Whenever a new form of recycling is heralded as a contribution to the life of the planet and a reduction in the carbon footprint, there spring up a host of ‘nay-sayers’ that highlight the problems with it. None more so than garden composting or recycling. It’s been described as ‘a dangerous folly of the middle classes’ and some other even less kinder descriptions that focus on the dangers of not doing it correctly, when in reality it can be a very productive and useful tool for the avid gardener. Leading agro-scientist Bill Butterworth explains the ‘why’ of composting:
“There is something about “waste” and gardening which is what an academic would call “beautiful”. One of the ways of solving any problem is to find an exact opposite and put the two together; both problems disappear. Many will have heard, on television or the radio, of a “black hole” which can occur in outer space. For those who know a little of what a “black hole” in space is, and indeed those who don’t, the analogy of a black hole and a supernova is an example of this way of problem solving. Get the right size of black hole and the right size of supernova and put them together and there is nothing; the mass of the black hole and mass of the supernova cancel each other out. The down-to-earth gardening problem of what to do with untidy “wastes” and how to make things grow has a similarity; the wastes from the house and the garden itself is one problem and the need to produce flowers and vegetables which need nutrients to make them grow is the other. Put these two problems together in the right way and the problems not only disappear, they produce a benefit.”
All of that seems a pretty good idea, and it is. However, there is a downside with both trivial and potentially serious consequences.
Trivial first. Recycling is hard work. It is messy and often looks it. It occupies space. It is much easier and tidier to just throw everything in the bin and then go and get a bag of mineral fertiliser from the garden centre. Alternatively, go and get some horse manure, or farmyard manure, or compost from a big local centralised site: they are all organic and, at least in some way, good alternatives.
Potentially serious consequences? There are some really dangerous bugs from a human health point of view – both fungi and bacteria. Key thing to remembers are that a compost heap is not a place for kids to play and everyone should wash thoroughly after tending a compost heap.
There are nine key parts of the safety checklist for Garden composting and here are the first four from Bill Butterworth’s book – Garden Composting – How REcycling Works:
- Educate the children in a balanced way. Tell them how this is a small contribution to a better environment, because it is. Without scaring them or other people, tell them that there maybe some fairly nasty “bugs” in a compost heap and that these can cause bad tummy ache and diarrhoea, maybe worse.
- Show them the garden thermometer and show it in use. They need to know about pasteurisation. (Just as in milk.)
- Always use gloves when handling compost.
- Even if you have used gloves, wash hands afterwards and especially before eating. Never put dirty hands near the mouth.
The book goes on to explain how garden recycling actually works and is an ideal read for those that want to understand how it all works. The book also includes a guide on calculating your own carbon footprint.
Bill’s first degree was taken at Reading University in agricultural science back in the early 1960’s. He was a lecturer for 13 years in
Essex at Writtle College, where more than half the students were horticultural and was, for 21 years, a Moderator at the School of Horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.