Home Composting

Excerpt from Let it Rot!, by Stu Campbell

Home Composting Somewhere, thousands and thousands of years ago, some hairy and slouched cave dwellers who groveled in the dirt with sticks and who managed to grow some food may have discovered that seeds grew better near the place where they piled the apparently useless refuse from their cave. Most of this "waste" material was organic matter.

I doubt very much that at the moment of discovery they had either the wisdom or the inclination to shout "Eureka!" But they must have passed the word along, because the idea of putting human, animal, vegetable, and mineral wastes on or into the soil, to make it better, spread to all corners of the world.

In the beginning, there was manure. Humanity has known for a long time that animal excrement is valuable stuff when it comes to growing vegetables and has apparently always made efforts to save it. But shortly after early humans became friendly enough with animals to be able to persuade a few of them to live at home with them in a more or less peaceful relationship, they must have realized that there was never quite enough manure to go around. So they began to devise ways of stretching it and started to think about ways to make "synthetic manure." They didn't know what they were doing, really. They probably just took a look at what was going on and then began trying things. Composting had begun long before our ancestors discovered it.

Decomposition is at least as old as the soil. The earth itself, as the poet Walt Whitman suggests, is something of a compost pile. "It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last." Long before there were people around to observe it, composting was going on in every forest, every meadow, every swamp, and bog, and prairie, and steppe in the world. As Richard Langer says, "Composting is a natural process that began with the first plants on earth and has been going on ever since."

 "Primitive" Composting

Ancient people were the true discoverers of organic gardening - in spite of whatever valid claims people like Sir Albert Howard or Rudolf Steiner or J. I. Rodale may have to the modern title. Whoever they were, they were artists, not scientists. Only by trial and error were they able to learn what worked when it came to making synthetic manure. They didn't have anyone to guide them or to give them good advice because there was nobody around who knew very much. Things like psychrophylic bacteria and the relationship between carbon and nitrogen in the process of decomposition were the furthest things from their minds - and at least thirty centuries away in terms of time.

All they saw, maybe, was the forest floor where leaves fell, turned dark, and gradually disappeared to be transformed into the dark, fertile soil gardeners were someday to call "humus." They must have realized that in time many things rot whether we try to do anything about it or not. Leave everything to Mother Nature, and eventually the conditions that encourage decay will establish themselves. We can be thankful that this is something that has been going on since shortly after the beginning of time.


"Modern" Composting

Allowing nature to take its course, however, may take more time than we have. The modern practice of composting is little more than speeding up and intensifying natural processes. That's all it is. When you come right down it, finished compost is no more than "treated" or "predigested" (rotted) organic matter, which usually has undergone a natural heating process and which is very valuable stuff to incorporate into your garden's soil.

 For too long there has been an air of cultish mysticism surrounding the art of composting. This is the kind of nonsense so many people find objectionable in a lot of composting literature. It is easy to get confused by gardening magazines and gardening books that describe the "science" of composting in such narrowly defined terms that you get the distinct impression that there is one, and only one, method for making humus.

Don't misunderstand: There have been all kinds of extremely valuable scientific research done on composting, and much of the information gathered can be very helpful to the home composter as well as to the municipality that is doing or considering composting on a large scale. I suggest that you try to learn as much about the highly technical aspects of the subject as you can. But I caution that an overly scientific approach to composting may take all the fun out of it.

The word compost comes from two Latin roots, com meaning "together" and post, meaning "to bring." To make edible "fruit compost" (or "fruit compote"), for example, is to bring together several different kinds of fruit, mix them with sugar and other ingredients in a jar or crock, and let it sit to ferment for several days. It really doesn't matter how long it sits or precisely how much you add of what. In fact, you might eat some of the mixture, and when the container gets low, replenish it with other fixings as they become available. The final concoction is almost always a delicious one, though rarely, if ever, the same as the last. There are really as many recipes for making fruit compote as there are fruit compote makers - probably more. You'll find the same is true with composting.

As you get into composting, try not to get bogged down with complicated recipes and formulas. A few simple guidelines can help you eliminate some of the traditionally unpleasant aspects of composting. There are few hard-and-fast rules governing the making of good compost that must be followed to the letter.

If you are a beginner, start thinking in simple terms about composters. Later, you may want to develop more complicated and sophisticated techniques. Apply what scientific knowledge you have. If you find a particular section of the book too technical, skip it. You can always return to it at a later point.

Be creative. Select what you can from the information offered here and go on to establish your own composting style. When your neighbors tell you that you are doing it "all wrong," tell them that both of you are right. As you learn more and more about composting and begin to understand the rotting process a little better, you may grow to appreciate the recycling activity that takes place in nature day in and day out. You may also find, as others have, that you want to synchronize yourself with it.