History of Composting

Occasionally, curious individuals want to know the origins of composting. It is difficult to attribute the birth of composting to a specific individual or even one society. The ancient Akkadian Empire in the Mesopotamian Valley referred to the use of manure in agriculture on clay tablets 1,000 years before Moses was born. There is evidence that Romans, Greeks and the Tribes of Israel knew about compost. The Bible and Talmud both contain numerous references to the use of rotted manure straw, and organic references to compost are contained in tenth and twelfth century Arab writings, in medieval Church texts, and in Renaissance literature. Notable writers such as William Shakespeare, Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh all mentioned the use of compost.

On the North American continent, the benefits of compost were enjoyed by both native Americans and early European settlers of America. Many New England farmers made compost as a recipe of 10 parts muck to 1 part fish, periodically turning their compost heaps until the fish disintegrated (except the bones). One Connecticut farm, Stephen Hoyt and Sons, used 220,000 fish in one season of compost production. Other famous individuals that produced and promoted the use of compost include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington Carver.

The early 20th century saw the development of a new “scientific” method of farming. Work done in 1840 by a well-known German scientist, Justus von Liebig, proved that plants obtained nourishment from certain chemicals in solution. Liebig dismissed the significance of humus, because it was insoluble in water. After that discovery, agricultural practices became increasingly chemical in nature. Combinations of manure and dead fish did not look very effective beside a bag of fertilizer. For farmers in many areas of the world, chemical fertilizers replaced compost.

Sir Albert Howard, a British agronomist, went to India in 1905 and spent almost 30 years experimenting with organic gardening and farming. He found that the best compost consisted of three times as much plant matter as manure, with materials initially layered in sandwich fashion, and then turned during decomposition (known as the Indore method). In 1943, Sir Howard published a book, An Agriculture Testament, based on his work. The book renewed interest in organic methods of agriculture and earned him recognition as the modern day father of organic farming and gardening.

J.I. Rodale carried Sir Howard’s work further and introduced American gardeners to the value of composting for improving soil quality. He established a farming research center in Pennsylvania and the monthly Organic Gardening magazine. Now, organic methods in gardening and farming are becoming increasingly popular. A growing number of farmers and gardeners who rely on chemical fertilizers are realizing the value of compost for plant growth and restoring depleted soil.