I was recently told that as far as aspects of horticulture went, compost wasn’t particularly romantic. But if you are what you eat, then essentially you are eating compost!
Ok, so I joke, but if there is a desire to grow quality produce for great cuisine, then a good compost is essential. To produce amazing food, you may require a good chef, but it starts with a horticultural medium so many struggle to get right.
Here at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school, although the quality of dishes is diverse as well as divine, compost is something they have struggled to get right within the Mediterranean climate.
Unlike in the UK, the dry heat has resulted in difficulty retaining moisture in the compost heap and prevented successful breakdown.
Ratios of brown to green materials are important too, although getting the right balance has been tricky. Lots of our compost comes from fruit and vegetables scraps from the kitchen along with prunings from the garden; but with no amenity lawns, sometimes getting the right mix to kickstart active breakdown can be a struggle.
Also the concept of composting seems quite new to Sicily, so I set a few rules to control what went into compost bins. I didn’t want any cooked food, meat or fish, anything that had been dressed in a sauce or any bread, as this would dramatically reduce the likelihood of vermin and other unwanted factors. I also wanted to limit the amount of citrus, as the increase in acidity can deter worms; a vital ingredient in the decomposition procedure!
I built up the compost in layers, alternating between a thin layer of chipped woody material, followed by a layer (around twice to three times as thick) of chopped up soft material, such as weeds and kitchen waste.
Material was cut or chipped to encourage a more active breakdown (large surface area for a smaller piece) and prevent twiggy debris or firmer stems from just sitting in the heap.
Now for the secret; adding 5 or 6 pieces of chopped Opuntia leaf (prickly pear), (the more fleshy younger one year old leaves are best for this), scattering them after each pairing oflayers (after the dry base) for example, dry layer- soft- dry- Opuntia– soft- dry- Opuntia) and repeating the process around 6 times will fill one of the small bays.
Using the Opuntia helps release moisture into the heap at a controlled rate, thereby not needing to continually water the heap. Too much water too fast may lead to excessive anaerobic conditions and a smelly compost!
The prepared heap is then covered with a plastic sheet and turned in and out of the bay every 12-15 days. During the turning process, any material which had not broken down sufficiently (as things break down at different rates) was removed to start a new heap. After 2 turns, this compost was hot, sufficiently broken down and ready to use (once cooled!) Odd bits were removed and some compost was sieved to achieve the desired end result.
So with a bit of love and care, I’ve achieved compost in 30 days, from scraps to success… who said romance was dead!