I am writing this in the depths of winter. Snow is forecast for tomorrow. I haven’t been down to my allotment for a while: there’s not much to do there, other than pick my winter rations – kale, leek, broccoli, parsnip and spinach – and bear them home for the pot. The pigeons are still valiantly battling against my netting and trying to beat me to it. A rat has taken to living in my shed and eating my bone meal fertilizer. The occasional fox passes through. In the deep midwinter, however, little else stirs. The frogs are hibernating; next year’s slugs are yet to be born; most of the insects can’t cope with the cold. All is calm.
Except in the corner by the shed. Here, hemmed in with pallets and wire, is the liveliest part of the allotment; the part that lives and works and moves and grows even in the deepest, darkest months: the compost heap. To you – and indeed to me – it may simply look like a pile of brown sludge, rotting food waste, cut grass, bits of torn-up cardboard and the remains of last week’s dinner, but this is where it all happens. This is the fount of life itself. This is the base from which the soil is renewed and life given back to the exhausted earth. Without this, there would be no food. This is the ultimate in recycling, the ecological principle made concrete.
I may sound like I’m proselytising, but that’s not quite right: there’s nothing prosaic about a compost heap. What happens within it is pure poetry. A collection of disparate elements is gathered together and re-ordered into something new. A magical, semi-understandable process takes place that transmutes useless or discarded substances into something precious and life-giving. All of life’s miracles are on show in this small, smelly square of your land.
Maybe it sounds as though I’m talking this up a bit, but any food grower will know what I mean – will know the value of his key element in the ecosystem of the vegetable garden. A good compost heap is the key to growing good food. If you can create enough quality compost, rich in nutrients, and dig it into your soil to refresh its health after the year’s crop has taken out some of its goodness, then your chances of growing yourself some fantastically tasty produce are high indeed. Conversely, no compost and no soil renewal will lead, over time, to exhausted soil which produces little of any use.
In this, the creation and maintenance of a good compost heap – and the dire consequences of not creating and maintaining one – are a pleasing metaphor for the state of the planet and humanity’s duty to care for it. Take out more than you put in and expect to pay a price – realising as you do so that the Earth is not inexhaustible and that your actions have consequences.
Fortunately, making compost is not quite so dramatic as this – and neither, actually, is it as complex as the magic that goes on within it might suggest. Some people get into a real tizz about compost. I’ve met some serious compost snobs in my time; people who think that making the good stuff is an art (they may well be right here) that can only ever be truly given form by an elite who have served a long apprenticeship. Similarly, I have met food-growing virgins who are anxious to the point of physical symptoms about whether they will be able to get their compost heap ‘right’. They’ve read books or articles that make the process of creating compost seem so complex it seems easier to buy it from someone else – or buy the food instead.
The good news is that none of it is as hard as some would like to suggest. Making good compost is actually pretty easy, and is infinitely perfectable. You just keep fiddling about with the recipe, year after year, until you get it right. Mine isn’t perfect, but my veg grows just fine. Most of the hard work, after all, is done by the worms and the microbes, while you sit at home.
Compost, in essence, is very simple. Dead plant matter rots. Pile enough of it up together, mix it up so that air infiltrates the heap, and the bacteria feeding on it and making it rot will produce nitrogen and other goodies that the soil – and your veg – needs to grow healthily. Your task then is simple: chuck enough waste matter of the right kind on your compost heap (vegetable scraps, for example, but no meat). Turn it regularly then leave it for a while – from a couple of months to a year, depending on how much of it there is and what the conditions are. Then mix the remaining goo into your soil.
I say ‘goo’, but what you should end up with (according to the books) is a dark-brown, crumbly substance that looks a bit like soil and smells ‘sweet’. My compost, I have to admit, is never quite like this. Sometimes it is gooey – which means I haven’t mixed enough roughage in with my kitchen waste and should probably be adding more grass clippings, paper or cardboard – and sometimes it has lumps of undigested potato in it. This means I should be chopping things up smaller before I throw them in, or turning the heap more often so the bacteria have easier access.
I’m no expert, you see, but I get better every year. The key to success, as with everything in food growing, is four simple words, which you should carve above the lintel of your shed: Do not be afraid. At its heart, making compost, like growing food itself, is easy and wonderfully fulfilling. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about having a go – and eating the results. Above all, it’s about enjoying yourself. And if you can find the sublime in a heap of rotting food matter... Well, you know you’ve got there.
For more information
The Compost Associaton http://www.organics-recycling.org.uk/
Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP)
or call their home composting hotline on 0845 600 0323
Garden Organic www.gardenorganic.org.uk
This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2008
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