6 Mar 2009
Where there’s Muck… the joy of a well aged compost
I never would have thought, until I had spent some time immersed in the world of permaculture and growing my own, that a large pile of rotting manure could be a source of such pleasure. There is something utterly magical about the biological processes that go on in a pile of decomposing organic matter, as the microfauna and bacteria alchemically transform it from one thing into an almost entirely different thing. It really is something worth getting very, very excited about.
Last Sunday, myself, my wife and our 2 youngest headed to the edge of town with a borrowed car and trailer in order to get some muck for our vegetable beds (yes I know we should really have done it months ago, but there we are). We went to a local rare breeds farm which doubles as a visitors centre, and is home to chickens, goats, donkeys, guinea pigs, geese and many other more wierd and wonderful creatures. Unfortunately the owners don’t pile their manure methodically, i.e. starting a new heap each year, rather they just keep piling it on top of what is already there, resulting in a huge pile, with the freshest on the top.
The thing with muck is that age is everything, you can’t just put muck of any age on your plants. You need something that is easily digestible by the worms and not too strong for the plants. The gardener Geoffrey Smith, who was a familiar voice to listeners to Gardeners’ Question Time, and who died recently, used to advise people to leave manure as long as they possibly could, until it was “good enough to put in your sandwiches”. If you haven’t composted, haven’t run your hands through 4 year old compost, and haven’t spent time rootling about in muck heaps, this sounds like a ridiculous statement. However, in my multi-animal muck heap on Sunday, I hit such a seam, and it looked as delicious to me as a good chocolate brownie.
Muck left for one year is still clearly muck. It contains visible straw and other bits, and is too strong to put on vegetables. After two years, it is usable, and looks more uniform, but is still recognisably manure. But after 4 years or more, it is friable, crumbly, light, moist, and feels as rich as a double chocolate pudding. In the same way that Italian lime plasterers would leave some lime to slake for 10-20 years and produce the lime that was considered the champagne of plasters, well aged muck is really the Holy Grail of gardeners.
As I prodded and ferreted with my fork, I first came across the muck seam shown right, which had been at the centre of the pile. On first inspection it looked fine, dark brown and quite crumbly. But having been at the centre of such a huge heap, its rotting process had taken place in a relatively anaerobic environment (ie. In the absence of air) so it was still quite strong, a bit slimy and not that well rotted.
Herein lies the problem with such an ad hoc system of composting, the centre of such a huge pile will take much longer to break down given the lack of air. Also, the pile had never been covered, so rain travels through the heap and has kept the bottom of the heap too wet. It would have been far better to make smaller piles of no bigger than 8ft cubed, covered them, and it would have rotted wonderfully in half the time. At least it could have been done as a new pile each week. Oh well.
After a bit more digging around, we hit gold. A section of the pile that had clearly been there a long time, but which was on the edge, so the air had access to it too (see left). Fantastic. It was dark, friable, crumbly, and felt like the most wonderful of woodland soils. If we are really concerned about gardening for the long term sustainability of both society and soil, then the shift for the gardener becomes to think of gardening as being not so much about growing food, as being about growing soil. With such a perspective, the production of such fine, well rotted compost should be an art taught to everyone, and in the same way that the unveiling of a new, flashy mobile phone leads to exclamations of “wow” and “cool”, so should the proud unveiling of a cupped hand full of 5 year old compost. It should be as valued as a fine wine.
One of my composting heroes is Marcus McCabe, of the Ark Permaculture Project at Clones in Co. Monaghan in Ireland. Marcus was fascinated/obsessed with the composting of human waste, and as a commercial reed bed installer, held firmly to the belief that the best way to treat human waste was to not mix it with water in the first place. As a result, over the years, he tried virtually every dry composting toilet system available (each fresh visit would find you sitting on a different toilet) and ended up concluding that the humanure bucket system was by far the most superior, the Rolls Royce of composting toilets
I will always remember going to a conference on green building at the Cultivate Centre in Dublin, where Marcus was billed as giving a talk about constructed wetlands. The audience consisted of many suited folks, planners, directors of construction companies and other people of great gravitas and importance. Within the first couple of minutes, Marcus had dismissed the entire idea of mixing human waste and water, and spent the next 15 minutes extolling the virtues of, in effect, shitting in a bucket and composting it in the garden. It was a wonderful tour de force, back up with the science of composting and an unarguable plea for common sense and an end to faecophobia.
The climax of the talk, having set out the case for humanure and for the revival of the fine art of home composting, was Marcus producing a large bucket of his finest homemade humanure compost, which he then gave to the audience who then proceeded to pass it round the entire hall. It was fascinating to see how each new person reacted as the bucket approached them. First they were all ‘yuk’ faces and giggling, then as they looked over the rim of the rather large bucket, there was an ‘aha’ moment and a real fascination, all sense of ‘yuk’ gone, as they saw what was not the bucket of putrid excrement they had been expecting but some rather fine and crumbly compost. It was wonderful to observe.
So go on, give yourself a treat. Get a load of muck delivered to your garden. Pile it in a neat stack, as close to a cube a possible. Pee on it occasionally if you feel so inclined. Cover it and leave it for 4 years. The tension will be almost unbearable, but I challenge you to leave it for that long, peel back the cover, pull out a fistful of it and not be amazed at what you (and the worms and the billions of bacteria) have created. I will be standing by, awaiting your emails of profound gratitude.