On the eve of the UN’s world soil day this Monday, I would like to announce the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Forget “42”, Douglas Adams’ “meaning” in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The true meaning is “compost”.
Compost gives me absurd pleasure, partly along the lines of Walt Whitman’s 1856 poem “This Compost”:
“Behold this compost! behold it well! . . . What chemistry! . . . It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions . . . ”
“Corruptions” such as rotting apple cores, dead mice, scrumpled tax demands and coffee grounds transformed, by gardeners and their microbial helpers, into nourishment for a beautiful, productive and resilient garden. Better still, compost-boosted soil locks up carbon, prevents desertification and reduces the effects of drought. A virtuous circle.
When the Indian cotton dressing gown inherited from my grandmother wore out, I added it to my compost heap along with grass cuttings, vegetable peelings, tea leaves and other detritus from daily life. Seven months later, it had transmogrified into a rich, dark plant feast, bolstered by my garden-loving grandmother’s DNA.
On top of the pleasure of adding ancestral DNA to the garden, there is the grubby, pleasing process of making the heap by layering “brown” material such as straw, egg boxes and ancient natural-fibre dressing gowns with “green” material like grass cuttings and vegetable peelings.
On a warm summer’s day, the earthy scent signalling that the heap is working materialises in hours. Millions of microorganisms, as well as familiar friends such as worms and slugs, get to work on compost, and a fungi-like bacteria called Actinomycetes is the one that gives off the scent of success.
In the 30 years that I’ve been making compost, 2022 has proved one of the more challenging, mainly because of the low rainfall, which meant less fresh grass for the compost. This was made worse by our new policy of leaving about two-thirds of the garden unmown until late July, which was good for the wildlife but rubbish for the compost heap.
By the time we strimmed the long grass in July it was hay, and so we set it aside to use in layers between green waste. Except there was little or no green waste, and we produce so little vegetable waste that the compost heap remained dry and dormant through most of the summer.
A hose pipe ban persuaded me to wait for the rain rather than water the heap. When the rain finally arrived, the grass grew enthusiastically and the clippings brought the heap to life with gusto. Within 24 hours the whiff of sulphur signalled that the heap would have turned into a slimy sludge if we hadn’t restacked and aerated it with layers of hay, egg boxes and a moth-eaten cashmere jumper.
The second problem came when Someone put the wrong kind of leaves on the heap: leaves from our huge tulip tree that are so big and have such thick cuticles that they take years to rot. Wisteria leaves, on the other hand, of which we have an immense number, are thin and small and rot down easily. The evergreen oak tree’s leaves are collected with the mower, which means that they are ready-chopped and mixed with grass cuttings, and therefore rot readily.
Dedicated composter makers pee on the heap, as I do, to accelerate the process, inspiring one witty friend to refer to my “compist” heap. Sadly, my husband “forgets” to pee on the heap, which is a shame because the hormone and acidity levels of male urine are said to be more beneficial than those of female urine. Either way urine contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the key elements in commercial fertiliser. Which is why some gardeners pee directly around plants.
Our other liquid plant food comes from our rat-resistant Can-o-Worms wormery, where we put fish bones, cooked vegetables and anything else that might attract vermin. Egg boxes and bog roll tubes are added because worms like living in them when they’re not chomping through the compost (not that they “chomp” in a conventional sense because they have no teeth). They are sensitive souls with five hearts and an inability to cope with chilli, lemon or cold. Wormeries encourage sentimentality about these creatures.
In winter the worms stop working unless their house is moved inside. When the wormery is working well, I get about a half a litre of nutrient-rich “worm tea” a week. Diluted at about 10:1 it makes excellent foliar feed for flowering plants rather than salads.
Non-composting friends are polite but clearly repelled by the wriggling activity of the wormery — as much as they are bored by chat about compost heaps — but I challenge anyone not to be seduced by composting once they’ve witnessed the magic of turning muck into climate-friendly compost. It’s a process as magical as the transformation of Cinderella’s pumpkin.
And while garden compost-making may seem a feeble tool to help mitigate climate change, every little helps. After all, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, if food waste was a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China.
A couple of years ago, I met two of the compost world’s great romantics, Henrietta Courtauld and Bridget Elworthy, known collectively as The Land Gardeners. Their lavishly illustrated new book Soil to Table is a paean to composting, English cut flowers and recipes. They work around the world but their main composting base is at Althorp Estate in the UK’s Midlands (Diana, Princess of Wales’s childhood home).
With the help of soil scientists in Austria and the UK, they began experimenting with compost making in 2012 and now produce “Climate Compost inoculum” to help make lively, nutrient-dense compost in a similar way as conventional compost accelerators/inoculums/activators such as Garotta.
A good source of lucid advice on accelerators and composting in general is the Royal Horticultural Society, the trusted backbone of UK gardening. Its main site and its Campaign for School Gardening section have handy documents on composting. According to the organisation, younger gardeners are more inclined than older age groups to start composting, which is a shame given how easy and rewarding it is.
Another gardening charity, Garden Organic, also offers excellent composting tips. Years ago it gave me the title “Compost Master” when I completed its composting course.
I was proud of the title but then discovered that it had competition from Yale’s more impressive-sounding “composter in residence”. So I was delighted that when I tried to search for that term online, Google refused to accept it and changed it to “composer in residence”.
“Soil to Table” by The Land Gardeners, £35, all proceeds to the social enterprise Farms to Feed Us
Jane Owen is an FTWeekend contributing editor and a Compost Master
Robin Lane Fox returns on December 17
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