Wine cap stropharia (Stropharia rugosoannulata)

Wine cap stropharia (Stropharia rugosoannulata) Photograph: Shotshop GmbH/Alamy

I have to confess I’ve been a bit slapdash with my compost making over the years. Throwing in the right sort of ingredients, sure, but at random, then walking away and relying on my pile transforming itself as if by magic into lovely crumbly black gold with which to nourish my soil.

One of the many great things about compost is that normally such a slapdash approach doesn’t matter because the microbes and various pile-dwelling insects will do the job for you eventually. As I’m gardening for free, however, this home-made material is even more crucial to the success of my efforts and rather pressingly, I need to ensure that I have enough of the good stuff ready to use next year.

I use a compost bin for your typical household waste; fruit and veg peelings, torn up cardboard and newspaper mainly. When this has rotted down a bit I normally then throw it onto one of the larger piles which also comprise waste from the garden and the soiled straw we’ve cleaned out from the chicken house. I’ve created a double-chambered system, which in theory gives me extra space to turn the pile – except um, well, this is the first time I’ve attempted to do that.

compost heap
Compost bins are a great way of making free soil improver for the garden. Photograph: Alamy

I wasn’t bothered before, but now I want everything to compost down more quickly than when left to its own devices and feeding the compost microbes by aerating your pile regularly is a sure fire way to do so.

Digging around a bit, I can see everything seems to be rotting down well enough and the many compost-accelerating worms and insects are doing their job nicely. There’s just time for me to give it all a turn or two before the cold weather moves in and then I’ll start providing insulation to what’s already there during winter. I’ll do this by layering my brown and green ingredients more rigorously in the hope of trapping heat and gasses inside. I use comfrey, borage, nettles and seaweed to make fertiliser but I’m also going to start adding whatever’s left over to my pile in the green layers for added potency.

I also fancy trying out other ways of helping to boost the fertility of my soil in the future.

I know you can use compost tea to make your pile go further, but it’s time consuming and I can’t be doing with that. Instead I’ve found a free source of woodchip via a friendly local tree surgeon which I’m going to experiment with turning into a useful addition to my garden. Depending on how much I get, I’m going to mix it in with the last of this year’s grass cuttings to use as a mulch and weed suppressant around my young fruit trees. Then I’ll make a mound, layering it with earth and leave it to rot down for use next year. I’ve heard that fungi such as wine cap stropharia can be useful in helping it break down to a useable state, so I’ll add some of last year’s compost which had lots of unidentifiable (by me at least) mushrooms growing out of it. There might be some mycelium still in there, so it’s worth a try.

Those wine caps sure look good. It gets me thinking how much I’d like to have a stab at growing mushrooms and to ponder how I can do so without buying anything.

Can I somehow extract the spores from mushrooms that I want to grow and use these to create a cultivated plot? Would they grow true to type, and how do you get hold of mushrooms with their spores intact in the first place? I happen to know there’s an excellent organic shiitake mushroom grower who lives a short drive away so I arrange to meet Gary who runs Maesyffin Mushrooms to see what he does and to find out more.

It’s a fascinating but complicated business, that’s for sure and unfortunately my mushroom of choice, shiitake, isn’t easy to grow at the best of times so it’s not one for me to start with. Instead on Gary’s advice I’m going to look into what can be grown seasonally in my area and indeed what grows already to see what can be done with them. We have wild mushrooms popping up all over the garden in autumn but I’ve never got around to properly identifying what they are or whether they are edible or not. It seems like now is the time and this’ll be my first step into a brave new world of fungi cultivating opportunities.

Do you have any further compost boosting suggestions for me to try out? Plus, any other ideas on how I can get mushroom growing for free? As always I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences.