Composting – the Elaine Ingham way

Compost isn’t something I’d even given much thought to, I got it in bags from B&Q and job done.

Compost. On a farm scale you get it wholesale, not from B&Q 🙂

A long time ago I never bothered and used garden soil, perhaps an instinctive predilection towards natural farming – as exemplified in shumei.

I visited the guys doing Shumei farming in Wiltshire - being Japanese they had this image of Mount Fuji on the site, though the December rain doesn't do it justice
I visited the guys doing Shumei farming in Wiltshire – being Japanese they had this image of Mount Fuji on the site, though the December rain doesn’t do it justice

At school I learned that soil has micro-orgnaisms that somehow worked symbiotically with the plants, but pretty much everything in the decades that passed seemed to run counter to that – perhaps my schoolbooks were from an earlier era.

However, at the Oxford Real Farming Conference 2015 I heard Elaine Ingham of Soilfoodweb talk about microbial action and plants, and in particular a method of making bioactive thermal compost.

Nitrogenous (chicken crap) Woody and Grren source material
Nitrogenous (chicken crap) Woody and Green source material

It’s not as easy as that page makes it seem, I probably didn’t have enough material – it probably needs about five times as much as this first attempt, the second try used a lot more material but it still didn’t heat up enough.

The experimental site - the post and solar panel is the temperature monitoring system
The experimental site – the post and solar panel is the temperature monitoring system

The promise is that you can make active compost with beneficial organisms – the human pathogens and disease causing ones are largely eliminated through elevated temperatures of 55C and up. You control this by getting the mix of raw materials right, in particular the balance between carbon and nitrogen by controlling the amount of woody, green and nitrogenous material that goes into the pile, keeping the pile oxygenated (aerobic) since pathogens benefit from anaerobic conditions, and the heat of decomposition will do the rest – turn when it gets too hot.

temperature profile of my compost heap, and this was theh otter one!
temperature profile of my compost heap, and this was the hotter one!

Unfortunately this didn’t happen on the first two attempts, though having been on Ingham’s course it seems I had more to learn. I was getting nowhere near 55C – the green trace showed there was some heating, but nowhere near enough. The material has shrunk in volume by about half, but thermal compost this isn’t.

this has roughly halved in volume over a month or two
this has roughly halved in volume over a month or two

It’s fascinating how far Ingham’s philosophy differs from conventional industrial agriculture, which is very much about the chemical balance but blasts the soil with all sorts of -icides to eliminate anything but the wanted crop. Ingham’s principles are a lot more holistic – with the microbes plants have grown up with over thousands of years they can access nutrients and fight disease, whereas chemical farming aims to eliminate, the soil food web is an integrated whole of plants, microbes and other organisms in balance, shifting from the primarily bacterial in early succession (grasses and weeds) to a more fungal balance in late succession  – old-growth forests.

As a soil microbologist Elaine Ingham makes a good case for this, but in needs skill in action to get it right. There’s also the potential of using a microscope to classify the soil biology into bacteria, fungi, nematodes and the balance of these, with some morphological guidelines to identify good fungi and bacteria fro the bad guys. The number of different species is stupendous and there’s no way to classify these to species level with a microscope, but some generalisations can be made.

There’s a bit of back to the future here – some of the methods of making good bioactive compost share elements with other traditions. All the stirring and indeed using manure to initialise it reminds me of things like Steiner’s BD500 prep which start to make some sort of sense – the aeration post fermentation to keep thing aerobic as the organisms multiply in the water. It’s easy enough for people to take the piss out of Steiner, but once I have a decent microscope it would be interesting to see what the bacterial:fungal ratio and concentration is of BD500 after all that stirring up. It not so dissimilar to the operation of a compost tea maker, down to the alternate directions so you try and not chop up your fungal hyphae more than need be. It would tickle me if it were a damn fine compost tea 😉

In compost tea making this aeration is done mechanically – and indeed the tea needs seeding with a little compost – the aerobic stirring will favour beneficial organisms against pathogens, and the stirring keeps things aerobic. These beneficial organisms assist the plants in staying healthy – and they are influenced by plant exudates, particularly in the root system. As Masanobu Fukoka writes in the Natural way of Farming

Although a thousand diseases attack plants in the fields and forests, nature strikes a balance; there never was any need for pesticides. Man grew confused when he identified these diseases as insect damage; he created with his own hands the need for labor and toil.

In our rush to separate the variables and simplify so we could understand we stripped away the natural symbiotic relationship in favour of monocultures. Ingham called out the work of the British writer Sir Albert Howard, who wrote in 1943

Since the Industrial Revolution the processes of growth have been speeded up to produce the food and raw materials needed by the population and the factory. Nothing effective has been done to replace the loss of fertility involved in this vast increase in crop and animal production. The consequences have been disastrous. Agriculture has become unbalanced: the land is in revolt: diseases of all kinds are on the increase: in many parts of the world Nature is removing the wornout soil by means of erosion.

The purpose of this book is to draw attention to the destruction of the earth’s capital—the soil; to indicate some of the consequences of this; and to suggest methods by which the lost fertility can be restored and maintained. This ambitious project is founded on the work and experience of forty years, mainly devoted to agricultural research in the West Indies, India, and Great Britain. It is the continuation of an earlier book—The Waste Products of Agriculture, published in 1931—in which the Indore method for maintaining soil fertility by the manufacture of humus from vegetable and animal wastes was described.

Howard didn’t pull his punches – he observed how Nature farmed


Little or no consideration is paid in the literature of agriculture to the means by which Nature manages land and conducts her water culture.

Nevertheless, these natural methods of soil management must form the basis of all our studies of soil fertility.

What are the main principles underlying Nature’s agriculture? These can most easily be seen in operation in our woods and forests.

Mixed farming is the rule: plants are always found with animals: many species of plants and of animals all live together. In the forest every form of animal life, from mammals to the simplest invertebrates, occurs.

The vegetable kingdom exhibits a similar range: there is never any attempt at monoculture: mixed crops and mixed farming are the rule.

The soil is always protected from the direct action of sun, rain, and wind. In this care of the soil strict economy is the watchword: nothing is lost. The whole of the energy of sunlight is made use of by the foliage of the forest canopy and of the undergrowth. The leaves also break up the rainfall into fine spray so that it can the more easily be dealt with by the litter of plant and animal remains which provide the last line of defence of the precious soil. These methods of protection, so effective in dealing with sun and rain, also reduce the power of the strongest winds to a gentle air current.

The rainfall in particular is carefully conserved. A large portion is retained in the surface soil: the excess is gently transferred to the subsoil and in due course to the streams and rivers. The fine spray created by the foliage is transformed by the protective ground litter into thin films of water which move slowly downwards, first into the humus layer and then into the soil and subsoil. These latter have been made porous in two ways: by the creation of a well-marked crumb structure and by a network of drainage and aeration channels made by earthworms and other burrowing animals.

When we first took over field at The Oak Tree there were no earthworms…that’s what 50 years of industrial farming does to the soil. We get the RHS soil test every couple of years but organic matter is still low – better than the 2% it was at the start but your back garden probably has far more organic matter than we have now even after planting green manures and using animals to manure the soil.Simply from a quantity surveying point of view the scale of compensating for this asset-stripping of the soil is daunting.

One of the samples collected for a RHS soil test
One of the samples collected for a RHS soil test

Which is why we are looking at getting Elaine Ingham’s techniques of rebuilding the microbial action in the soil. research has shown there are no soils on Earth that have a shortage of any of the essential nutrients plants need – but it is through the action of micro-organisms on the rock that these can be rendered into a form that plants can take up. Otherwise you’ll be paying the chemical companies to import as salts the fertilisers than Nature has been making for thousands of years.

I am doing Ingham’s composting course. There seems more to this than meets the eye. I will try using something other than crap as the nitrogenous part, we have some vetch, which is nitrogen fixing via root nodules. According to Ingham I want 10% N 30% green and 60% woody material. I have plenty of woody material in the form of woodchips from trees, so if at first you don’t succeed, try again 😉

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