Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Soil Fertility Part One - Making compost

For the past couple months I have been increasingly interested in increasing and maintaining soil fertility.

 Part of my interest was because of the difficulties caused by the terrible drought this summer. A farmer I was talking to at the Farm Supply store a couple of weeks ago said his farm got 1 mm of rain in July and 2 mm in August! Our area of central Ontario was particularly parched this year.

I also finally decided to read An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard. It was written in the 1940's and is considered a classic. It is based on his 20 years researching the effects of adding humus, rather than "artificial manure" to agricultural land. His work was done in India between the two world wars and was an inspiration for Robert Rodale, the founder of Organic Gardening magazine.

Initially the book reads like a textbook. Rather than an impassioned plea for a "natural" approach to farming, it is a dispassionate rationale, laying out the results of his experiments and accompanied by economic justifications for an approach where "Nature has provided in the forest an example which can be safely copied in transforming waste into humus - the key to prosperity."

His method for making humus (or compost) is called the Indore method, named after the area of India where he carried out his work. The intended application of his theories is for use on plantations so the scale is huge. Either heaps or pits can be used but he gives the dimensions for pits; 30 feet by14 feet and 3 feet deep. The annual output of this size is supposed to be about 1000 tons! At the end of the book there are papers delivered by plantation owners who experimented with the Indore process. One of these men, J.M.Moubray of Chipoli Plantation in Rhodesia, calculates the cost as "1800 native days"! A different era... But he also advises that the earthworms in the compost are the most precious labourers a farmer can have.

Since I'm pretty short on labour, by anyone's standards, and I am very interested in trying to deal with adversities ranging from drought to insects, I decided it was time to take compost making much more seriously.

While I have always made compost I have been justifiably accused of using it before it has totally broken down and I have not been very scientific about the recipe for making it. Over the course of the summer I had started a pile of green waste in my bed in the field and this is where I started on my new project. The heap was already there so I pulled it apart to add a layer of manure and another thin one of wood ashes. I also decided to start adding vegetable/kitchen waste. The first source of that was my lethal weapon, baseball sized zucchini. I chopped them into sections and spread them in the centre of the existing heap. The next step was to sprinkle water and then about 10 days later to turn the pile. This heap is a little rough and ready but it is heating up and breaking down.
Giant summer squash which will be chopped into smaller pieces

Last weekend I decided to start a new heap from scratch. This was partly inspired by a Scandinavian gardening book we have which showed someone using a long compost pile as a quasi fence. My new pile will be a "fence" separating the west side of my bed from the field.

The first step was to pull the weeds from the area. This also helped to loosen the soil.
The area in which I will put the new compost "fence"

I chopped all the weeds with the secateurs and then pulled and chopped the weeds between the vegetables and the new compost heap.
from left to right: the pole beans, the weeds cleared up to the secateurs and the chopped weeds piled in a row

Then I got a wheel barrow of manure to spread along the top of the chopped weeds.
a pail of manure from organically raised beef cows

Next came the little vegetable waste as I could come up with. But as I take down the beds in the next few weeks this shouldn't be a problem. As I add to the pile it will widen but the length is going to stay at its current 10 feet.
the kitchen waste 

the nascent compost pile with spoiled tomatoes gleaned from the adjacent beds


  1. Great post! Has the drought finally ended?

  2. Yes, finally. But now we have the heat again and so everything is still very parched and the water table is still dangerously low.