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6 Mar 2009

Where there’s Muck… the joy of a well aged compost

I never would have thought, until I had spent some time immersed in the world of permaculture and growing my own, that a large pile of rotting manure could be a source of such pleasure. There is something utterly magical about the biological processes that go on in a pile of decomposing organic matter, as the microfauna and bacteria alchemically transform it from one thing into an almost entirely different thing. It really is something worth getting very, very excited about.

Last Sunday, myself, my wife and our 2 youngest headed to the edge of town with a borrowed car and trailer in order to get some muck for our vegetable beds (yes I know we should really have done it months ago, but there we are). We went to a local rare breeds farm which doubles as a visitors centre, and is home to chickens, goats, donkeys, guinea pigs, geese and many other more wierd and wonderful creatures. Unfortunately the owners don’t pile their manure methodically, i.e. starting a new heap each year, rather they just keep piling it on top of what is already there, resulting in a huge pile, with the freshest on the top.

The thing with muck is that age is everything, you can’t just put muck of any age on your plants. You need something that is easily digestible by the worms and not too strong for the plants. The gardener Geoffrey Smith, who was a familiar voice to listeners to Gardeners’ Question Time, and who died recently, used to advise people to leave manure as long as they possibly could, until it was “good enough to put in your sandwiches”. If you haven’t composted, haven’t run your hands through 4 year old compost, and haven’t spent time rootling about in muck heaps, this sounds like a ridiculous statement. However, in my multi-animal muck heap on Sunday, I hit such a seam, and it looked as delicious to me as a good chocolate brownie.

Muck left for one year is still clearly muck. It contains visible straw and other bits, and is too strong to put on vegetables. After two years, it is usable, and looks more uniform, but is still recognisably manure. But after 4 years or more, it is friable, crumbly, light, moist, and feels as rich as a double chocolate pudding. In the same way that Italian lime plasterers would leave some lime to slake for 10-20 years and produce the lime that was considered the champagne of plasters, well aged muck is really the Holy Grail of gardeners.

As I prodded and ferreted with my fork, I first came across the muck seam shown right, which had been at the centre of the pile. On first inspection it looked fine, dark brown and quite crumbly. But having been at the centre of such a huge heap, its rotting process had taken place in a relatively anaerobic environment (ie. In the absence of air) so it was still quite strong, a bit slimy and not that well rotted.

Herein lies the problem with such an ad hoc system of composting, the centre of such a huge pile will take much longer to break down given the lack of air. Also, the pile had never been covered, so rain travels through the heap and has kept the bottom of the heap too wet. It would have been far better to make smaller piles of no bigger than 8ft cubed, covered them, and it would have rotted wonderfully in half the time. At least it could have been done as a new pile each week. Oh well.

After a bit more digging around, we hit gold. A section of the pile that had clearly been there a long time, but which was on the edge, so the air had access to it too (see left). Fantastic. It was dark, friable, crumbly, and felt like the most wonderful of woodland soils. If we are really concerned about gardening for the long term sustainability of both society and soil, then the shift for the gardener becomes to think of gardening as being not so much about growing food, as being about growing soil. With such a perspective, the production of such fine, well rotted compost should be an art taught to everyone, and in the same way that the unveiling of a new, flashy mobile phone leads to exclamations of “wow” and “cool”, so should the proud unveiling of a cupped hand full of 5 year old compost. It should be as valued as a fine wine.

One of my composting heroes is Marcus McCabe, of the Ark Permaculture Project at Clones in Co. Monaghan in Ireland. Marcus was fascinated/obsessed with the composting of human waste, and as a commercial reed bed installer, held firmly to the belief that the best way to treat human waste was to not mix it with water in the first place. As a result, over the years, he tried virtually every dry composting toilet system available (each fresh visit would find you sitting on a different toilet) and ended up concluding that the humanure bucket system was by far the most superior, the Rolls Royce of composting toilets

I will always remember going to a conference on green building at the Cultivate Centre in Dublin, where Marcus was billed as giving a talk about constructed wetlands. The audience consisted of many suited folks, planners, directors of construction companies and other people of great gravitas and importance. Within the first couple of minutes, Marcus had dismissed the entire idea of mixing human waste and water, and spent the next 15 minutes extolling the virtues of, in effect, shitting in a bucket and composting it in the garden. It was a wonderful tour de force, back up with the science of composting and an unarguable plea for common sense and an end to faecophobia.

The climax of the talk, having set out the case for humanure and for the revival of the fine art of home composting, was Marcus producing a large bucket of his finest homemade humanure compost, which he then gave to the audience who then proceeded to pass it round the entire hall. It was fascinating to see how each new person reacted as the bucket approached them. First they were all ‘yuk’ faces and giggling, then as they looked over the rim of the rather large bucket, there was an ‘aha’ moment and a real fascination, all sense of ‘yuk’ gone, as they saw what was not the bucket of putrid excrement they had been expecting but some rather fine and crumbly compost. It was wonderful to observe.

So go on, give yourself a treat. Get a load of muck delivered to your garden. Pile it in a neat stack, as close to a cube a possible. Pee on it occasionally if you feel so inclined. Cover it and leave it for 4 years. The tension will be almost unbearable, but I challenge you to leave it for that long, peel back the cover, pull out a fistful of it and not be amazed at what you (and the worms and the billions of bacteria) have created. I will be standing by, awaiting your emails of profound gratitude.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.

26 Comments

Jennifer Lauruol
6 Mar 12:09pm

Thanks Rob–this is great poetry! Now can you write another piece about where to put the muck pile in the back yard of a terraced house or small suburban garden?…All helpful comments welcome.

Rob Scott
6 Mar 4:09pm

I think I’ll do this.

Rosemary Bland
6 Mar 9:41pm

We have been talking about installing a composting toilet, and I think this has persuaded me! Any tips anyone? Cheers

[...] 7, 2009 Rob waxes lyrical about well-aged manure Posted in links | Tags: [...]

ceridwen
7 Mar 2:07pm

Well – ’tis all grist to the mill as regards useful information – but I’m another one thinking “this aint feasible for me in my little urban house” – darn.

Still thinking on topics related to food – aka my most basic concern post Peak Oil – I’ve been spending a lot of time wandering the Web looking for info that can be used either by householders in my position (aagh! I’d better try and grow some of my own in my teensy space…) and Food Groups in T.T. Movement – so if ’tis any use to anyone in T.T. Movement – you’re welcome to copy owt/link to “My Gardening Notes” blog I’ve done. No point in re-inventing the wheel after all.

regards

ceridwen

Neil L
7 Mar 6:30pm

Interestng stuff indeed – time to tear down some fences, dig up some drive ways and make communal green spaces at the back of houses me thinks – can we continue to live in separate spaces – it has to happen – I live in a tenement flat in Glasgow and I often look out at the back courts and dream of what might be – green houses instead of bin sheds – raised beds instead of concrete paving – open spaces rather than fence after fence – and lots of people enjoying what is on their doorstep – and then onto the other stuff – do we all need a washing machines that only get used infrequently – a community launderette with creche and community cafe

Neil L
7 Mar 6:37pm

Ceridwen – like the blog – some very intersting and useful stuff – you might want to check out ooooby over in NZ which has grown out of the transition movement over there http://ooooby.ning.com

Bryan
8 Mar 5:11am

I ‘get’ compost. There is something completely awe-inspiring and captivating about mixing muck and mess to create some kind of mayhem – all with stuffs that are altogether banished from our conscious culture – and through little effort of my own, creating some kind of miracle.

While I cannot fathom a wait of 4 months let alone 4 years, I do proclaim the goodness of aged muck. For me, instead of piling and walking away, I spread it thin through the garden. Little by little, layers of muck and stuff go to create a deep tilth of compost that is the garden.

Thanks for the post – always a joy to read about the transformation from poo to pleasure.

Bryan

ceridwen
8 Mar 8:10am

Hi Neil

Glad you like it – I’ll go have a looksee at that ooooby. Ta.

ceridwen

Bev
8 Mar 8:13am

Rob, could you give a bit more detail about your friend Marcus and what he actually recommends.

When you say ‘dry composting system’, do you mean just feacal matter without the urine or with both?

When you say ‘humanure bucket system’ is this the same system as the author of the Humanure Handbook (Joe Jenkins) uses, i.e. urine and fecal matter all in the same bucket then dumped onto a heap and left to age?

We have a RotaLoo system in which all the ‘goodies’ end up in the same container, but there are holes in the bottom through which the urine drains into a collection tray at the bottom. A fan draws air over the liquid which evaporates it and leaves behind crystalling urea residue which can then be taken off. What you end up with is moist material which is not fully composted (not friable), but which I put into a bin with worms and leave it till they’ve gone through it. After that it’s as you describe…rich chocolate pudding.

Great post BTW.

ceridwen
8 Mar 8:28am

Hi again Neil

I’ve done a swopsee with you – my Dorset Cereals post on my blog – for your how to build a raised bed link from your blog. So I’ve added that Pioneer Woman instructions to my blog and the link to oooopsy.

Ta

ceridwen

ceridwen
8 Mar 8:46am

My Swedish gardenblogger friend has done a mini-series of posts on natural fertiliser on her blog – the main one of interest is on:

http://indoorgardener.blogspot.com/2009/01/ecosan-part-deux-toilet-in-bangalore.html

regards
ceridwen

ceridwen
8 Mar 8:48am

Another one by Rosengarten of interest:

http://indoorgardener.blogspot.com/2009/01/night-soil.html

Steve Atkins
8 Mar 10:27am

I’ve read up quite a bit about various compost toilet systems, some of which are very expensive and very plastic.

My own conclusion is that the Joseph Jenkins bucket/ humanure system is by far the best in terms of low cost and with perfect results.

Firstly, I suggest anyone even slightly interested in this subject to read Joseph Jenkins book…you can download it for free here or support him by buying a copy:
http://jenkinspublishing.com/humanure_contents.html

There is also a message board here which has some extra interesting stuff:
http://www.jenkinspublishing.com/messages/

…for anyone with a small/or zero garden local community composting could be the way forwards. Local authorities are highly likely to object to such a community humanure system; I think they just need re-educating about shit.

; )

Lemercier Pierre-Louis - Renewable Energy Centre - RSA
8 Mar 4:47pm

Very Interesting. But 4 to 5 years isn’t it a bit too long ?

Why not combining with the vermicompost, which produces rapidly compost for you ? You place yr worms and organic matter in a specially made cage.

You feed them from the top with all yr kitchen left overs plus some more dry organic material from yr garden, the worms digest all this and you collect the compost, which falls from the bottom of the cage.

Regards

John Cossham
8 Mar 9:30pm

Hi there, a reader of my low carbon lifestyle blog sent me the link to this article, knowing my love of all things compost… and yes, it is incredibly satisfying to turn what most people like to ‘flush and forget’ into a rich crumbly useful compost.
I have two Clearview woodstoves which cause me to generate a fair load of sawdust….. the ideal cover to humanure, and carbon-rich material to compost it with. I use a handful of dry, fresh sawdust in the base of the commode pot, then some partly composted sawdust which I’ve made in a ‘dalek’ and periodically scoop out of the bottom hatch for the cover material. This moist fungus and bacteria-rich material has two benefits within the compost toilet… it works as a physical cover, a barrier to the ‘aroma’ of your dump, and it’s a biochemical barrier too, as the microorganisms in the sawdust use the long-chain smell molecules as nutrition, and the moist sawdust adsorbs the smell and the wee beasties eat it all up.
My toilet room is unventilated, yet it doesn’t smell horrible, as the cover material removes the odour.
I try to put most of my urine on a compost heap or leafmould pile (or sawdust in a dalek) but I also pee in the commode, and the dry sawdust underneath absorbs this.
I compost the contents of the brewing bucket I tip the potty into in another dalek… I have a row of 3, each one takes a year to a year and a half to fill; I leave the material for about 4 years before using in my container growing medium.

How satisfying is growing food in humanure compost? A very natural cycle!
John Cossham, York, UK

Transition Housewife
10 Mar 11:35am

Excellent article, and great comments and links. thank you!!

I recently found out that a local riding school was actually paying a a company to take away their muck and was desperate to find some gardeners to take it away for free. Lucky me, I’ve been after a source of well rotted manure for ages!! Catch up with you on that subject in 4 years.

Melson
10 Mar 4:56pm

I would also like to know more about Mr. Marcus’ techniques. I’ve read the Humanure Handbook and ‘bucket moethod’ sounds like Jenkins’ technique, although he claims that two years is more than enough time to make great compost.

Jan Steinman
11 Mar 7:10am

Bev wrote: “… is this the same system as the author of the Humanure Handbook (Joe Jenkins) uses, i.e. urine and fecal matter all in the same bucket then dumped onto a heap and left to age?”

Have you read Joe’s book? I don’t think this is at all what he’s about. He emphasizes that you can do that if you want, but that there are advantages to separating urine and feces.

For one, urine is sterile, and can be used immediately for nitrogen and phosphorous. Just dilute it 1:10 and spray it on your plants.

However, faeces must be hot-composted to destroy pathogens.

Thanks, Steve Atkins, for providing the links to Joe Jenkins’ book. We’re hoping to have him do sessions on humanure and slate roofing at our Permaculture Design Course, 6-21 June, 2009, in southwest British Columbia, Canada.

Jan Steinman
11 Mar 7:11am

Bev wrote: “… is this the same system as the author of the Humanure Handbook (Joe Jenkins) uses, i.e. urine and fecal matter all in the same bucket then dumped onto a heap and left to age?”

Have you read Joe’s book? I don’t think this is at all what he’s about. He emphasizes that you can do that if you want, but that there are advantages to separating urine and feces.

For one, urine is sterile, and can be used immediately for nitrogen and phosphorous. Just dilute it 1:10 and spray it on your plants.

However, faeces must be hot-composted to destroy pathogens.

Thanks, Steve Atkins, for providing the links to Joe Jenkins’ book. We’re hoping to have him do sessions on humanure and slate roofing at our Permaculture Design Course, 6-21 June, 2009, in southwest British Columbia, Canada.

(Sorry if this is a repeat. How do you preview or edit postings?)

John Cossham
11 Mar 10:57am

Just a comment on Jan’s post… faecal matter can be composted hot to reduce pathogens, and this can be for a short time if very hot, or a longer time if not so hot. However, it can be composted in a cold heap for a much longer time, in which case the resultant material will be much the same.. as pathogens cannot live for ever in a material which progressively becomes less and less like their preferred habitat, so to speak.
However, cold composted humanure may have viable worm eggs and perhaps other parasites, if the producer of the humanure is infected.
Hot composting rarely completely pasteurises the entire batch, unless the batch of humanure containing material is put in the centre of a hot working heap, or an extremely well insulated one, or through a machine like a Big Hannah or Rocket, which ensures a long retention time with reliable extra heating, insulation and tumbling/rotation. Home hot heaps nearly always have cold edges, and turning won’t always mix every outside layer into the middle, so you’ll be left with some ‘unpasteurised’ humanure compost in most home hot heaps.
Also, we need to realise that ordinary garden soil is not ‘pathogen free’ as plenty of birds and mammals defecate onto it without our knowing, and so the usual hygiene precautions of handwashing after being in the garden whether or not you’ve been composting should be taken…

So, just a recap, faeces which is hot composted *may* have the pathogens destroyed, but may not, and there are other precautions you can take and other ways of humanure composting.

Also, don’t use it to grow salad carrots/lettuce in… I use it in containers inside a conservatory for tomatoes and cucumbers… up away from potential contamination.

Hope this is helpful and reduces fear and worry about what is infact an easy and healthy thing to do.
John, York

[...] Compost > Local food zones > How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible > [...]

Ant Eudall
27 Mar 11:12am

my wife and i just about to embark on my first attempt at growing vegetables so you’ll have to forgive my noobi status. We’ve made a couple of raised beds and have filled them with some chicken manure that has been ageing for over 25 years. Is this now considered compost? and can we plant directly into it?

John Cossham
27 Mar 7:12pm

Hi Ant, your chicken manure compost must be justabout the oldest compost I’ve heard about. 25 years! But 25 years stored ‘dry’ will not neccessarily remove the high nutrient levels, but if you’ve had it in a pile outside with the rain falling on it, then it will be much more acceptable to plant it. As you don’t say, I cannot answer your question really.

However, whatever the state of this material, I would still be tempted to mix it with a bit of topsoil. Perhaps you could put a little bit of soil in the area where you are transplanting your crops into.

Some crops will romp away in this… pumpkins, courgettes, squash, cucumber will probably love it. Potatoes also are capable of coping with growing in pure compost. But carrots, for instance, will not like it at all.

I never use pure compost for planting. I always mix leafmould and loam (from turves) into it, and use different ratios for different crops or stages of life. My seed compost is mainly leafmould, low nutrients. My tomato compost is medium nutrient-rich, with a third to half rich compost, and I put curcubits in much richer growing medium. I use no peat at all.
John, York, UK

Ellen Bell
23 Jul 3:44pm

What a great article. This ought to be reproduced in local newspapers all across the country. If only more people had an appreciation for the process of composting—maybe we could get more backyard composters going in American yards! Or better yet, more composting toilets in American homes, too.