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The Magical, Addictive Being of Composting

For most people compost is a means to an end. You dig it into your garden and the soil is healthier and then, wow, your plants grow better. There are also some who make their own compost - surprisingly few in my mind given how much organic matter the average suburban garden produces.

Many of these people are “klomposters”; they simply throw all their organic waste into a pile and after a year or two harvest the bottom black stuff. But they don’t love their compost heap. It’s a messy garden dump which doesn’t seem to do very much, is difficult to manage and, in the Johannesburg summer, can be full of “Parktown Prawns”. These should rightly be called a “compost-klomp” and their product “klompost” (for non South African readers a “klomp” is simply a “pile” but unordered).

This is not to denigrate the klomposters. After all they’re not sending their organic garden refuse to a landfill. And are reutilising the waste in their gardens.

But properly made compost has simple magical glory.

We were doing a demo for our bokashi food-waste composters the other day. As part of our demo we bring along a bucket of fermented food-waste (to show that it doesn’t smell) and also a box of the compost we’ve made from the waste.

It’s early morning. Saturday. An elegant, for a Saturday morning, lady comes across to our display and asks what we do. I reply “we turn this” opening our four week old full food-waste digester for her to smell, “and make this” showing our compost in a cardboard box from Daggaboer Padstal near Cradock - Daggaboer was owned by Piet Retief before he left the district looking for better opportunities; some say he was running from the law and was a horse thief. I dig my hands into the box and draw out a handful of compost. Shove it into her face and say: “Smell that!”. She takes a deep whiff. And wondrously breaths out “it smells like a forest”.

Like nature.

Beautiful delicious compost should smell of great earth. But richer. And when it’s truly beautiful will bring to mind the wonders of walks through forests, playing in glorious mud, and the rich smell and feeling of a post Highveld thunderstorm.
If you think I’m a bit crazy, Sami Grover a contributor to the great online blog treehugger.com describes composting as “animal husbandry”. Why? To make great compost you need to be continually thinking of the magical bacteria and fungi that are doing their job of converting organic matter into the most wonderous powerful compound created by nature. You need to feed them. Make sure their conditions are right. That they’re happy.

The reward is awe inspiring.

Not only does compost convert dead material into living organic magic, the composting process eliminates chemical and organic pathogens. In his book “The Humanure Handbook” Joseph Jenkins cites the power of compost in degrading toxic chemicals including petrol, insecticides, herbicides and even TNT (this is not to mention the power of the composting process in eliminating organic pathogens such as salmonella and e-coli).

Gradually as one’s compost making improves one starts forgetting about the plants it’s going to feed. Instead one’s mind starts seeing the wonders of this medium for itself. For some the glory of the smell of jasmine in the Spring is a joy. For us it’s the smell and texture of compost.

Healthy plants are, after all, the result of this magic process. The proof that what you’ve built has created magic. And the bacteria and fungi that you’ve put back into the soil through compost is visible before you in the form of healthy, vibrant, beautiful plants and vegetables.

The challenge - mental - for gardeners is that compost does take work. But gardening is work. Beautiful work. The work of magicians and fanatics. Both are ultimately rewarding.

But to get the true value of compost you have to work with nature and not against it. You have to abhor the usage of synthetic fertilisers and poisons. You have to adopt a vision that all waste is good. And that all waste can be composted (even dead cows, chickens and our own faeces). “From dust to dust” is the inescapable truth of life. And the permaculture lesson.

I don’t understand why people don’t revel in the making of compost.

We count ourselves lucky that our neighbours bring over their garden waste. We worry when not enough is coming through the gate. We’d hope that they’d adopt our philosophy but are grateful that they don’t. This way we end up with masses of beautiful magical compost (and when it comes to compost, too much is never enough).

A warning though.

Once the magic of compost bites there’s no turning back. When you prune your trees you don’t think “I’m looking forward to their budding in the spring”, you think “ooh, all this lovely material for the compost heap”. At those pruning decision points you don’t hold back. You cut!

You end up reading books called “Holy Shit” (a treatise on the value of human and animal manure by Gene Logsdon). And then, before month end, you go and buy a shredder from Livingstones. You buy 100mmm PVC drainage pipes, drill holes in the bottom half and paint the top black. All to ensure that your shredded material will aerate properly. And every morning, you visit your heap in your pyjamas, put your hand over the end to check the heat to ensure that the magic process you’ve started is still happening within.

You’ve now gone way beyond klomposting and are now a composter. Now instead of showing your friends your beautiful tomatoes, you shove your hands into the compost, draw it out and proudly demand them to “smell that”.

And then may God be with you!

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