Introduction to Composting
In this convenience-driven, supermarket-ridden world, we may not feel very connected to the soil but like it or not, every one of us depends on it. It is the crucial link in the human food chain: without it we would not survive. Compost provides us with a way of caring for the soil, putting back the goodness that is taken out when we cultivate the land. For a gardener, compost has enormous benefits, improving the overallquality of the soil, plants and crops.
The most important thing about compost, however, is that it is good for the environment: it is the most effective way of recycling organic waste. British people generate 28 million tonnes of household waste each year, while in North America, the figure is closer to 200 million tonnes. Alarmingly, most of this waste ends up in landfill sites and recycling rates are shamefully low (only about 10 percent in Britain and 30 percent in the USA). Recycling organic waste is one of the ways we can make a positive Contribution to the Compost environment. It may not seem much, but this so-called ‘green’ waste makes up a third to a half of an average household’s total rubbish. If organic matter isn’t recycled, it goes off to the landfill site and when it is mixed with other rubbish, its normal decomposition cycle can’t occur. Instead, it forms a putrid mess that emits methane, a damaging greenhouse gas. Worse, this substance can mix with other industrial wastes, leaching into the soil and polluting rivers. This, and the sheer volume of waste arising, constitutes a severe problem. How long can we continue like this?
Anyone can make compost. Whether you have a large country garden, a small city courtyard, a fifth-floor balcony, or even no garden at all, you can fine a way that will suit you – and if you don’t need the end result, why not give it to a gardening neighbour or to a community composting scheme? Making compost is not difficult and – despite many people’s misconceptions – nor is it, or the end result, smelly, dirty or unhygienic. In reality, it is immensely rewarding to produce such a beneficial substance from materials that would otherwise have been thrown away. Composting is something to be enjoyed! It is a positive act and if more people did it, we’d be much closer to a safer, cleaner, greener world.
Compost The Basics
Composting is a practice that has been going on for thousands of years. In fact it is only in the last 150 years, with the introduction of artificial fertilizers, that many people have forgotten just how valuable a resource it is. Even in prehistoric times, it is likely that farmers caught on to the benefits of piling waste matter in a heap, perhaps noticing that plants grew better there. They put two and two together and started to use their decomposed rubbish in the cultivation of crops. Wild plants grow prolifically on a heap of nutrient-rich decomposing matter.
The Romans certainly composted. The technique was recorded by the scholar Marcus Porcius Cato, who set out recommendations for farmers in his target Manuscript De Agriculture, a first-hand account of farming life in more than 2,000 years ago in Italy. Even William Shakespeare has a big manure heap he referred to Composts in his advises using manure in the most famous play: Hamlet, true sense of the word to mean in a conversation with his ‘fertilizer’ rather than animal matter, says: ‘And do not do as many people under-spread the compost. Cat listed that the weeds to make sources of this manure: animal them ranker’ bean vines, husks, holm oak and oak foliage. In the latter years of the Roman Empire, however, the practice of enriching the soil was neglected. Roman emperors donated farmland to favored officials who sacked the farmers and used slaves to run the farms, exploiting the (and by planting and harvesting but ignoring the fact that the soil’s goodness needed to be replenished. Over time, the land became so run down that it could only be used for grazing cattle. Some people even claim that poor soil fertility was one of the contributing factors to the fall of the Roman Empire.
Learning from mistakes as well as successes, generation after generation continued to make and use compost to enrich the soil. There are references to composting in the Bible: Luke writes about a man who has a fig tree growing in his vineyard. He complains to his vine-dresser that the tree bears no fruit, and is advised to ‘dig around it and manure it’. In Renaissance times, the writer and printer William Caxton wrote about the benefits of ‘composting’.
Even William Shakespeare referred to compost in his most famous play: Hamlet, in a conversation with his mother, says: ‘And do not spread the compost on the weeds to make them ranker.’ It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century, when industrialization resulted in the production of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, that the need for compost lessened. Chemicals were pumped into the land by farmers. At first they didn’t know that they were poisoning the soil, destroying some of the millions of insects, fungi and bacteria that keep it healthy. Gradually, however, people began to worry about the implications of such methods. ‘Artificial fertilizers lead A British agronomist and botanist, to artificial nutrition, Sir Albert Howard, now hailed artificial animals and as the founder of the organic finally to artificial men farming movement, began backlash in the first half of the twentieth century. Between 1905 and 1939, Howard was based in India, where he carried out experiments on his 75-acre farm, ensuring that the soil was fed properly with compost and manure. He found that over a period of time, his crops became more resistant to disease. In turn, his cattle, strengthened by eating crops from a soil that was rich in organic matter and devoid of chemicals, also became healthier. The ultimate test was when they came into contact with other cattle that had foot and mouth disease – none of Howard’s cattle succumbed, proving that they had built up immunity through their healthy diet.
Later, Howard developed what is now known as the Indore process of composting (named after the area where he was stationed from 1924), which was based on an ideal of three parts plant matter to one part animal manure. The principles at the root of Howard’s thinking are summed up in an unforgettable statement that we would all do well to remember: Artificial fertilizers lead to artificial nutrition, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women.’
In the United States, the organic movement was founded by J. J. Rodale who established the monthly publication Organic Farming and Gardening in 1942. In Britain, the beginning of the organic movement was marked by the formation of the Soil Association in 1946, by a pioneering woman farmer, Lady Eve Balfour. The principal concern of the Soil Association was the depletion of healthy soil through intensive farming systems and, in the early years, it was involved mainly with research and building its membership base. However, the organic movement remained marginal until the early 1970s, when the establishment of organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth brought increased awareness of environmental issues. Another 15 years passed before organic food appeared on the supermarket shelves, bringing a new credibility to the movement, and in 1995 the British government initiated the Organic Aid Scheme to help organic farmers, broadening it further. Today, research is still going on as to whether organically grown crops are ‘better for you’ than those grown using artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
The Soil Association, at the forefront of this research, has carried out tests to prove that organic vegetables contain more vitamins than those grown inorganically, including the all-important phytonutrients that can help safeguard against diseases such as cancer.
As the demand for organic food increases, individuals are becoming more aware of the benefits of composting. Some have allotments or vegetable patches, where composting is carried out on almost every plot; others belong to community composting networks, which bring members of a neighborhood together to pool resources and compost more efficiently on a larger scale. Even if you don’t have a garden, you can help by separating out your organic waste to go into a centralized composting system. Local government is also getting involved. An increasing number of local authorities in Britain (currently about 50 percent) have set up these centralized schemes, either collecting green waste from the kerb or encouraging people to take it to civic amenity sites. The organic matter is then composted and the end product sold. The British government has introduced various schemes to encourage this sort of activity, including a landfill tax in 1996 and, more recently, a system of recycling credit payments to authorities and private companies that are actively promoting recycling. However, Britain is lagging behind other countries when it comes to such schemes. In the Netherlands, for example, the separation of organic waste at source is compulsory for all households. Different bins are provided for green waste, tin cans, glass, plastics, etc, all of which are collected from the home.
In the United States, centralized composting is commonplace, and other types of organic waste are also recycled, including meats and fatty products, to produce compost that is sold into both gardening and agricultural markets. In some areas there is also an ‘on farm’ composting facility, where the farmer is paid a fee to receive and compost waste.
All these ideas can and will be developed in years to come, but in the meantime, us lowly gardeners can do our bit by stepping up the home composting. And believe me, it can become quite an obsession. There’s something immensely satisfying about producing such a life-giving substance from materials that are perceived as waste, and once you get hooked you’ll find that you’re constantly trying to produce more, better quality compost.
What is compost?
I am an organic gardener, so making compost is central to my way of gardening. I admit that I don’t feel very glamorous cycling to my vegetable patch on my allotment down the road with a bag of kitchen waste on the back of my bike, but it’s worth it for the end result – barrow-loads of fresh compost that I can dig back into the soil to produce bumper crops of vegetables. But how exactly does compost improve the performance of the vegetables I grow?
In its simplest terms, compost is a rich mix of organic matter -kitchen waste, plant remains, grass clippings and animal manure – piled together so that it rots down to a fine, crumbly consistency. Full of goodness, it is nature’s best soil conditioner, replacing the nutrients that have been lost through cultivation, helping to provide plants with what they need to thrive, and improving the structure and texture of the soil. Nothing out of the ordinary, you might think, but, as you’ll see, compost is more than just an important addition to the soil – it is absolutely crucial, especially where the ground is cultivated intensively.
The art of decomposition
The process of decomposition itself is hugely complex and involves millions of living organisms working together in a miraculous way. To understand the process on a basic level, imagine a forest floor. Nature creates a yearly cycle of growth and decay: leaves fall in the autumn and mix with other dead vegetation and animal waste in a thick layer, gradually decomposing over a period of months and years. Full of locked-up nutrients in its unrotted state, the matter is broken down by the myriad insects, fungi and bacteria (sometimes known as decomposers) that live in the soil, and is eventually transformed into a brown, crumbly material that is worked down into the earth. During this process, the beneficial nutrients are released, effectively recycled, for plants to use again. This is nature’s compost, sometimes known as humus, a general term for decomposed organic matter, and without it, the soil would be starved and unable to support any vegetation at all. Making compost is man’s way of imitating this natural process, although in a vastly accelerated form. Just as in nature, the organic matter is piled together and broken down by bacteria, worms and other creatures but, because it is in a more concentrated form, it decomposes much more quickly. And, as explained later (p.66), there are ways to speed up the decomposition process further by creating a kind of ‘super-environment’ for the decomposers. The advantages gained from the resulting compost are manifold: when used in your garden, it will improve soil structure, soil fertility, aeration and water retention. Plants will get the nutrients they need to grow healthily and strongly, and they will be more resistant to disease. Homemade compost can also be added to potting mediums, so you don’t have to buy potting compost, fertilizers and soil improvers.
Decomposition occurs naturally with the seasons, as leaves mix with other dead vegetation and animal matter, forming layers that build up over the years.
Some benefits of compost and composting
• recycles your organic waste reduces pressure on landfill sites
• reduces waste disposal rates and taxes
• creates a free soil conditioner • saves money on other fertilizers • lessens the need to use chemicals
• reduces the need to use scarce natural resources like peat in gardens
• suppresses plant diseases makes more nutrients available to your plants
• improves soil structure
The secret life of soil
Composting starts and ends with the soil. Remember, while we spend hours trying to make the perfect compost heap, the same process is going on naturally beneath the soil, so it is helpful to know a little about the function and composition of soil before setting out to make your own compost.
Soil is an amazing resource. Vital for the production of food, timber and energy crops, capable of storing water and nutrients, as well as acting as a support system for plants, it plays a pivotal role in agriculture and our environment. Pause a minute to think about the pressures we place on it. Intensive agriculture, urbanization, mineral extraction and landfill waste disposal all result in loss of soil structure, soil erosion and contamination. In urban areas, the soil is disappearing beneath layers of concrete. In the countryside, the use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers in agriculture also takes its toll, while natural erosion and soil depletion occurs through the action of wind and rain. Soil is our life force: surely we should be devising ways to conserve this most precious of resources rather than taking it for granted?
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