Opening the heap, and Splitting Primula

Opening up the compost heap, like Christmas or a birthday, comes once a year only. It’s about as messy as Christmas, if marginally less exciting, but it does come with the thrill of the unknown, such as you might get when unwrapping a large, damp, gift.  What long-forgotten tools will emerge from the black depths? What fragments of plant labels? What unimagined horrors?

Some organised people, such as The Anxious Gardener, go in for rows of bins. I just have a heap, or rather two heaps: an old heap and a new heap. Actually they start as pits and become heaps. I have two heaps because I run the compost on a two-year cycle, turning over the new heap into the old heap once the old heap has been emptied out in Spring – if this is becoming confusing, it is because the English language is deficient in composting vocabulary…. 

My camera refused to believe I wanted a picture of very black sludge, so has attempted to paint everything in nice, mellow, sepia. It’s still in shock. This is not what it thought artistic photography was about.

The archaeology of compost: L to R: Label from abortive attempt to grow leeks; Fragment of label from edriathus pumilio (fell to slugs 3 years ago); flake of plaster split off the house 2 winters past.

I use most of the compost on the herbaceous borders in Spring, but I take out a few trailer loads now for the vegetable beds and some of the primulas. I dig a trench into the depths of the pit (it’s part of the brick-lined old mill lade, which once carried the water from the dam to the mill wheel). This is mostly to allow the frost into the centre, to help to break up the compost, but also to let me assess the consistency, the texture and the flavour (take the latter as a metaphor please) – for, like making a cake, you never quite know the degree of success or failure until it is out of the oven. Anyway, the compost is going here: (and now we get to the serious bit).
These are primula pulverulenta – which you can see in flower in the header image for the blog. They grow in a sort of muddy ditch into which the pond occasionally overflows, and a year or two ago I thought I was losing the lot. They were weak, spindly, and rotted in Winter. Those scavenging jackals of the garden, the myriad slugs, scented the vulnerability and rasped out their growing points. I was in despair. My babies!

(pause to recover composure)

I checked for vine weevil and for virus, and I sprayed with fungicide and foliar feed and anything else I could think of. But in the end, the answer lay in the fact that their roots were too far down into the water table, and they had run out of nutrition in the clay sludge. So now I lift them, split them, throw on six or nine inches of compost and replant.

Splitting candelabra primulas is tough on the fingers. Some, such as p.’Inverewe’  pull apart with relative ease. But p.pulverulenta grows into congested clumps. Their need for splitting is all the greater, but it’s a mucky job burrowing your fingers into the undercarriage and easing the plants apart without ripping away too many feeding roots. You can split primulas either in Autumn or Spring – Spring is probably easier on the plants, but the soil is horribly cold to work with, and the icy rain goes down your neck. So I prefer to do it now, if I can. Sometimes you need to use a fork, or two forks back-to-back – but blunt fingers are better. In extremis you can do a root wash, but that definitely sets the plants back.There are now eleven plants where there were two. The old leaves will flop and die off, but the plants should have time to re-establish themselves before winter.


11 thoughts on “Opening the heap, and Splitting Primula

  1. There is something going on with your images. When I read the post in my email subscription it was fine, but here I see only the same image (that really scary one of the dug compost looking A LOT like an open grave) over and over. Is this just on MY computer screen? Ever find any bones?

      • I have firefox and chrome but don’t worry, the images healed, or something. Really there is no knowing what it was but it repaired itself.

        I like the compost archaeology– I always find plant labels. And now I can see the photos of the dividing you did of the beautiful primulas, so worth the considerable effort. (So, is there a half-bottle labeled “shift compost” or “divide primulas?” Just wondering…)

  2. You are so right about the shortcomings of the English language when it comes to writing about compost – and finding an old plant label always brightens my day. It’s like unearthing an old friend. But then that’s working alone for you.

    Great heaps (which seems an appropriate thing to say).

  3. When I first looked at your post I thought you were getting ready for a burial and I was going to offer my condolences….
    I have found numerous tools in our compost heap as well as labels. I tried putting yellow tape round them but they still end up in the oddest places. And it doesn’t do my felcos much good!
    Great job splitting your primulas.

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