Canberra's king of compost reveals his secrets

Susan Parsons
In fertile hands: Rodger Gorey with a handful of his compost mix.
In fertile hands: Rodger Gorey with a handful of his compost mix. Photo: Jay Cronan

Our Kitchen Garden competition (August 27) in which readers shared memories of their fathers and male mentors was a great success. The winner of Josh Byrne's book Small Space Organics and a bag of Yates products was Annette Sainsbury of Pearce.

Here is her story:

"I have chosen to write about my son-in-law. The first time I met him he reminded me of the lean, lanky, laconic bushmen in a Russell Drysdale painting, It's probably no coincidence Drysdale is his favourite artist.  He has the Australian soil in his blood, and while his soil is that of the Riverina, he now loves the land of the ACT and its surrounds.

The big spread: Rodger Gorey of Torrens.
The big spread: Rodger Gorey of Torrens. Photo: Jay Cronan

"His new son Liam was introduced to the Canberra bush in his first week and the family continues to enjoy the local hills and pathways.  He loved to take 'the boy' roo spotting. He's been known to come home with a blue tongue lizard snuggled inside his motorcycle jacket, saved from the hot Hindmarsh Drive speedway.

"His understanding of the soil in Canberra backyards has taken some hard work, though that is something he is never afraid of. He would phone me excitedly at odd hours of the day and night for composting tips and then proceed to tell me enthusiastically about his latest theory or source of compost food, from mountains of coffee grounds from a cafeteria to cow and horse manure from the local paddocks.

"The king of compost then began researching seriously. The result was a veritable ziggurat of hay bales which reduced garden and kitchen waste to a black worm-infested product in a matter of weeks, just as Google had predicted, to be envied by the less adventurous.  Onecold winter's night the phone call came to go and see 'something' in the backyard.  It was the glowing, steaming compost heap, more like an iron furnace, with a life of its own.  Every three weeks the invitation come again to look and admire the natural wonder of that construction and examine the latest successful result.

"The king has grown some mighty vegetables, fed by that compost.  Unfortunately the neighbourhood predator possums and rats have bookmarked his backyard, feasting on the corn, tomatoes and pumpkins.  I have no doubt he will come up with a solution for this season."

So Food and Wine caught up with Rodger Gorey, of Torrens, who is the king of compost, and is Annette Sainsbury's son-in-law. His worm-wriggling compost is the best I have seen in decades of garden writing for The Canberra Times.

We met on a hill in Woden among boulders where blue-tongue lizards live in the crevices and our CT photographer, Jay Cronan, caught a glimpse of one. Gorey had a trailer-load of compost goodies. 

Among the brown elements there was a grand collection of faggots and larger branches from autumn cuttings, bags of leaves from Gorey's neighbour's garden and his own, broken down lucerne bales that had a plentiful supply of worms from last season's hot composting, and lucerne 'biscuits' that he uses currently to cover a garden bed. He also was lucky to receive a free dumping of coarse mulch from a local tree prune, about three metres square.

Green/protein compost ingredients he uses include home vegie scraps in a sealed compost tumbler, coffee grounds from commercial areas  (City edge cafe in Civic and HOZ Express cafe in Woden). He also gathers vegetable scraps from commercial waste bins and City Edge, where they separate their vegie scraps.

Gorey says he really likes recycling carbon and green materials to produce organic crops. His wife Kathryn Sainsbury and her mother are great at growing from seeds, seedlings and striking plants and spring plantings include carrot, spinach, lettuce , rocket, corn, tomatoes and eggplant. They also have young apricot, lemon and peach trees.  His role is to provide the soil in which to grow.

He enjoys the time and energy it takes, collecting, lifting, moving, mulching and the rotation of materials.

The use of personal gardening tools also reminds him of times on the farm in Leeton, watering, using a shovel and comparing one tool against another for different jobs. Gorey says it is the best way to spend a day off.

The cooking role is shared in his household using a blend of recipes that are family-based and from books. They use quick links to online sites for impromptu cooking but also have a collection of cookbooks stored by author's name as well as country of origin.

Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.