Monday, 6 July 2009


I'm puzzling over the complexities of compost. It's such a simple idea. Plants grow, they die, they rot, the creatures and microbes that eat them die and they rot, the rotting matter is in turn eaten and digested and becomes food for new growth. It happens everywhere where it is naturally allowed to happen. We humans seem to want to stop it by covering the earth with concrete, sweeping leaves into piles and burning, burying our dead in rot proof containers, filling landfills with organic material. Yet compost still happens.

In the forest it happens with grace and ease - things that were once living die and fall to the ground where other things slowly digest them into smaller and smaller particles and simple nutrients which can then be used by new living things. No one measures the right nitrogen carbon ratios, adds supplements, layers with straw or wood ash, mixes with a fork or turns the whole thing over. Yet in gardening sites everywhere I hear about the importance of turning compost, of the worry that it will stagnate and become anaerobic. It must be that the way we compost is unnatural: we pile everything in one large heap rather than spreading it around. We want compost quickly and thus go to great lengths to speed up the process - we want to control it. And that's okay, we control our gardens, we manage our land.

I read about a system of composting that's used in Nairobi. It must be the simplest 'bin' technique I've heard. Dig a hole slightly smaller in radius, and just as deep as a bottomless basket or bucket. Place the bucket or basket on top. Fill the hole and then the bucket or basket with compost and plant around it. Another version is simpler yet: in a raised bed dig a trench in the middle running the length of the bed. Fill with food scraps. This seems a great idea to me. I have a sample of the bucket technique going and it seems fine, it doesn't smell bad and the scraps - almost exclusively fruit peelings and coffee grounds - are breaking down quite nicely. But I'm not turning it over, is it anaerobic? It's a shallow hole, only 12 inches deep, so maybe the air can penetrate down that far. There are worms and grubs in and around it. The theory of course is that the roots of the plants will reach into the rich seepage of compost tea weeping through the soil. I'm waiting to see how it develops. I'm far more excited by the prospect of having a garden centered around several round oasis of bottomless buckets than having a big compost bin off to one side and orderly rows of vegetables.

Fukuoka and his Natural method of farming let everything be as close to the natural state as possible: no tilling, no weeding, no pruning. In his fields the straw was left to mulch down for the next season's crops. He at one time brought in chicken manure to add to his fields, but after some time stopped and instead introduced ducks to his land. I believe this was the only addition to what happened naturally in his rice and rye/barley fields. The people living with him must have created kitchen scraps and waste, I don't recall how he managed that. I'll need to re-read.

How do you compost?

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thanks for sharing!