making frequent trips with rubbish).

Next step, make pretty! Ok, so this step is not required but it is preferable if you can get the bin to blend into the scenery of the garden to stop it being an eye sore. Pop it under an arch with some hanging baskets, plant a few little trees or bushes around it (these can also be a good litmus test on how nutrient rich your compost is – if they flourish it is strong, but if they wilt there is something wrong), or like everything else that comes into my house – paint it! I did ours a colourful yellow on red with ‘Cathy Loves John’ on one side, and ‘John Loves Icecream’ on the other side.

Next step start filling it. I started ours off with the cuttings of the mowed grass and some soil from plant pots that I was empting and some tree leaves I raked up – a good mix to encourage the little wormies.

There is a very elaborate science around the composition of good compost. Some compost makers are like 5 star chefs – they use only the best ingredients, follow a strict process and could sell the stuff to the highest bidder. My compost is more like something you would make in Home Eco class – the ingredients were whatever you could find in the house that morning, the process is something you follow as often as you can remember the guidelines while chatting to mates, and the result is something you could only share with family and close friends.  There are experts that will roll their eyes at the rules below, but this is what I do, and it works ok for me.

  • Rule One: You need a mix. It can’t be all green cuttings, or all leaves, or all household waste – you need a mix to keep the pH balanced. Add layers of soil if possible, so pots that you are empting at the end of the growing season, any beds that you are clearing. This helps to speed up the rotting process.
  • Rule Two: Most but not all household waste can go in. As a general rule – no meat cooked or raw, no table scraps with sauces left on them (I scrape everything into the sink, give it a rinse, what’s left goes in the compost), no dog waste or cat litter. Apart from that everything else that will rot can be fired in – ripped up cardboard, paper, hair, etc. If in doubt I always chuck it in – the very worst thing that happens is that it does not rot and you pick it out of your compost in two years’ time and throw it in the recycling bin then – no problem.
  • Controversial Rule Three: Weeds. I throw them in because I am lazy. To some people this would be a death sentence for your compost because these particularly strong plants can survive almost anything and will poison your compost, spreading their seeds wherever you use it. I see their point, but to be honest, something rotting for two years would want to be very strong to survive, and there are weeds in my garden anyway, an extra few won’t hurt it. I might be more sensitive to avoiding adding weeds if I were using the compost in an area that had very few weeds, and I never use this when germinating seeds, but I have used my compost in pots and noticed no weeds growing there, so I think it’s alright to chuck them in.

That’s it – project completed. Continue to fill the bin for the next two years, building it in to your household routine if possible. I bought a small bin for my kitchen that people usually use for bathrooms, because you don’t want this waste building up in your home, and when we wash the dishes the last thing to be done is to bring the little compost bin out to the big compost bin and give the little bin a rinse with water (but no detergents) to keep clean. Once the habit is established, like smoking, it will be hard to quit.

Then comes payday – some early summer or late spring day when you are doing a spot of planting, you go over to your compost bin, open the little door and there is some lovely free rich compost. That is unfortunately quite compacted. And will probably take a shovel to dig out, which is probably too big for the little door, so you end up losing your temper tipping the whole compost bin back a bit to make room for the shovelling, which then takes three grown adults to but back in place. But after that, the feeling is sweet.

compost bin

Profit/Loss of the Project

Initial Input (€ 50)
e50 for 600l compost bin
Costs (€ 50)
Savings over 2 years
Brown Bin Collection € 234
 – €4.50 per collection bi-weekly for two years
Compost Purchasing Not taking place € 32
 – Average two bags per season @ €8 per 50l
Savings € 266
Value of Compost Created € 600
An average of all multi-purpose composts available shows that compost is roughly €1 per litre, and we have the potential to make 600l
Potential Profits € 816

Victoria’s Secret Garden

V1. Garden collage

Six years ago I moved in to a house in Dublin 7, I barely looked at the place as I was in such a rush to get out of where I was living. As long as it had all the necessary walls and ceilings I was good to go. I even chose to ignore the delightful urchins who threw chips at me as I walked up the road to view the house. The one thing that did catch my eye was the fact that there was a really good sized back garden, it had a washing line and this appealed to my frugal soul.

Most city center gardens are cramped spaces with damp mottled walls and no grass. This garden consists of a bricked patio area and a good sized patch of weeds that when strimmed back can pass for grass. There is a giant holly tree that been raided every Christmas and ten foot walls edged with broken glass for added security.

As we weren’t planning on staying too long in this house we didn’t do much in terms of garden improvement. A basketball hoop was haphazardly attached to one wall and the garden was generally used for messing around with footballs and frisbees and the occasional BBQ.

A few years and one extreme frisbee incident later and sports were banned. At the same time the drain became blocked flooding the bricked area, and construction started on a vacant lot behind our house causing an invasion of disgruntled, newly homeless rats, so the door was firmly closed to the garden.

Last year the sun came out, the drain was cleared and we tentatively ventured back outside to find it rat-less. This year I am determined to make the garden a nice space to be in.

I am always filled with garden envy when I go home to Cork to visit family, my parents have spent years turning their garden in to a really relaxing space that is great for entertaining. That is what I want to create in my backyard, however as this isn’t my own home I don’t want to invest money in this project so I am going to see what I can manage with hard graft, imagination and as much help as I can get!

These are the before pictures and hopefully I will be able to share the progress of this project here. Any tips will be gratefully appreciated!

V1. Garden collage

Getting and Owning Hens

Cathy with Maud & Hildegard

When the Celtic Tiger first fled and the recession began to take hold, one of the only actually useful pieces of advice to be bandied about was to get hens. It might seem counter-intuitive to add to your household when you really should be downsizing, but hens have many qualities beyond providing a regular good source of protein; they mean that there is always food in the house (the eggs, not the birds, this is a family show), you do not need a lot of space to keep them, they are very inexpensive to purchase and feed, and they can be a good source of regular routine and mild entertainment.

The house and territory

I stumbled across a great company at Bloom one year that made timber hen houses (or arks as they prefer) and would deliver anywhere in Ireland; CJ Sherran in Co. Laois. We bought an ark for 5-6 birds (about e400 at the time) but actually only ever kept 2 or 3 in it at a time. The reason I liked these arks was because they were very sturdy (no dog or fox could burrow in), they were fully enclosed meaning the bird run was protected at all times, and with pre-treated heavy timber they would be durable even in wet Irish weather. Friends of mine have made their own arks, which is an admirable endeavour, but to be honest they don’t look as well in the back garden and they are difficult to make sturdy enough to withstand a determined fox (they have had some fatalities).

One downside I will note against the ark (aside from the cost) is that the enclosed run is not big enough for even 2 or 3 birds long term. It takes two chickens only about a week to scratch up all the grass in that 2m x 1m area. Adding some grit and straw helped initially, but as the mud patch spread we thought we better do something. Initially we moved the ark to a new spot every week or so, but very quickly ran out of grass. Our solution was to release the birds. Thinking I could contain the madness, I enclosed a 5m x 4m area with a 3ft post and chicken wire fence, but soon learned that determined chickens can jump that (a pity, because it took me hours to build!). However, our back garden is enclosed by large 7ft walls on all sides, and our home is in the middle of a housing estate surrounded by countryside. We took a chance and figured it would be a very lost fox that would bother coming that far into suburbia for two chickens.  In the four years we have had the hens, we have had no untimely deaths. That said, chickens poop *everywhere* they wander, so while it was fine for us, a childless couple with no particular affection towards our backyard, I could imagine that parents of small children or gardeners proud of their growing creations would rather keep the beasts confined to a set space. I think a higher fence would have achieved this.

Getting the birds

Once we had the ark, the next thing we needed were birds. Just like dogs there are many breeds of hens and each have their qualities and quirks. We opted for a Rhode Island Red mix as they are reputed to be steady layers. We got ours from a local organic farmer, who was kind enough to sell us hens that were already laying. It is possible to buy chicks, and some people prefer this, but not all hens lay and as we only wanted hens for the eggs (as opposed to eating them), so it suited us to ensure they were laying already. Also it is normal for hens to be sold in couples, because as they are not happy without a flock, even if it is a flock of two. Our chickens cost us about e7 each.

Doing the paper work

Once we had the chickens, we had to notify the council that we had domesticated birds, and after one quick email assuring them that we had no intention of selling the eggs or using them in food which we would then sell, we were allotted a flock number.

Feeding them

Having purchased organic chickens I felt it would be a waste to feed them anything less than organic layers pellets. This can be sourced in a range of places, and outside of the usual farm-supply shops, places that supply specialised equestrian feeds are your next best stop. In Dublin, the closest place that I found was Coleman’s of Sandyford where a bag ranged between e15-20 depending on the mood of the owners and their stock levels that month.

Outside of their actual feed I found chickens will eat just about everything else in the garden (except something useful like weeds) and will KILL for tomatoes. Don’t know what it is about them, but like heroin to a junkie, they just cannot get enough of them.

Your return

Hens will lay about 5 eggs in 7 days, some more, some less. Their laying life in my experience is about 2 years, again some more, some less. Our hens also always laid throughout the winter, I have read that this is unusual with some hens laying only in the warmer months. We did nothing to deliberately encourage this, other than keeping them warm (by ensuring we closed up the coop each night) and keeping them well-fed.

One other downside

Another thing that people don’t tell you about hens is that every group has a squawker. This is the hen that announces day break to the universe (I thought it was just roosters that did this, but no) and won’t shut up no matter what you fling at it from an upstairs bedroom window (we received a collection of items from surrounding neighbours’ homes). Honestly though, the squawking is no louder than a dog barking, and after a few weeks people acclimatised to it and the death threats stop. I think this would be less noticeable in louder neighbourhoods, or the countryside.