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The History of Composting

Long before people inhabited the planet, composting was just something that happened. In every swamp, forest and meadow - wherever there was vegetation - there was composting. Then, sometime in the distant past one of our ancestors noticed that crops grew better near piles of rotting manure and vegetation.

The discovery was passed down to succeeding generations. Composting, that perfectly natural process that just happens, became something our ancestors learned to use.

One of the earliest references to compost use in agriculture appears on a set of clay tablets from the Akkadian Empire in the Mesopotamian Valley 1,000 years before Moses. The Romans knew about compost, the Greeks and the tribes of Israel both had a word for it. There are references to it in the Bible and Talmud. There are also references to composting in medieval church texts and Renaissance literature. William Caxton, a 15th century printer, spelled it 'compostyng.' Hamlet advises, "do not spread the compost on the weeds, to make them ranker."

The Chinese systematically applied the principles of composting. Crop wastes were laid on roads and pathways to be crushed by passing carts and then returned to the fields with human and animal manure. In New England in the 19th century, Stephen Hoyt and Sons used 220,000 fish in one season of compost making. Their method: spread a layer of "muck" (marsh and swamp mud) one third of a metre thick, then a layer of fish, then a layer of muck and so on. They combined 10 to 12 loads of muck to every load of fish until the pile reached a height of 1.8 metres. Then they turned the pile until composting was complete.

The early 20th century and especially the post Second World War period, can be described as ushering in a new "scientific" method of farming. Scientific farming called for the application of nutrient-rich chemical fertilisers. Combinations of muck and dead fish didn't look very effective beside a bag of chemical fertiliser. For farmers in many areas of the world, the new chemical fertilisers replaced compost. Sir Albert Howard, a British government agronomist, went to India in 1905. He stayed for 29 years and experimented with different ways to make compost before settling on the Indore Method. This method calls for three parts plant material to one part manure, with materials spread in layers and turned during decomposition.

Publication of Sir Howard's book, An Agricultural Testament (1943), generated renewed interest in organic methods of agriculture and gardening. Howard's work and the research it has promoted has earned him recognition as the modern-day father of the organic method. J. I. Rodale, in North America, carried Howard's work further. He established the Farming Research Centre and Organic Gardening magazine.

Now, organic methods in gardening and farming are becoming increasingly popular. Even farmers who rely on expensive fertilisers recognise compost's value for plant growth and restoring depleted and lifeless soil. The research into organic gardening and composting is still being carried on today by such organisations as The Henry Doubleday Research Association.


© copyright 1999, P. A. Owen

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