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.