Waking your compost bin in Spring

This is the time compost fans have been waiting for.  At Great Green Systems we leave our compost ‘cooking’ for two grand occasions a year – April and October – for the Spring and Autumn retrieval of mature compost from the Green Johanna.

If you’re a first-time user of a Johanna, we recommend waiting 6-8 months before taking your compost out. After that, depending on conditions, 4-6 months should be fine.  

You can take compost from the bottom of the Johanna by unscrewing the hatches and removing compost using the aerator stick or a garden hoe.

To remove larger amounts of compost that have been left longer to mature, you can unscrew the Johanna’s modular sections, then remove materials from the top that are still decomposing and place them on a tarpaulin to enable you to get to the mature compost. Then put the decomposing materials back into the reassembled compost bin to continue breaking down.

Taking a Green Johanna apart to take out compost

Compost is ready when it looks like soil – dark and crumbly – and also smells like fresh soil. There may be some items that have not fully broken down, such as sticks, bits of eggshell and tea bags. These can be taken out and put back into the composter to go through the breakdown process again.  If there are other recognisable waste items and an unpleasant smell, the compost is not ready and should be left to continue breaking down.

This is also a good time to take leaf mould out of composters that are used only for leaves for use in your compost mixes.

Leaf mould taken from a Graf Thermo King 900 litre composter after two years breaking down

Use your compost for:  

Planting – Compost acts like a natural fertiliser enriching the soil and helping plants to thrive. As it is taken into the soil by worms and other organisms, the compost feeds plants and micro-organisms in the soil. For different compost recipes, check out the Garden Organic website – www.gardenorganic.org.uk.  

Mulching – At the beginning of the growing season mulches warm the soil, helping it to retain heat which would be lost at night.

  • Mulch also creates a haven for insects and worms which in turn attract birds and other wildlife, creating a mini eco-system in your garden.
  • Gardeners appreciate the neat weed-free appearance that mulch creates.
  •  If you have a dry garden, you’ll be glad of the protection that mulch offers plants in retaining water and cutting down on evaporation. This means you don’t have to water as frequently. Apply mature compost on soil after a spell of rain to retain moisture. Lay the layers at least 5cms thick after first removing weeds.

Planning your planting

  • Choose plants that peak at different times from June through to September.
  • Check the eventual height and spread of each plant before you plant it.
  • Water in each new planting and keep them watered regularly during their first summer.
  • Tackle weeds – the best approach is little and often. Hoe once a week to dislodge annuals. Perennials can be pulled out by hand if they’re still small, or if larger they can be dug out with a trowel.  
  • If you want to embrace No Mow May, allowing wildflowers to flourish and creating a habitat for insects, but you’re worried your lawn will look too wild, compromise by mowing a path through the grass and neatening edges.
  • Support Peat-free April – although the UK government has banned the sale of bagged peat for home gardeners, peat is still used for growing plants to sell. Support peat-free nurseries and suppliers by going to the Peat-free April website (www.peatfree.org.uk)

Tips from the experts

Sarah Raven is surely the Queen of Pots – she has 382 pots in her garden. In her book A Year Full of Pots (Bloomsbury) she advises:

  • Keep your eyes peeled for pests as the weather warms – deal with aphids with a jet of water from the hose.
  • Label everything because it’s easy to forget what’s what. Always start writing at the blunt end of your label.
  • If you don’t have a polytunnel, greenhouse or cold frame, it might be easier to buy seedlings online rather than sowing everything into trays and filling your windowsills. Perhaps select one or two to sow, ones that you know are easy, and buy the rest as young plants.
  • The commonest method she and her team use is the seed tray method – using peat-free potting compost, they place everything on a heated propagator mat. Warmth helps to speed up germination, so keep bags of compost inside if you can. Water the compost in the trays with watering cans that have sat on the hot bench.
  • Storing seed – if you have any leftover seed, secure the packet and put it in an airtight box. Store somewhere cool until next year.

Poppy’s plants

There may now be enough light for tender plants to grow outside but is it still too cold for them?

Poppy Okotcha, writing in her Observer gardening column, uses the rule of thumb that if it’s chilly outside for her and she needs to wear more than a T-shirt, then tender plants are probably feeling the cold too. She advises:

  • A sunny windowsill, warm conservatory or porch will do them well until the frosts pass and day and night temperatures consistently reach 8-10 degrees C.
  • It’s worth finding out the hardiness rating of the crop you’re sowing so you can cater to its needs. After the seeds have germinated, any hardy seedlings can be relocated somewhere with plenty of light that is not too warm. A cool, bright windowsill, conservatory, porch, or cold frame would do, or for those lucky enough to have one, an unheated greenhouse is fine. If seedlings have too much warmth and not enough light they will grow ‘leggy’, which just means spindly and weak.
  • Source seeds that are ethically grown, such as those certified organic by the Soil Association or Biodynamic by Demeter.
  • Keep tender plants safe from slugs and snails through Spring by covering them with cloches, plastic bottles or glass jars to act as physical barriers until the plant is vigorous enough to withstand some nibbling.  Put the containers on in the evening and take them off in the morning.

Let’s not forget wildlife

Remember visiting creatures when you’re out and about in your garden.  

  • Leave natural materials outside for nest-making.
  • Create resting places for bees just waking up.
  • Plant quick-growing flowers for pollinators.
  • Deep clean any bird feeders and baths.

Keeping compost warm when temperatures drop

Hot composting is basically a set of techniques.

By following these techniques you can achieve higher temperatures and faster decomposition than traditional regular composting, which is usually referred to as cold composting.

If you want the simplest way to achieve higher temperatures, then using a well-designed container such as the Green Johanna, along with its Insulating Jacket, is your best bet. We have many customers who hot compost without the jacket, but they tend to be experienced composters who want active involvement in managing the bin.  

Some members of the Great Green Systems team keep the Johanna’s jacket on virtually all year round, removing it in the summer during hot weather when the compost temperature approaches 70 degrees Celsius.

 We recommend that in winter if external temperatures fall lower than 5 degrees Celsius the jacket should be added to avoid the composting process stalling.  

The jacket gives you more control. As well as helping to raise the temperature, you also have the option of removing it in order to lower the temperature if it gets too hot. Temperatures above 70 degrees will become too hot for the composting creatures to survive. If these aerobic micro-organisms start to die off, the process could stall so the jacket should be removed to allow the bin to cool down.

A Great Green Systems Johanna and jacket in January this year when the ground temperature was at zero, below.

But inside the Johanna the compost kept warm at 40 degrees C.

Some customers have expressed concerns that the Insulating Jacket will make the Johanna too hot for worms; this is not a problem because worms can easily enter and leave the composter through the small holes in the base plate. At temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius they will move where it is cooler, usually the bottom of the bin where the compost is maturing, or they can leave the bin completely.

A good fit

The Insulating Jacket is made from foam polyethylene – a water-resistant, lightweight material that is tough but flexible -and comprises three ring sections and a lid piece. When fitting the jacket, it’s essential that the bottom section does not cover the vents at the sides of the Johanna’s base as these are necessary for airflow.

The two upper sections should be added so that they overlap the section below by about 5 cms, ensuring that the ventilation holes at the top of the composter remain uncovered.  The jacket fits snugly so that no cold draughts can get in between the jacket and the bin.

 Composting outcomes depend on various factors and that includes the composter’s level of interest and involvement.

Of course, as keen composters ourselves we are bound to say it’s a fascinating subject that can become an enjoyable hobby, but don’t just take our word for it.

Adam Johannes, also known to his customers and followers as Compost Guy, says he really enjoys the active hands-on involvement of aerating his Johanna. Anthea Rossouw, who has been teaching composting using Johannas for decades, both in this country and in South Africa, says she loves to see people who started out knowing nothing becoming evangelical about their new interest. A new customer who took up composting recently on retirement admits cheerfully that she has become ‘obsessed’.

We hear so many different stories depending on various locations covering the length and breadth of the country, whether that is in sheltered inland areas, wind-battered coastal regions, rural or urban, and indeed countries abroad too.

Even with the jacket added, don’t forget your good composting habits:

  • Feed the bin regularly
  • Balance carbon/nitrogen ratios
  • Aerate regularly
  • Chop items small
  • Check moisture levels

And remember the Johanna was designed in Sweden to withstand temperatures of -20 degrees C. So wherever you are, with the jacket on, your Johanna is good to go this winter.  

The Compost Guy behind Hot Composting Week

The kids in the Johannes household have a ripping time on Saturday mornings – that’s when they join their dad tearing up cardboard for the family’s compost bins.

Their dad Adam Johannes is best known to his customers and Instagram followers as Compost Guy.

Adam had long been a keen gardener and composter when he realised a few years ago that he could help other people by offering advice to newbies starting out on their own composting journey, as well as selling products that he believed in, including the Green Johanna.  People message him with their questions and he aims to respond to 99 per cent of queries on the same day.

Adam – a regular Compost Guy

He finds that most people who contact him have already convinced themselves to start composting but just need a bit of advice.

‘They argue themselves into it, they know they want to send less to landfill, be more sustainable, and get compost,’ he says. ‘If someone is not completely sold on it, I normally list out the practical benefits, then the issues with not doing it!’

In a bid to spread the word, he decided to start an annual Hot Composting Week – the first one begins on Monday (September 18 – 24). He got the idea because he realised there were other weeks dedicated to general composting, but nothing focused on hot composting ‘- and that is the best way!’

He uses hot composters himself – a Green Johanna and Hotbin – and has also used Aerobin, wormeries and Bokashi bins in the past.

 ‘I thought it would be good to highlight the benefits to more people. Everyone is surprised when I tell them how hot it gets! The aim of the week is to show people that hot composting is a good investment for them, and the planet.’

 Concern for the environment

Compost Guy started life in the winter of 2019, a few months before the pandemic hit. Adam found that customers were initially motivated by concern for the environment; then when garden waste collections stopped during lockdown, there was an additional reason for people to get into composting – to get rid of the garden waste they were stuck with.

He stresses that his small team are not scientists or professional gardeners, just enthusiasts who believe in the value of what they’re doing and know there are people out there who would benefit too. Composting started as a natural extension to gardening for Adam but quickly became a hobby. As an allotmenteer he originally wanted to find out how to enrich his soil for best results.

‘Composting is a great hobby for anyone,’ he says. ‘Sad as it sounds, I love getting out there and aerating my compost. I like the hands-on nature of it. Perhaps I love composting far too much!’

Compost Guy’s enthusiasm seems to give people the confidence to reach out and ask him all sorts of questions.  He loves trying to help and points out that everybody’s compost bin will be different, depending on various factors, such as the bin’s contents, position, local climate etc.

The main questions he gets asked are about how to speed up composting and the differences between the various hot composters.

Carbon content

When he first started on Instagram he only expected a few followers but to his astonishment quickly got far more – to date he has an impressive 6,700.
He sorted out a potential problem for his own in-laws recently when they were just starting out with their Green Johanna. On inspecting their Johanna, Adam saw that food waste had not been mixed with much garden waste and was sitting on a large amount of grass clippings which had matted together. So he set about ripping up cardboard boxes, with his children of course, and added this to the bin along with shredded waste paper. They tore up more carbon-content waste than they needed and put the excess in a handy lidded container to store it for when needed later.

 A video on the website shows Adam enthusiastically aerating the Johanna’s contents to bring back ideal conditions in the bin. He also used a garden fork to aerate deeper in the bin to break up the matted grass and added bark chips, which provide valuable air pockets.

Adam is keen that Compost Guy should be a force for good in the world. A good portion of the profits go to sponsoring three children in poverty and each new customer means trees get planted with Just One Tree – up to July 2023 more than 2,073 trees had been planted.

In addition, Adam is a trustee and contributor to the Veg Box Donation Scheme, a charity which accepts surplus produce from gardeners for the benefit of others, and he also supports Transform Trade.

A few people who will surely never need to consult Compost Guy for advice are the Johannes juniors, who are learning valuable lessons every day – in life as well as composting.  

Letting Johanna and Bokashi do their thing

This week we caught up with Adam and Hayley who are first-time users of a Green Johanna.

They set up their Johanna in their back garden back in April. The couple had been keen to compost for years and had tried a couple of times with different composters but been disappointed with the results.

 Their reasons for composting were that they wanted to recycle their food and garden waste as well as produce their own compost to grow their own vegetables.  

Adam said:We have quite a big garden and a lot of garden waste to put to good use, such as branches, leaves etc. We also wanted a good place to put our food waste. We grow potatoes and other vegetables in the garden in large planters.’

They’ve been using the Johanna with an insulating jacket and in combination with a Bokashi bin. Bokashi bins are waste containers that ferment – rather than decompose – food waste thanks to the addition of beneficial anaerobic microbes in a spray or bran. Once full, the bin is sealed and left to ferment for around two weeks to become a pre-compost mixture which is then added to a composter or buried in soil in the garden.

  ‘It’s become a really useful part of our composting process,’ said Adam. ‘We put all our food waste straight into it and give it a few sprays of Bokashi spray, then once it’s full and has been left to ferment we transfer it to the Johanna.’

ABOVE: Contents of the kitchen caddy added to the Johanna.

 ABOVE: The Bokashi bin’s contents added to the Johanna. The contents of a Bokashi bin after two-weeks’ fermentation don’t appear much different; there will usually be a pickled smell. When added to a compost bin the pre-compost mixture acts as an accelerator – heat increases and the composting process speeds up.

Adam and Hayley are a household of two, both vegans, and it takes around one to two weeks for them to fill the Bokashi bin. Their waste is mainly vegetable scraps along with some beans. They then use their  smaller kitchen caddy to take food waste to the Johanna ‘whilst the Bokashi bin is doing its thing.’

They used some Bokashi bran in the Johanna when they were starting out to give the contents an initial boost but haven’t felt the need to use more since. Some people use it throughout the year to keep giving their compost an accelerating boost thanks to the presence of beneficial microbes in the bran.

While they haven’t used a thermometer to check the compost temperature, they’re having a lot more success with the Johanna than with other composters they tried in the past.

 ‘The Johanna is much better built and seems to be working faster at breaking down all the waste,’ said Adam. He added there had been no problems with flies or rodents.

Their garden waste provides them with more than enough carbon content (Browns) but they have also added shredded waste paper.

If you lack garden waste it’s a good idea to store shredded paper or cardboard, wood chips or sawdust in lidded containers nearby so that they can be added at the same time as adding food waste to get a good balance of nitrogen-rich Greens and carbon-rich Browns as compost materials You may be able to find a local tree surgeon who is willing to drop wood chips off for free.

So far, Adam and Hayley are happy composters and are waiting for the big reveal – accessing their first batch of compost! Watch this space…

Can you compost in communities? Anthea shows how

When Anthea Rossouw tried to get people into composting years ago, they thought she was crazy.

‘I just got blank stares,’ she recalls. ‘At the time there weren’t studies that proved what composting could do. People just wanted to throw things in the bin. Composting was a controversial idea.’

But Anthea is passionate about the environment and has a way of bringing people with her. Using workshops to show how to use the Green Johanna, she introduced composting to the housing complex in West Sussex where she was living at the time. This was so successful that it spread to other housing developments and businesses.

Anthea had been a keen recycler for years and pursued her interest by enrolling on the West Sussex County Council Waste Prevention Advisor programme delivered by the University of Brighton. So then when she was living in Walstead Court extra-care housing facility and saw piles of bin bags in the ‘rubbish room’ destined for landfill, she knew something could be done about it.   

With the support of the housing manager, Anthea showed residents and staff how to recycle food, garden and paper waste using three Green Johanna composters.

Her tutor at Brighton, Dr Ryan Woodard, had told her about Green Johannas and she thought they sounded ideal.

‘It was essential to get everyone on board though,’ she says.

 Anthea, front right, with other keen composters and the Green Johanna.

The workshops worked a treat. Waste disposal routines were transformed, as was the rubbish room, now that it was clear of bin bags containing food waste.

 Before long the residents were making their own compost and growing their own food and flowers. ‘We grew the most beautiful tomatoes,’ Anthea remembers.

Anthea approached the task methodically, weighing waste and tracking residual waste.  Waste to landfill was reduced by 55 per cent, black bin bags were reduced from three to one per flat per week. Over a six-month period 280 kg of food waste was diverted from landfill.

The communal gardens were not the only things that blossomed. Residents and staff reported that personal well-being and community spirit also flourished. The projects helped to keep people mentally alert and physically active, through taking waste out to the Johannas, crunching up cardboard containers etc. It also gave neighbours an added reason to chat to each other, acting as a conversational ice-breaker.

Anthea was then asked to introduce similar schemes to other housing associations and businesses. She also ran trials for DEFRA (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and won the Gatwick Diamond Green Champion award for her environmental work.

She then decided to try the same method of community food waste recycling in a very different place – her native South Africa. Here she introduced composting to struggling townships as part of her work with the Dreamcatcher South Africa Foundation that she had set up in 1991 to alleviate poverty by creating employment. In the community, waste was historically burnt at the dumpsite having a devastating impact on the environment and public health.

Anthea, second left next to Sir Trevor McDonald, receiving the Gatwick Diamond Green Champion award.

On a trip back home, she took three Johannas as luggage instead of suitcases, wrapping her clothes around the Johannas’ circular sections. Using the same training methods as in East and West Sussex, she installed three Johannas in a communal garden managed by local women known as Kamammas (a term meaning matriarch, or community leader).

Anthea says the Kamammas quickly took to working with the Johannas.

 ‘They found the composters didn’t attract dogs or vermin and they were delighted when they saw the quality of compost that was produced and the food they could grow with it.’ This trial was then scaled up to introduce another 25 Johannas.

The food that is grown with the Johannas’ compost is used in the women’s work providing tourists with traditional South African cuisine.  

A Kamamma introduces tourists to traditional South African cuisine.

Anthea divides her time between the UK and South Africa, and she is still in contact with the people she got composting back in the South of England. She is delighted – but not surprised – that the schemes she helped to implement are still going strong.

‘Any system must be sustainable, otherwise there’s no point. To bring about real change you have to go truly local. You need the people to make it work.

‘It takes around three months to introduce a composting project. After that people can stand on their own two feet.

‘Once you give people the skills, knowledge and confidence they become compost evangelists!’

After all these years, Anthea is still a big Johanna fan.

‘We used many other composters before settling on the Green Johanna. I underpin everything with baseline research and I knew the Green Johanna was the one.’

She still loves introducing beginners to composting.

 ‘They might know nothing now but you know they soon will. People become fascinated to know about all these little creatures in the composter doing their work.’

She firmly believes that if you pay attention to what’s happening in your composter you will learn  how to ‘speak compost’.

‘You soon learn to tell if you need to do something to bring good conditions back. If you haven’t enough garden waste, you can use paper product waste, such as toilet rolls, cardboard, shredded paper. If the contents look dry sprinkle a little water on top.’

The Johanna may have been designed in Sweden to cope with harsh Scandinavian winters, but it has happily adjusted to the South African climate, often turning ‘psychedelic green’ in the sun.

Whatever the shade, it’s still doing a great green job for the planet, wherever on earth it happens to be.  

Bokashi bins boost hot compost

When it comes to boosting the composting process, we have found a Bokashi bin to be the perfect partner for the Green Johanna.

We recently carried out trials involving additions of fermented food waste from a Maze Bokashi bin to a Green Johanna and found that temperatures in the Johanna rapidly increased as a result.  

For our trials, we re-started a Johanna more or less from scratch, having previously removed large amounts of compost.  Using a permanently installed insulation jacket and large amounts of Bokashi bran and carbon-rich materials, compost temperatures were around 30 degrees Celsius. 

 We added the contents of a Bokashi bin that had been fermenting for 21 days, followed by a full 1kg bag of Bokashi bran.   We then added some mulch and stirred well with a garden fork, before completing the process with a thin layer of mulch. 

 The Johanna was then left for 48 hours.  Temperatures rose to 66 degrees Celsius whilst outdoor temperatures were in the 0-10 degree range.   After 48 hours we re-stirred to spread heat more widely through the Johanna.    Using two Bokashi bins in rotation we repeated this cycle roughly every three weeks and got the same results.

We used the Green Johanna in combination with a regular kitchen caddy (as the Johanna needs regular feeding to maintain the hot composting process), twin-bin Bokashi system, Insulating Jacket, Bokashi Bran as an accelerant and plenty of mulch.

Photos show starting temperature at 30 degrees Celsius/adding fermented waste from a Bokashi bin/ adding Bokashi bran/temperature at 66 degrees Celsius.

The Bokashi process was developed in Japan in the 1980s; the term means ‘fermented organic matter’ in Japanese.  It involves adding all your food waste, cooked and uncooked, to a specially designed airtight Bokashi bin, with the addition of Bokashi in the form of a fermented bran or spray. The food waste is compressed with a compactor to eliminate as much air as possible as this is an anaerobic process.  Once the bin is full, you close the airtight lid and leave for 2-3 weeks.  Many people use two or three bins to keep the process going.

The bacteria (lactobacilli) in the bran or spray will create lactic acid which will effectively pickle the food waste rather than letting it decompose as it would in a regular food waste caddy.  After a week or so, liquid should start to form in the Bokashi bin which should be drained using the tap.   This ‘Bokashi tea’ can be used as a drain cleaner or diluted for use as plant food.

 At the end of the fermentation period the waste food is a pre-compost mixture that can be added to a composter or buried in soil to become a soil enhancer. Its composition is such that virtually all its original nutrients, carbon and energy enter rapidly into the soil.   No greenhouse gases are released to the atmosphere as they are during regular food waste decomposition in landfill.

Bokashi composting has traditionally proven particularly popular in urban environments where traditional garden composting is difficult. 

Mark

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