If a lot can be gleaned about a garden from its composting system, more can be learned about its custodian. Perhaps there’s a plastic bin that looks like a Dalek, or a fancier one that promises a certain kind of airflow, or a thermometer that must be meticulously watched. The presence of bays, rather than bins, is a clear sign of serious composting. Look for the blankets on top: there will be crumbly black gold inside. And those with no composting system at all? They’re not for judgement, but rather gentle pity: as composters know, it’s often the best bit of the garden.


Mulching season is upon us. As growth slows down over winter and beds begin to bare themselves, laying on a thick spread of the good stuff is a fine way to break a sweat against the plummeting temperatures. In the words of garden writer Laetitia Maklouf, the best time to mulch is whenever you think of it, although it tends to be done over the cooler months because it’s easier not to have to fuss around new shoots. Mulching on top of a frost or in the midst of a heatwave isn’t ideal, either. But now? Now is good.

Mulch and compost are among those magic, dark secrets of gardening

Last year I mulched from the compost heap, something I felt very smug about at the time but less so in the heat-stricken summer that followed, when it became apparent that my compost wasn’t – yet – as potent as the well-rotted horse manure I’d used the year before.

This year, with the garden in the midst of hard landscaping upheaval, I’ve bitten the bullet and invested in Dalefoot’s Lakeland Gold ‘Clay-Buster’ – a peat-free soil conditioner that I’ve heard is well-worth the price tag. I’ll be applying a layer once the contractors have moved out and the plants have been put into the new beds. I’ve redesigned the garden with dry summers in mind. Mulching well – now but in spring too – is as key as the planting palette as it helps plants retain moisture.

Technically, you can mulch with all sorts: old grass clippings, leaf mould, mushroom compost, wood chippings, debris from deadheading. It’s essentially about funnelling organic matter into the soil to feed the plants that will grow there next year. It may sound simple, and unsexy, but I think that’s exactly why people get more obsessed with compost and mulching the more they garden. Raising a bed of annuals from seed to bombast in half a year? That’s easy in comparison to keeping a perennial herbaceous bed looking good season in, season out. Mulch and compost are among those magic, dark secrets of gardening that require persistence, knowledge and experience. They’re where it all begins.

I’m not there yet. My compost bay aspirations are destined for another garden

People often realise this after having grown for a few seasons – perhaps in a container garden or even on a balcony – and it can be life-changing. I suspect Bette Midler wasn’t joking when she said that the epiphany, the ‘kind of transcendent, magical experience that lets you see your place in the big picture’ she’d spent her life waiting for occurred as a result of her first compost heap. To put food scraps and deadheadings in and get goodness out is one thing; to realise what you grow is part of
a larger, closed-circle system is quite another.

The first six months were a disaster: I created a sticky, lumpy goo that smelled like farts

I’m not there yet. My compost bay aspirations are destined for another garden: my veg peelings and cardboard boxes go in a 200-litre Aerobin, which I tucked into the paved nook around the side of the house before I did anything else in the garden. While it’s a good start, it’s not always large enough to accommodate my waste nor feed the garden. Plus, the first six months were a disaster: I created a sticky, lumpy goo that smelled like farts. But in time (and a generous offering of chicken poo and sawdust from a friend in the countryside), the compost crumbled. When something fails in the garden, gets nibbled to bits or cut back, it ends up here. In the compost, it gets another chance. I like knowing that it’ll return to the soil, where it can contribute in another way to make something else beautiful.


Read all of Alice Vincent's previous columns here, and subscribe to Gardens Illustrated to get them delivered to your door.


Alice Vincent is the author of Rootbound, How to Grow Stuff and Seeds from Scratch. A self-taught urban gardeners, she is behind the Instagram account @noughticulture.