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Background: My husband and I bought a house last year with a couple of acres of land around it that haven't been maintained much recently, although there was obviously someone who did a lot of work on it at some point in the past. Although we've gardened a bit in small urban gardens, we've mostly rented and moved frequently up until now, so we're novices when it comes to composting and other such long term tasks. Location is the West of Ireland, but not right on the coast, in case that's relevant.

Scenario: One of our first tasks this spring as the weather started warming up was to clear the overgrowth (mostly grass and moss) out of the flowerbeds. The earth is so soft that in a lot of cases just pulling it up by hand brought up a lot of earth on the roots, and we also had to dig up a lot of weeds, so we ended up with a debris pile that was probably almost half earth as well as grass, moss, weeds and other plant matter. We separated out the obvious large stones and other unwanted items such as broken pots and bits of rubble. Only one flowerbed is done so far so we'll have the same situation a fair few times more before we're done.

Question: I suspect that due to the large proportion of earth, this pile is not suitable for composting? In any case we're not quite set up for that yet. What is our best use for it, given that we would like to improve the quality of the soil, which tends to be soggy, as well as avoiding unsightly heaps scattered around?

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Because you now have a large area to garden, one of the first things to do is to work out where you can make a compost heap or pile - preferably somewhere tucked away, but with enough room to make a pile at least a metre squared as a minimum. You can just use posts and chicken wire to make a cage to retain it all, if that's easier. Then you can, indeed, put your soil and its grass in there - moss can also be added, but is best added a bit at a time, then mixed in with other ingredients as you go along. The thing to avoid is putting any seed heads, bulbs or plants with bulbous roots, or pernicious weeds into the heap - things like bindweed, dandelion roots, they can be burned eventually if you're allowed to do that (check with your local council what the rules are). Seedling annual weeds can be added to the heap before they've flowered without any problem. Because the climate is pretty wet where you are, a lid on the compost pile (or even a piece of old carpet) will help to keep out excess rain.

When you start to clear the other beds, shake off as much soil as possible from root clumps of things you dig up - all can be placed in the compost, but eventually, you'll need to think about other things to put on the compost if you want to make it useful around the garden. Good homemade garden compost is very good for mulching as well as digging into beds at planting time, and improves the soil. This link here https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?PID=444 has some useful guidance on that and composting generally.

UPDATE - following your comment, you might be interested in this thread regarding composting How can I tell if my compost is ready

  • Wow, thanks for the quick and detailed answer! I've read up on composting before but it seemed to imply that anything other than the correct 'recipe' was courting disaster. For example the one you linked suggests adding one shovel full of earth, which I would have read to mean that any more than that was bad... Good to know it isn't as disastrous as I assumed. – Tara Hanratty Feb 21 '17 at 20:03
  • the correct 'recipe' is all very well, but difficult to achieve in practice- the most efficient heaps are made up with materials already at hand, so you can get the right ratios in the right layers, but life's just not like that - you have some stuff, then later you get more stuff, so whilst some knowledge about browns and greens is valuable, perfection is not only inessential but, I suspect, unachievable! – Bamboo Feb 21 '17 at 20:16
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Oh contraire! That dirt included with the weed vegetative growth is SUPER in fact best for composting. Add a bit of nitrogen, mix it now and then and keep it moist! In your case a tarp to keep it from being so soggy otherwise there is no air in the mix. Do not worry too much about stones...only throw the ones larger than your fist to a heap. Plants don't care at all about stones, perhaps boulders, just us humans think we need to get rid of them and you will ALWAYS have stones in your soil in Ireland (from what I've been told anyhoo).

Start with your foundation planting. Make sure no soil or rock is within 4" of your siding! Make sure all water that lands on the soil near your foundation moves away from the foundation. Drainage away from your foundation is what you need to be concerned about! Plant beds should be higher and fluffier than the normal compacted soil. Making trenches at the bottom of your beds in your case is important to direct the flow of water away from your foundation. This gets tricky as the back side of your plant beds will slough water towards the foundation. Keeping your beds far enough away from the foundation to be able to create a 'swale' behind the beds and in front of your foundation to direct excess water flow is the number one priority. That entails a good 6 feet and drain rock to line the swale. If this is not a problem then let me know. Wish I was more adept with this computer stuff I'd draw you a cross section. Does your home HAVE foundation drains at the bottom of the primary footings? The rest will be far easier. Drainage will ruin your investment or enhance it. Plant beds should never be at the same level as the lawn or walkways.

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If you are on the west coast of Ireland, I assume that means you are living somewhere rural, and therefore you probably have another option to get rid of waste - burning it.

The bad news is that you have started at the wrong time of year. Ideally, you want to dig up the vegetation and leave it on the surface for a day or two to dry. Then, most of the soil will just shake off. If you get a good turf fire going, you can stoke it up with relatively damp vegetation and earth at night, and the hot ash will dry it out and keep it burning slowly till the next morning.

Fire has the advantage that it kills everything, even the most pernicious weeds. You can use the ash as soil conditioner.

I would suggest you stack up the rubbish you have cleared so far and start work on the cleared area. Don't worry about trying to compost it. Then clear and burn the rest (and burn the stacked material) in summer, whenever you get some drier weather and a bit of sunshine.

I once cleared about an acre of 50-year-old rough grass that way, using only hand tools - we had fires burning continuously for about three weeks!

  • In the UK and Ireland, there are lots of rules around bonfires, and they vary between different boroughs - but I do know that in Ireland, they're currently discussing whether to ban them completely, or get people to apply for a special licence when they want to burn something. It's all about protecting the environment and trying to reduce noxious emissions. – Bamboo Feb 21 '17 at 22:47

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