Thursday, March 27, 2008

Review: Compost

Compost by Ken ThompsonThe first thing that strikes you about Compost by Ken Thompson is the groovy cover. I mean literally groovy. It feels like it has been made out of corrugated card. It's striking and eye catching, which is exactly what you'd expect of a book by Dorling Kindersley.

When you open the book, your expectations are not disappointed. The photographs, the graphics, the typesetting, everything about this book is beautiful. It's even more of an achievement when you consider the subject matter: if you had to create a book about decomposing vegetables, worms, poo, bacteria and fungi, could you make it a feast for the eyes?

But what about the content? To be honest, I'm in two minds. DK books are always visually stunning, but sometimes they can be rather shallow when it comes to content. This book is a bit like that. Any page you flick open you will find a full-page photo on one side and a few lines of enormous text facing it. It took me about an hour to read it cover-to-cover. And although it did contain a few things I didn't know (apparently a human corpse decomposes to a skeleton in about three weeks), there wasn't much (and even that wasn't terribly useful. I hardly ever put human corpses on my compost heap).

But on the other hand, I've read books on compost that went into so much science and detail about aerobic and anaerobic, thermophilic and mesophilic, exact recipes for the perfect compost heap, how frequently to turn it, the correct moisture content and so on, that it would put any sensible person off the idea of composting altogether. And that's silly, because as Thompson quite rightly says:
Even if you do everything wrong, you will still make decent compost eventually.

(only he says it in 197pt text).

This matches my experience perfectly, and it also matches common sense. It makes me laugh when people say things like "You can't put avocado peel on the compost heap. You can't put orange peel or any citrus on it." Of course you can. Orange peel decomposes perfectly well. I've got a decomposing orange in my fruit bowl at this very minute (I really should chuck it on my compost heap). Otherwise we'd all be neck deep in perfectly preserved avocado and lemon peels that would have been accumulating since the evolution of avocado and citrus trees. Getting stuff to decompose isn't hard. Stopping it decomposing is hard, but making compost is not hard.

So I liked Thompson's sensible, relaxed attitude. There's a chapter where he describes the standard "recipe" for perfect compost. You know the one: collect together at least a cubic metre of equal amounts of "green" (soft, nitrogen-rich material such as veg peelings and grass clippings) and "brown" (dry, carbon rich material such as shredded paper and hedge prunings). Layer them in six-inch thick layers. Ensure there is just enough water. Turn once a week. And so on. Then Thompson rips into this recipe with satisfying ridicule and sarcasm. Where are you supposed to store all this green and brown material whilst you're waiting until you've collected enough? How do you stop it decomposing in the meantime? Keep it in the fridge? Forget that, just decide where you want your heap then bung compostable stuff on it as and when it becomes available. There's no need at all to follow a precise recipe. It's a compost heap, not a damn souffle.

If you've never made compost, you might like this book. Especially if you're scared of compost-making for some reason, perhaps because you've read one of those silly books with too much science and prescriptive instructions. Ken Thompson's books is guaranteed to remove the fear and assure you that compost-making is easy and worthwhile. If you're an experienced composter, you don't need this book. Actually, you don't need any book, because all you really need to know about compost is this: 1) Put organic stuff in a heap. 2) Wait. And that's all that Thompson says, but with better pictures.


Joyce said...

I love your instructions-"put everything in a heap; wait". That's how my grandparents did it and I learned from them. Then I took a Master Gardening class and they made it seem like I had flunked biology class or something because I didn't know the "right" way to do it!

My kids have always accused me of gardening just so I have an excuse to compost. One of my son's calls the pile "Mom's little science experiment".

Yodood said...

Understanding the compost cycle in relation to garden fertilization and the decomposition of plants after harvest reveals a wonderful completeness in the idea of nature consuming itself in its wonderful process of evolving variety.

Anonymous said...

I was beginning to wonder whether I really should be collecting brown and green waste, and turning every 3 weeks, and then taking it out of the oven when the knife comes out clean etc... I've read quite a few of these types of composting articles recently, it's good to know someone is still advocating good old simple methods.


Anonymous said...

Have 5 garden compost bins which we never turn ie just add what ever's to hand be it buckets full of fruit and veg peelings(including lots of citrus!)leaves,weeds,garden shreddings etc then the worms in their many hundreds do all the work for us and we end up with great compost.
I can never understand why people with garden's actually waste their money on buying expensive wormeries when compost bins can either be homemade or bought cheaply from the local council!!!

Matt Shacklady said...

Nice review.

Just an addition to the 'composting citrus' comment.

I had heard the reason you don't put citrus on the compose heap is not that it won't breakdown, but that it repels earthworms.
I've also heard that earthworms are not the main source that is creting compost - that's done my tiny little micro organisms.

From that, I get: if it scares away a few worms then it's not a big deal.

Interestingly I just read in a book on pest control that you can spread citrus peelings around your plants in the vegetable patch to deter pests.

Anonymous said...

As I recall, Bob Flowerdew's stance is that you can compost 'anything that's ever lived', up to and including cotton clothing. But, all things in moderation - best to have a mix of lots of things rather than a lot of just a few.

The reason not to put too much citrus peel on at once is because it contains Limonene which kills the bacteria that are busy breaking down the compost - it's akin to dousing your compost heap with bleach. See Compost This for more.


The Garden Monkey said...

What a great review, for a great book.

I recently "Hijacked" Ken on my blog, and he's a lovely bloke.

Bad Human? said...

This is why I like getting advice from blogs because you know someone is saying it from experience and they usually don't go into a lot of technical detail that would make my eyes start to glaze over.


Tia said...

Thank you for the common sense! My mom always just threw our vegie scraps and extra liquids into a bucket which one of us kids had to dump at the end of each day. Extra liquids was what was left in our glasses after drinks, pasta water, leftover coffee etc...In the summer we would have to turn it into the soil but in the winter it was a big pile waiting for the first real thaw so it could be turned under.

I never knew there was such a thing as a compost tumbler until I was in college. :)

Unknown said...

Plenty of citrus peel goes into our heap and doesn't seem to deter the worms. The biggest consumer of input seems to be woodlice though. Lift the paving slab in front of the heap (as you have to do if you want to swing the front out to dig out a bucket load) and there's a whole city under there. As Inky says, the heap's their supermarket. All the kitchen trimmings, all the cat poo but most of all, coffee grounds.

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