Book review: ‘Compost’ by Clare Foster

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From House and Garden‘s Garden Editor comes this charming little guide covering every aspect of composting. As Foster describes, composting is an accelerated imitation of the natural processes of decomposition that occur on a forest floor, a process that involves millions of organisms slowly digesting fallen leaves and dead vegetation, releasing the nutrients back into the soil for plants to use again. Adding organic compost to the soil in your garden has a multitude of benefits beyond simple plant nutrition, including improvement of soil structure and increasing beneficial soil organisms that compete against pathogens, as well as being a useful way of recycling vegetable and plant waste.

First, Foster goes through the science behind composting in three short chapters. Then the book gets to its main purpose, which is to explain to the beginner gardener how to start composting, the established gardener how to speed things along, and the large-scale experienced gardener, well, something they are likely doing already, how to create a three- or four-bin system. This is less a tome for the old-hand, and more an encouragement to the anxious person who is wondering if they are doing things right. To which, Ms Foster ably demonstrates, the answer is probably ‘yes’.  Because once we’ve covered the absolute basics that most of us should already know (don’t add cooked food, animal products or animal waste, or plastic, or anything else that won’t rot, obvs), then as long as you’ve made a heap of vegetable matter and left it alone for a while, you will eventually obtain compost. Decomposition is inexorable process that goes on anyway, whether we ask it to or not. Of course, there are methods of complicating the process (and your life), like adding the material in layers, shredding woody bits, using comfrey and green manures, periodic turning, wormeries, and special rotator bins: your production of compost will  improve enormously with any of these methods, but none of them is essential if you don’t have a yen to get fancy with your heap. However, if you are thinking of cranking things up, Foster goes into useful detail on all these topics and more. There are even step-by-step instructions on how to build your own stackable wooden container.

What I liked The ethos of the book is commendable. Foster conveys a good sense of the bigger picture, the damage we do with our landfill and how we benefit from better connectedness, for want of a better word, with the earth, in both macro and micro terms. She is not squeamish about worms, rotting stuff, or recommending the use of Bob Flowerdew’s favourite compost condiment, namely a good dousing of urine. And the photographs are homely and well captured, managing to make even compost heaps look quaintly charming.

What I didn’t like For a second-edition book written by someone with long experience in publishing, I was surprised by the number of typos, and at least one major error (Foster confuses the roles of the micronutrients potassium and phosphate) which inevitably detracts from the authority.

How will this book change my gardening Compost was more of a reassurance than a revelation to me; it seems that everything I am already doing compost-wise is fine. My system almost exactly mirrored the system of ‘Dean Riddle’, the protagonist of Foster’s third case study towards the end of the book. However, I will probably turn my compost heap more frequently than I currently do to increase availability of oxygen and thus speed up composting, especially since I use an enclosed ‘Dalek’ composter. I will also be more generous with additions of woody material and seaweed. The bottom line is that I was encouraged enough by this book to go outside and dig out some of the compost from the bottom of my Dalek, which I’d been putting off for fear something would have gone ‘wrong’ (silly me: what can go wrong if you have followed the basic rules?), and I was delighted to find that after riddling out the big chunks, sticks and the like, and throwing them back in at the top to rot a bit longer, I had a fine wheelbarrow-load of delicious compost ready for spreading on the garden.

Who should buy this book Beginner gardeners, anyone needing reassurance about composting, those involved in setting up community or school gardens an/or who wish to devise larger scale composting systems, anyone who wants to get tricky with their compost heap and try something more complicated, such as a wormery.

Foster, C. (2014) Compost: how to make and use organic compost to transform your garden.  2nd edition, London: Mitchell Beazley.

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9 Comments

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  1. That looks an interesting book. I have two big open compost containers, but have yet to get any good compost. I maybe just have to wait a bit longer, oh and persuade the Traveler to turn it for me. Does the book mention if it is OK for compost bins to be in the shade?

    • I started my compost heap in November, and despite claims by the Dalek that it would create compost in three months, that’s rot (pun intended). I’ve got a good foot of compost out 9 months later, and hopefully it will speed up now that the worms and bacteria have all established themselves, but I still won’t be taking more out till late autumn or even early spring. Temperature-wise, for us in a climate such as Scotland’s it seems that a sunny site is best for the compost heap, to help keep the heap warm as the bacteria will work much faster. For those in very sunny climates, too much heat will kill the organisms and shade is probably better.
      For turning, I just stick my long garden fork in and give it a good stir. Wear gloves – I’ve caught my hands on the edge of the Dalek and it gives a nasty cut!

      • Hmm I think my problem is that my bins are in a very shady spot. There is nowhere else to put them so I will just have to wait longer for the compost. Mine are just wooden frames on the ground so I hope the frames don’t rot before the compost is made!

      • The trouble is, who wants to put their compost heap in the best sunny position in the garden? That’s where our sun-loving plants go. Shady corners also tend to be more out of sight. The ambient temperature in summer should help, and turning the heap helps too. You could put bubble-wrap or fleece around the outside of your heap in winter. In our old place, our communal compost heap had a big square of carpet over it, and that helped keep it warm. How long have you been waiting for the compost to be ready?

      • Exactly! I guess I have been waiting over a year, but I haven’t looked at it properly for a while. I have some great stuff that is covering it now. It is sheets of matted wool that we get with our Hello Fresh food delivieries! It might make all the difference. I also know that I should chop things up a bit smaller and I probably have too many grass cuttings and not enough other stuff. Oh well I guess it will do something eventually. At the very least it is feeding the beech tree roots as the bins are sitting under the tree.

      • If you’ve waited a year I’d be surprised if you didn’t have some decent compost at the bottom of the heap. Obviously you’d have to turn out the uncomposted top fraction, but as you say you have two bins you could just turn the top into the second bin and dig down until you find the good stuff. I’ll gladly lend you this book if you’re interested in having a read of it?

      • That is true. That is very kind of you but I might see if the library will get it for me.

  2. Interesting review and extraordinary to have typos in this digital age. My experience with composting at home has been far from good but at work it is immensely successful and I have concluded that it is down to size. The massive heap at work gets to heat up well whereas at home it doesn’t get turned enough or build up enough heat. Even the best compost at work has taken two years to create.

    • Oh dear, I do dislike finding comments that I’ve failed to reply to! So thank you for your comment and apologies for my very belated response. If you wish your compost heap to heat up properly, it has to be a a square metre, minimum, apparently. I was recently shown the huge compost heap (a sort of compost mountain range, really) at the Botanics here in Edinburgh. It is rumoured that a member of Botanics staff has been known to heat up scones by thrusting them (inside a tin, of course!) into the centre of the heap for an hour or so.

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