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The poetry of compost

Get the heap right, and all else will follow, perhaps

The Ecologist, February 2008

I’m 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, 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 fertiliser. The occasional fox passes through. But in the deep midwinter, 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 look simply like a pile of brown sludge: rotting food waste, cut grass, bits of torn-up cardboard, 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 is 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 in a way that turns them into something new. A magical, semi-understandable process takes place which 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 like I’m talking this up a bit, but any food grower will know what I mean – will know the value of this 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 good 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 very 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 which will ensue if you don’t – 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 as dramatic as this description might suggest – and neither, actually, is it as complex as the magic which 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), but one which 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 which make the process of creating compost seem so complex that it seems much easier to buy it all in from someone else – or even 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 also infinitely perfectable. You can 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, and mix it up so that air infiltrates the heap, and the bacteria which are feeding on it and making it rot will produce nitrogen and other goodies that the soil – and your veg – need to grow healthily. Your task, then, is simple: chuck enough waste matter, of the right kind, on your compost heap (lots of vegetable scraps, for example, but no meat). Mix it up regularly to ensure enough air is getting in. 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’ – what you should actually 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. Sometimes it has lumps of undigested potato in it, which means I should probably 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 and the key to success, as with everything in food growing, is four very simple words, which you should carve above the lintel of your shed: do not be afraid. Making compost, like growing food itself, is at heart 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.