Compost Awareness Week: Everyone's Guide to Organic Gardening

No garden, however small, should be without a compost heap. We’ve learnt to recycle glass and tins, now we must learn to reuse surplus vegetation. The household compost heap serves two vital functions. In the first place it generates a supply of organic mulch to feed the land. This is essential, because the soil in a garden is more intensively cultivated than any other plot of agricultural land. Unlike a farmer’s field, it never lies fallow, nor is it a feeding ground for cows and sheep, which fertilize it with their dung. Unless it’s given some form of nitrate enrichment, garden soil must inevitably become impoverished. This warning was first sounded by Theophrastus, who wrote the world’s first gardening book over two thousand years ago, in which he recommended that plants should be regularly fed with liquid manure. The same message was proclaimed by Lady Eve Balfour towards the end of WW2, in her seminal book The Living Soil, which led to the formation of Britain’s highly influential Soil Association. But as well as its biological function, the family compost heap also act at a deeper, symbolic level, providing a daily reminder of the endless cycle of birth, decay, death and rebirth. The lifespan of individual organisms – whether buttercups, bees or human beings – is brief. But life itself is eternal. That’s the lesson we learn every time we tend a compost heap, the very heat of which demonstrates that even in the midst of death there vigorous life exists. Through the activity of countless micro-organisms, we witness the endless transformation of useless rubbish into vital nourishment. Prince Charles is a passionate advocate of organic gardening, and tells how amazed he was as a novice horticulturist to find that his yew hedge grew about a foot a year, when the saplings were planted in well-rotted manure. ‘Witnessing the efficiency of muck was a very important lesson in my gardening education,’ he writes, ‘and I can safely say that whatever has been achieved at Highgrove has been done through well-rotted manure.’ Today his compost heaps have been described as ‘models of sweet-smelling perfection’, by Prue Leith, the cookery guru, who visited the Prince while researching a book about gardening.

The basic principles which must be followed when making an ideal compost heap are relatively few and easily followed. The process of organic decay needs warmth, oxygen, a modest degree of moisture and a mass of worms and bacteria. To provide the necessary organisms, the heap must be built on naked earth rather than on concrete slabs or wooden planks. And no chemicals, such as weekkillers, should be allowed to enter the pile. The heap should be contained in a perforated frame, most commonly made from wooden slats, to allow the ingress of air. For the same reason the stack should be made up of alternate layers of fine and coarse material, maybe grass cuttings interspersed with stalks and screwed up newspaper, so that air can permeate through the heap. If compacting occurs, a light forking can be used to aerate the congealed clods. On the other hand, too much air can slow down the process of decomposition, which may make it necessary from time to time to compress the heap. An old rug placed over the top of the pile can help retain the heat, and prevent excess soaking from rain showers. This is vital, since temperatures of up to 49 degrees C may be generated within a well stacked compost heap, which speeds the process of decomposition and helps to kill weed seeds and destroy the organisms which give rise to plant disease. Nitrogenous accelerators can be used to increase the speed of bio-degeneration, and the cheapest of these is human urine, which is a rich source of nitrogenous waste. (In

1625 no home in England was immune from inspections by government officers – sometimes called the piddle police – who came round to make sure that all households were collecting animal and human urine which was required then to make gunpowder.) However, even without these aids, the mere action of bacterial decomposition will increase the nitrogen content of the soil by up to 25 per cent. After six to eighteen months of careful tending the compost will be ready for spreading. At this time it should crumble freely in the hand and be like centuries-old peat, rich, dark, sweet smelling, moist and friable. Every time we carry out this ancient process we’re reminded that the earth is not dead but pulsating with life. This is a liminal rite which celebrates the threshold between life and death, and transforms uselessness into value.


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