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Sir Albert Howard and the Applications of Compost  

Frank Morton

Until recently, I hadn’t laid eyes on Howard’s seminal book, An Agricultural Testament, in 25 years. But I have been thinking about it as I’ve gone about my composting the last few years at Aurora. My composting perspective has changed since arriving here, and that change always harkened back to a description I remembered from his book.  It is an appraisal of a sisal fiber factory from the early 20th century, and it describes a “deplorable” situation where the organic remnants of production are shunted off to waterways or ravines for disposal, creating “most depressing and disagreeable” conditions for habitation. Our region has been dealing with a Brassica disease outbreak since the time of our move here in 2015, and the stems and roots of Brassica seed plants are among the many reservoirs for the blackleg pathogen, Phoma.  Management of woody Brassica crop residues has been among the highest priorities for farmers trying to bring this epidemic under control. (Phoma incidence is now highly reduced, but more likely it’s because of two hot drought periods in the past two years rather than anything people accomplished.)

Rereading An Agricultural Testament recently I was struck by how much of the work Howard pursued was related not only to the improvement of soil and production, but to the improvement of community health and wealth.  In addition to applying the composting process to the disposal and recycling of farm wastes, his scientific inquiries and applications of the “humification process” extended to creation of “recycling programs” for town rubbish and human waste.  His engineering turned household garbage into a compostable uniformly sized material by running it through a hammer mill (after pickers removed glass and metal), then layering it with night soil collected in buckets pre-filled with a layer of finished compost in the bottom.  The compost layer began the “oxidative process” immediately, forestalling putrefaction, and initiating the composting process before the materials were even collected.  This fed a hot composting process that completely eliminated maggots and flies, pathogens, and odors.  It was calculated that a system for a town of 5000 would require 5 persons to manage its wastes, and that the fertility value of the output would more than pay the costs of operation.  In addition, the area around the town with proper manuring for intensive agriculture (suitable for fruits and vegetables) could be increased three-fold, and the over-manuring of areas close to housing (by night soil) could be eliminated.  Towns and villages that adopted these practices saw a general improvement in community income and overall well-being. Howard referred to these as “garden-cities.”

The Indore Process of composting found application in the hop gardens of Arthur Guinness & Sons, tea plantations at the Gates of Bhutan, coffee estates of Kenya, and the various production sites for cotton, sugarcane, sisal, and maize, the latter crops not often considered intensive enough to warrant compost application, though the results suggested otherwise.  Howard applied the best scientific methods of his time to explore the processes of the soil, the role of mycorrhiza fungi in  feeding plants, the importance of legumes in farming, and the critical role of weeds in maintaining fertility. He strongly endorsed the role of chickweed in conserving nitrogen over winter and building fertile soil. His mentor was nature, and his mind mirrored the most obvious of all biological facts, that the dead must feed the living, evermore. Or else.

Originally published in the 2019 Wild Garden Seed Catalog.

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