Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Compost Bins - Maye Bruce Style

Well it's been a lovely lot of long weekends - three four-day weekends on the trot! So while blogging has been quiet, lots has been going on. Lots to tell you all about, so keep checking back over the next couple of weeks and I'll try and get it all up.

So first up and rather excitingly, we've built a lovely new compost bin out on the yard. I blogged some time ago about Maye Bruce's quick return compost method and when it came to making my bin, it was her I turned to for the design.

Her pioneering compost method is legendary, so when I discovered a box of books containing a first edition of her 1946 book 'Common Sense Compost Making' in a local auction, I snapped it up! Many other fabulous books were to be found later in that £10 box of books (and the six other boxes that unexpectedly came with it!), but that's another story..

So Maye Bruce's compost bin design and method is as follows:

1. Build your four sides, leaving the bottom open to the soil.
She recommends using wood as preference, but brick with small gaps for aeration, turf walls with grass downward, straw bales or even open sides (making sure they are straight up and firm) are also suggested. You just need to bear in min that you're trying to keep the heap warm. We've used some old pallets with the gaps filled in with bits of wood we'd saved for a rainy day.

She recommends you size it up so that it can be filled in two months - 'the quicker the better'. If your bin turns out to be too big for this, she suggests subdividing it with pieces of board. She recommends the following sizes as a guide:
Small garden - 18 inches x 18 inches x 2ft high (45cm x 45cm x 60cm high)
Medium garden - 3ft x 4ft x 3ft high (90cm x 120cm x 90 cm high)
Large garden - 6ft x 6ft x 3ft high (180cm x 180cm x 90cm high)

Quite short then!

2. Prepare your foundation, aiming for good drainage under the heap.

You need light, well drained ground under the bin so all the moisture can drain away instead of saturating the compost, cutting off that all important air supply. We have heavy, clay soil here so we put a layer of gravel in the bottom of our bin to improve drainage. Miss Bruce recommends 6 inches depth of gravel (15cm).

3. Add a few handfuls of charcoal - optional extra stage, to 'absorb unpleasant gases'.
Miss Bruce advises that you can make your own charcoal by building a small bonfire with e.g. old pea sticks and when it's red hot pour water over it to turn it to charcoal.

4. Build your heap

Miss Bruce recommends adding all weeds, even the nasty perennial ones and seeding ones. I'm a bit reluctant to give that a go, I have to say, having had some disasterous weed-inducing compost in the past. But she says to add the nasty weeds to the middle of the heap so the heat 'destroys their power of germination'.

She advises building up in layers four inches thick (about 10cm), alternating layers of green stuff with brown stuff. She also says to add a scattering of soil and a dusting of lime (or wood ash would do) every foot.

Make sure to keep the heap flat and level on the top. You can pat it down with a spade or even tread lightly on it to level it off, as demonstrated by the lovely gentleman below:

Lay some sacking directly on top (I use cardboard, some use carpet), to keep the heat and moisture in. Cover the bin with a water proof roof to keep the rain out.

5. Finish your heap
When your heap is full and firm, Miss Bruce recommends covering it with about 4 inches of soil (10cm) and then letting it settle for a few days before treating it with her special activator. This method makes compost in 4-6 weeks in spring, 6-8 weeks in summer and 8-12 weeks in autumn. Very nice!

I've blogged on her activator before and will be again this year now I've finally got a lovely big bin to try it out on.

I'd love to hear what you all think about this method or any other tips you might have for successful compost bin design and composting. My compost making here at Oak House has been rather haphazard. But - slapped wrist - I've not been following Maye Bruce's method since that first experiment, so I'm hoping things will improve now I've got back to it!


  1. That is the way I make my brown being straw, goat droppings and chicken manure. Within about 12 to 15 hours I can't hold my hand in the centre of the pile because it is so hot. I don't use any activators...although last time I did put some comfrey tea on. I try to have two or three on the go at different stages. I even put an egg in one compost as an experiment...and it cooked.

  2. For comparison - I kept dried leaves swept up in autumn in plastic bags and they are still not ready to use as compost. Interested to see how your application of Maye Bruce's method works out.

  3. Very is a delight to read how someone developed a composting method in the 1940's. I teach composting classes as a Master Gardener, and I find all these methods so interesting.

  4. All sounds pretty good advice to me! As a Master Composter, it is basically what I would suggest ( although the only activator I recomend is urine or nettles/comfrey, rather than a bought in product)

    At this time of year I can make really good compost from start to finish in about 8 weeks...and as it gets hot enought to kill off the weed seeds there are no weediness issues.

    Come over and see how I do it, if you like. It would be lovely to see you again!

  5. Hazel - ha ha! I love that you cooked an egg in yours! Must try that some time!

    B-a-g - yes, me too with the slow leaves. I've got some I gathered up two years ago now and they're still just leaves. But I'd left them in a sack sitting on concrete, so perhaps not enough munching creatures were getting in. Any of you master composters got any tips for leaves?

    Sage Butterfly - It's lovely to see how people have done it in the past isn't it! I also found this amazing 'gardener's assistant' book, about 10cm thick, leather bound, dating from 1892 with tips on just everything you can think of. Love it! I'm using his pruning advice on my new fruit trees. I'll stick a post up about it next time I'm doing some pruning.

    CW - great to see you here! Yeah, it'd be nice to try out another heap with comfrey/nettles to compare the results... although actually I've put loads in as my raw materials - lots and lots of nettles!!! And some comfrey. Be really great to come visit you again and your lovely garden. Once growing season has calmed down!



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