Rodale Book of Composting: Easy Methods for Every Gardener

Rodale Book of Composting: Easy Methods for Every Gardener


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780878579914
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 01/28/1992
Edition description: Revised
Pages: 278
Product dimensions: 6.45(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.74(d)

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Composting Throughout History

Composting is, in broadest terms, the biological reduction of organic wastes to humus. Whenever a plant or animal dies, its remains are attacked by soil microorganisms and larger soil fauna and are eventually reduced to an earthlike substance that forms a beneficial growing environment for plant roots. This process, repeated continuously in endless profusion and in every part of the world where plants grow, is part of the ever-recurring natural process that supports all terrestrial life. The entire composting process is difficult to contemplate in its full dimensions. Let's just.say that compost and composting are, like water and air, essentials of life.

The Human Element

A different, more common, definition of compost requires human participation in the process. Ordinarily, when we speak of compost and composting, we are referring to the process by which we transform organic wastes into a soil-building substance for farm, orchard, or garden. Even when considering this common definition, however, the origins of human composting activities quickly become buried in the sands of prehistory. The best we can surmise is that sometime after people began to cultivate food to augment hunting and food-gathering activities, they discovered the benefits of compost, probably in the form of animal manure. Noting, perhaps, that food crops grew more vigorously in areas where manure had been deposited, they made the connection between the two phenomena and began a more selective application of the composting process. Probably the oldest existing reference to the use of manure in agriculture is to be found on a set of clay tablets of the Akkadian Empire, which flourished in the Mesopotamian Valley 1,000 years before Moses was born. Akkadia was overthrown by Babylon, which in turn fell to Cyrus, but though empires crumbled, the knowledge and practice of organic fertilizing increased. Compost was known to the Romans; the Greeks had a word for it, and so did the Tribes of Israel. The Bible is interspersed with references to the cultivation of the soil. The terms dung and dunghill, used by the theologians who translated the scriptural Hebrew and Greek into English, have numerous variants in the original. Dung was used as fuel and as fertilizer. Manure was sometimes spread directly onto the fields. It was also composted, along with street sweepings and organic refuse, on the dunghill outside the city wall. Sometimes straw, trampled to reduce its bulk, was soaked in liquid manure (literally "in dung water"). The Talmud tells us "they lay dung to moisten and enrich the soil; dig about the roots of trees; pluck up the suckers; take off the leaves; sprinkle ashes; and smoke under the trees to kill vermin." From other sources we learn that soil was enriched by adding ashes, straw, stubble, and chaff, as well as with the grass and brambles that sprung up in fields left fallow. Cattle were grazed upon land in need of their manure for fertilizer, and sheep manure was collected from walled-in sheepfolds and used as a fertilizer. Another Talmud passage tells of the use of blood as fertilizer. The blood of the sacrifice, poured out before the altar, drained through an underground channel to a dump outside the city wall. Here it was sold to gardeners on payment of a trespass offering. Without this fee, its use for common purpose was prohibited, as it retained the sanctity of dedication at the altar. According to the Talmud, raw manure was not to be handled by the truly religious because it was unclean. A Talmud commentator set down the rule for the faithful: "Do not use your manure until some time after the outcasts have used theirs," thus advocating the use of rotted or composted manure instead of fresh animal matter. Much of the agricultural wisdom of the ancients survived the Dark Ages, to reappear-along with other fundamental scientific knowledge-in the writings of learned Arabs. Ibn al Awam, variously assigned to the tenth and twelfth centuries, goes into extensive detail on the processing and use of compost and other manures in his Kitab al Falahah, or Book of Agriculture. He recommends blood for its fertilizing properties and casually endorses the superiority of human blood for this purpose. The manure value of crushed bones, waste wool, wood ash, and lime is recognized in other old manuscripts as well. The medieval Church was another repository of knowledge and lore, thanks to the efforts of a few devoted monks. Within monastery enclosures, sound agricultural practices were preserved and applied and, in some instances, taught to the neighboring farmers by the abbot, acting as a sort of medieval local extension agent. It is only natural that the charters of two old English abbeys, St. Albans (1258) and the Priory of Newenham (1388), should enjoin the use of compost for soil fertility. References to compost in Renaissance literature are numerous. William Caxton, pioneer fifteenth century printer, relates that "by which dongyng and compostyng the feldes gladeth." Three other renowned Elizabethans reveal in their writings that compost was a familiar word. Shakespeare's Hamlet advises, "Do not spread the compost on the weeds, to make them ranker." In Ttmon of Athens, Timon rages, "The earth's a thief, that feeds and breeds by a composture stolen from general excrement." Sir Francis Bacon tells in his "Natural History" that plants degenerate by "removing into worse earth, or forbearing to compost the earth." The unfortunate Sir Walter Raleigh, awaiting execution, wrote of the soil, "He shall have the dung of the cattle, to muckle or composture his land." (Our word compost comes from Old French, but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries various spellings were used-compass, compess, compast, composture, and others.)

Early American Compost On the North American continent, compost was used by native tribes and by Europeans upon their initial settlement. Public accounts of the use of stable manure in composting date back to the eighteenth century. Early colonial farmers abandoned the fish-to-each-hill-of-corn system of fertilizing when they discovered that by properly composting two loads of muck and one load of barnyard manure, they obtained a product equivalent to three loads of manure in fertilizing value. By the middle of the nineteenth century, this knowledge was thoroughly ingrained in Yankee agricultural philosophy, and Samuel W. Johnson, professor of analytical and agricultural chemistry at Yale College, asserted that "this fact should be painted in bold letters on every barn door in Connecticut." Many New England farmers found it economical to use the white fish or menhaden abundant in Long Island Sound, as well as manure, in their compost heaps. Stephen Hoyt and Sons of New Canaan, Connecticut, made compost on a large scale, using 220,000 fish in one season. A layer of muck 1 foot in thickness would be spread on the ground, then a layer of fish on top of that, a layer of muck, a layer of fish, and so on, topped off with a layer of muck, until the heap reached a height of 5 or 6 feet. Their formula required 10 or 12 loads of muck to 1 of fish. This was periodically turned until fermentation and disintegration of the fish (except the bones) had been completed. The resulting compost was free of odors and preserved perfectly all the manurial values of the fish. Our first president was a skilled farmer and a strong advocate of proper composting methods. After the Revolutionary War, one of Washington's main concerns was the restoration of the land on his plantation. For this purpose he looked for a farm manager who was "above all, like Midas, one who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation toward gold; in a word, one who can bring worn-out and gullied lands into good tilth in the shortest time." According to Paul L. Haworth, author of the 1915 biography George Washington, Farmer, Washington "saved manure as if it were already so much gold, and hoped with its use and with judicious rotation of crops to accomplish" good tilth. Washington carried out his own composting experiments, from which he concluded that the best compost was made from sheep dung and from "black mould from the Gulleys on the hillside which seemed to be purer than the other." Thomas Jefferson was no less skilled as a farmer, and equally inventive. In fact, Washington and Jefferson, when not otherwise occupied with affairs of state, often corresponded about mutual farming problems and observations. Jefferson routinely depended on the use of manure to maintain the fertility of his fields. In Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book, Edwin Morris Betts, the editor, discusses Jefferson's use of various kinds of manure: Jefferson used dung in three different stages of decomposition-fresh or long dung, half purified or short dung, and well-rotted dung. He does not state which condition of the dung he found most beneficial for his crops. Jefferson probably used very little manure of any kind on his lands in the early days of farming at Monticello and at his other plantations. The newly cleared land was plentiful and rich and brought forth abundant crops. He expressed this idea in a letter to George Washington on June 28, 1793. He wrote, "... Manure does not enter into this, a good farm because we can buy an acre of new land cheaper than we can manure an old acre.. .." But later, after the soil had been robbed of its fertility by successive crops of corn and tobacco, fertilizing his soil became a necessity. Jefferson often followed a green dressing of buckwheat with dung in his crop rotations. In a plan of crop rotation which he sent to Thomas Mann Randolph on July 28, 1793, he wrote, ". . . 3d. wheat, &. after it a green dressing of buckwheat, and, in the succeeding winter put on what dung you have."

Jefferson was also an innovative farmer. Noting the difficulty and expense entailed in carrying manure to distant fields, he came upon the idea of stationing cattle for extended periods of time in the middle of the field which needed fertilization. Jefferson wrote of "a moveable airy cow house, to be set up in the middle of the field which is to be dunged, ck soil our cattle in that thro' the summer as well as winter, keeping them constantly up St well littered." James Madison, our fourth president, was also aware of the need to renew the fertility of croplands. On May 12, 1818, in an address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, Virginia, he stated:

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Rodale Book of Composting: Easy Methods for Every Gardener 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
toddio More than 1 year ago
Very technical at points, but absolutely comprehensive.
ChrisinCincy More than 1 year ago
I bought this book hoping it would teach me in layman terms how to make compost. In a sense it does that; however unless you've earned a degree in biology most of the book will come off as a scientific journal article.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Don't let the technicality of this book scare you. Anyone with a junior high education in basic science and an interest in composting will thoroughly enjoy this book. It should be required reading in school. Includes rarely found details about material composition, alternative methods, using earthworms and the finished compost. Excellent book!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago