The experts make composting look easy. A bin full of vegetable peelings, a soupcon of shredded newspaper … et voila! Perfect crumbly compost. So why, asks David Newnham, is my heap nothing but fly-blown slurry?
Where do you stand on compost? Don’t you think it’s time your voice was heard in the great debate? From where I sit, you see, the composting community looks to be split down the middle.
On one side of the woven willow fence are the moderates, who reckon that composting is really easy.
And on the other side, there are the zealots, who proclaim it to be really, REALLY easy – so incredibly easy, in fact, that every citizen living in a democracy has a public duty to perform it twice daily with at least one arm tied behind their back.
Don’t get me wrong. I am, in theory at any rate, a bit of a composting zealot. Retentiveness is in my genes, as anyone will testify who has seen me collecting the gaily coloured rubber bands that the Post Office leaves lying around on our pavements as if latex grew on trees.
But I have a problem. After years of trying, I have yet to turn my kitchen waste into anything other than a putrescent, fly-blown slurry that I would no more think of spreading on the garden than waste from a bauxite smelter.
Oh, I know the arguments. Anything from unwanted pets to small items of furniture can be reduced to a sweet and crumbly substance not unlike Muscavado sugar. Why, I heard it even works with vegetable peelings. But let’s be honest: there’s more to composting than chucking stuff on to a heap, right?
Complex chemical processes are at work, involving enzymes and fungi and almost as many bacteria as you’d find on a hospital doctor’s necktie. Whole books have been written on the relative merits of hot and cold heaps, and more gardening columns have tackled the questionable value of urine as a natural accelerant than ought to be discussed before the 9 o’clock watershed.
Yet still people insist that making compost is easy. “It’s totally painless,” they say, with a glee that makes me suspect they would compost their own mothers given half a chance. Painless? Try telling that to the 4,000 tiger worms who perished in a grim polyethylene bin in the summer of ’96.
Okay, so I should have moved it into partial shade, added shredded paper every other day, and stirred in hydrated lime until the acidity stabilised at around pH 7. In short, I should have read the manual, or at least taken a master’s degree in biochemistry with an option in soil management and an additional module in soft-bodied invertebrates. But I believed all the flim-flam about vermiculture being a doddle, with the result that 4,000 living creatures paid with their lives.
Looking back, I now see that wormery as symptomatic of the gadgetisation of composting. I mean, if the process of decay and fermentation is so natural, quick and easy, how come we need an ever-expanding range of double-sided, slot-together plastic products with integral rotating chambers, stackable trays and fully perforated dividers just to make it happen? Or in my case, not happen.
I never gave up trying, of course. But all I get is gloop. In fact, I am currently producing putrid slop at near industrial levels, thanks to my latest acquisition — a giant black compost bin purchased at a knock-down price through the district council.
Like the Charge of the Light Brigade or Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the mega-composter seemed like a good idea at the time. Just give me that really big bin and I would do it properly for once! Oh, I could see it all — the forking, the mixing, the tossing and the turning. Such larks! But within a fortnight, that bin had become a mere repository for kitchen waste.
And a twelvemonth later, something worrying is happening. You see, no matter how many peelings go in, the sludge level refuses to rise. At first, I thought it was just the usual liquefaction going on. But the other day, I became aware that the entire contents are sinking slowly into the ground.
Where are they headed? Are we talking meltdown here? Is my entire gross domestic product about to emerge at some antipodal point to the north-east of New Zealand? And if so, will I then be liable for landfill tax? In my heart of hearts, I know I should do something before it’s too late. I should turn it, shuffle it, or add shredded bank statements and cat litter in equal measure.
Better still, I should construct a concrete sarcophagus over the entire site. But somehow, as I stand back from the haze of fruit flies and toss in the next consignment of side salad, it seems like a job easily put off until tomorrow.
And when all’s said and done, it shouldn’t be necessary, should it? I mean, composting is really, really easy.
• Originally published in GreenerLiving magazine in May 2007