Spring is the season that we start thinking seriously about soil amendments. Organic matter. Black gold. And now, when "green living" has become the trendy flavor of the day, this topic inevitably turns to composting. Everywhere, you can find information about how to do it right, opinions on the best way to speed-up the process, the best way to keep the microbes and worms happy, the best way to keep you happy. But I'm going to give you the Heirloom Orchardist's instructions on composting. Here we go:
Pile up all your organic material from your lawn, garden and kitchen in one spot. Watch it decompose.
Done. That's it. You're composting. Detect a little sarcasm? Yup, it's there. But my point is not to cast aspersions at composting. Today, composting is a critical part of gardening. I just don't think the process needs to be so darn involved. Sure, my method is going to result in a much slower decomposition rate (I don't recommend you hold your breath while you watch the stuff decompose). But I've been using this method for years. It works. Compost happens. I've got so little time, and so much to do in my garden, that creating an intensively managed compost pile has never been a priority. Here's what my passive compost heap looks like:
One purpose of this blog is to present an interesting perspective. I like to analyze the methods of the 18th and 19th century farmer/orchardist, and compare them to today's organic/sustainable farm and garden methods. Did the 18th or 19th century farmer think about composting? Well, yes...kinda. He knew it was important to mix some types of manure (such as chicken or hog manure) with dry bedding, straw, or sawdust, and to let the mixture sit in a pile to "mellow" before using it in the field. That period of "mellowing" was a form of composting. But the procedure applied only to those very rich manures. Mostly, the Heirloom Orchardist amended the soil in his fields and orchards with common barnyard manure. You know, the kind that comes from the back ends of cows, horses, or oxen. This stuff was plentiful, even if you didn't own livestock. Take a look at this passage from an 1884 issue of "The Cultivator and Country Gentleman:"
"I am now drawing to my farm from the city fresh horse manure...There is quite a large quantity of rye straw in the manure, which rapidly rots by forking over the pile two or three times."
So why did we (Not you and me. By "we" I mean the early 20th century farmer/gardener/orchardist) start using synthetic fertilizers like there was no tomorrow? Is it because the stuff is so much easier to use? Well, yes (in part), but that's not all. The other reason is because of Henry Ford. Yup, you read that right. It's 'cause of Henry Ford, and his Model-T. Read this, from my 1921 issue of the Garden Guide, The Amateur Gardener's Handbook:
"Owing to the almost universal use of automobiles and motor trucks, the rapidly increasing demand for farm tractors, and the consequent enormous decrease in the number of horses employed on farms and elsewhere, the supply of stable manure has diminished to such an extent that it is all but unobtainable for gardening, or even farming purposes."
There ya go. After the Model-T, there just wasn't that much sh-t to spread around. Don't blame the prolific use of synthetics on their obvious effectiveness. Don't blame it on their ease of use. Blame it on Henry.
Here's our conclusion: Now-a-days, if you want to feed your garden and orchard without using synthetic fertilizers, and you don't have a cow, you're probably gonna have to start composting. And the process doesn't have to be a fancy intensive affair, unless you want it to be.
The method prescribed above does require some time. You'll have to be patient. But if you want to hasten the process, or have limited room for your composting endeavors, I recommend the composting supplies available at MasterGardening.com. Either way, Compost Happens.