I find that a real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil… He lives buried in the ground. He builds his monument in a heap of compost.” – Karel Čapek, The Gardener’s Year
George Washington was many things: the first president of the United States, a Founding Father, and a legendary military leader of the American Revolutionary War. Away from the battlefields, Washington was also a revolutionary in the crop ones—to such an extent that he became known as America’s first composter! In one letter Washington noted that “for the United States to succeed, we need to become better farmers”, and he discovered that one of the most efficient means to that end was through composting.
Pre-military service and public office, Washington was a plantation owner and a farmer, first growing tobacco (like his father and older brother before him) and later wheat and corn. A famous experimenter, the president-to-be was a proponent of crop rotation and soil amendment—the introduction of nutritional materials to the soil—leading him to try Potomac River mud as fertiliser with zero success. It did, however, lead to experimentation with compost, as noted in The Practical Farmer, a book by John Spurrier, Washington ordered his farm hands to “rake, and scrape up all of the trash” to be thrown “into the Stercorary” (a stercorary is a structure that houses compost). In a 1785 missive, Washington mused that a “knowing farmer” is like Midas, able to “covert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards gold”.
As poetic as the titles of first president and first composter of America may be, Washington did not, however invent the practice of using decayed, organic matter to nourish and aid the growth of plants. Composting is as old as farming itself. Though there is archaeological evidence that composting was common in Scotland during the Stone Age, it would be a further 10,000 years before it was actually written about, on clay tablets by the Mesopotamians. Ancient farmers throughout the Mediterranean, China, Africa and the Americas are also known to have composted.
Fast-forward a few millennia, and there are some new composters in town and they don’t run farms. Urban composters are on the march.
While only around a quarter of US citizens currently compost, studies have shown that more than two-thirds of those are open to the practice if it were more convenient to do so in their communities, while in the UK, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has encouraged around 1.6 million households to start composting—diverting more than 260,000 tonnes of waste from landfills. Across the ditch, 80 percent of apartment dwellers want to be able to do more with their food waste, according to the Institute of Sustainable Futures at Sydney’s University of Technology.
Aucklanders send around 200,000 tonnes to the landfills each year. Waste issues aside, a major problem with rotting organic matter at landfill sites is the production of methane. While most modern landfills have systems in place to reduce the release of the greenhouse gas, they cannot capture it all. Sadly, around 40 percent of the city’s total waste is food, with a further 10 percent coming from our gardens, all of which, on a more positive note, has the potential to serve as compost.
The National Food Waste Prevention Study by WasteMINZ found that nearly half of Kiwis dispose of “some” of their food through composting, while more than half of respondents to a 2018 survey by the Love Food Hate Waste Campaign said they’d acted to reduce food waste over the preceding three years, with nearly a fifth attempting some form of composting.
How To Compost
Four key elements are required for successful composting:
Carbon provides energy, and can be found in highest quantities in dry, brown items such as dead leaves, straw or wood shavings.
Nitrogen, found in colourful, moist material such as plant, fruit and vegetable waste, allows organisms to flourish so that they may oxidise the carbon-rich ingredients.
Oxygen aids the oxidation of the carbons, making the decomposition more efficient.
Water keeps the compost moist and aerobic conditions maintained.
As with cooking, creating compost requires a balance of ingredients. Start by mixing equal parts of carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials, add some water and regularly turn or mix the collection to allow aeration.
The compost should warm within the first day, if not, it needs more nitrogen-rich materials to liven up those micro-organisms. Consider purchasing a compost thermometer—the optimum temperature at the centre of the pile should be around 65-70°C.
An overpowering waft of ammonia means you’ve overdone the green waste, so counter it with some brown, carbon-rich materials to calm those microbes down.
Unless using a specially designed receptacle, avoid adding meat, bones or fish scraps as they will attract pests; and keep pet waste, perennial weeds, and diseased plants out, too.
The most popular home composting methods:
A backyard pile is the best bet for those with ample outdoor space. Materials should be stacked on the ground to allow the introduction of worms and other micro-organisms. Twigs and straw at the base aids aeration and drainage. Then add materials in layers, alternating between moist and dry. Cover the pile (with something like tarpaulin or sheets of wood) to keep it damp, trap the heat and protect it from downpours—compost should remain moist, but not flooded. Use a fork or shovel to turn the pile every few weeks to let it breathe. Larger piles can be contained in ventilated crates.
Composting bins or tumblers are ideal for those with less room. A cinch to use, simply chuck in the ingredients and give it an occasional spin. It is one of the fastest and most efficient ways to compost, with the added bonus of being enclosed to ward off pests.
Vermicomposting is undoubtedly the funnest and most fascinating and can be done with ease within enclosed spaces. This form of composting relies on worms to break down the food scraps and do all the hard work for you! A great option to get the kids interested.
Why Composting Rocks
It’s a form of sustainable recycling that also reduces waste.
It replenishes starved earth and improves the health of the soil, attracting earthworms and other beneficial micro-organism.
It reduces the need to import materials, helping to save money and the environment.
It means less waste winds up in landfills, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and means less landfills need to be built.