Chapter 2

The Story of Quick-return Compost

It all started with the garden, a derelict garden, but with beautiful bones. There were a few grand old trees, a lovely curved wall, and the rest was a wilderness, except for one strip which was planted with sickly cabbages. It stood on the very top of the Cotswold Hills. The soil was shallow and stony, thin, friable, and very, very hungry. The place. had been a neglected farm. There was a yard full of ancient manure, and as long as that lasted, the garden did well. Then the manure gave out and I could get no more. In one season everything went back and I was in despair; I did not know what to do. I instinctively disliked the idea of chemical fertilizers, though at that time I knew nothing about 'compost' (this was nearly twenty years ago). Then a friend told me about Dr. Steiner's method and the Anthroposophical Agricultural Foundation, as their English branch was called. My friend knew of it by hearsay, but it sounded so interesting that I got into touch, joined the Association, and acquired my first experience of compost and compost-making.

I learnt much of intense interest, accepted some of their theories, rejected more, queried the rest. I had some delightful experiences, pre-eminently a visit to Holland to see the Bio-dynamic Farms and the work of Dr. E. Pfeiffer. I learnt to appreciate the quality of compost and the effect it had on the land.

But, as time went on, I realized that the need for compost was both world-wide and urgent, and I saw that it was the millions of smallholders, allotment-holders and gardeners who needed it most, for they were quite unable to get farmyard manure.

The Steiner Method seemed to me to be too complicated to have a universal appeal. The literature was too obscure. The process of making the 'preparations' used as activators is secret and is the property of the Association. Moreover, these preparations can only be obtained by a member of the Association. There are of course many who use. the preparations and rejoice in the methods. It always remains a question of individual appeal. I look back with real gratitude and much pleasure to their kindly friendship and all I learnt; but we gradually grew apart, and finally came to a parting of the ways, and I withdrew from the Association.

I was, of course, bound by my pledge of secrecy as regards the making of the special 'preparations', but I was convinced that there must be some simple way of reaching the same end, and making good compost, moreover a way which could and should be given to all. I told them of this belief, and that I should do my best to find some other method, and, when found, developed and proved, would publish it, and bring it to as many people as I could reach; and further, that as there was, and never had been, any secret about the identity of the wild flowers used in the Steiner method, I felt free to use the same herbs in my experiments.

There was a slight demur, but when I drew the Association's attention to the fact that, after all, it was not Dr. Steiner who had given either dandelions or nettles to the world, they could only laugh, acquiesce, and we parted the best of friends, mutually wishing each other 'good luck'.

My boats were burnt; I can confess now that I felt very lost, completely blank, only believing intensely that an idea would come to my help -- and come it did. I woke up one morning with the key to the problem in my mind and the words ringing in my head: 'The Divinity within the flower is sufficient of Itself'.

With the words came the understanding of what they meant: the life, the vitality within the herbs, in the sap. From previous experience I knew it had to be used in homeopathic quantities, according to the homeopathic creed of 'the power of the infinitely little'.

I started experiments that very day, extracted the juices from the living plants -- dandelion, nettle, chamomile, yarrow, valerian, and made an infusion of oak bark.

The difficulty was to ascertain the right strength. I was no scientist; the only way was by practical experiment; and comparative tests. I filled a number of glass jam jars with lawn mowings, chopped-up weeds, nettles, and general vegetable matter. I treated them with the solutions in the following strengths:

1 in 10: 1 in 30: 1 in 60: 1 in 100 -- and then, urged by an impulse -- 1 in 10,000. There were two controls.

The jars were carefully labelled, then mixed and placed with the label towards the wall. Within five days the contents of one of the jars had gone ahead, and was changing colour rapidly. After ten days I invited a soil expert to come and see the progress of the experiment, and place the jars according to their merit. When he had made his choice, we turned them, label forward, and they read:

First, 1 in 10,000: Second, 1 in 100: Third, 1 in 60, and so on down to the controls which were still green, much as they had started. In fifteen days it was obvious that the 1 in 10,000 was far the best, in fact, almost broken down to compost.

What the jars showed was proved in the test 'heaps'. I took two numbers only -- 1 in 10,000 and 1 in 60. Again, the 1 in 10,000 was ripe and ready for use long before the 1 in 60.

I made one other, very crucial test. If this simple method was to be published, I must be certain that the compost was as good as the Anthroposophical one. So I made two identical heaps; treated one with the Steiner preparations, the other with the solutions. Both heaps were, or seemed, very good. I have not much faith in chemical analysis as a criterion of true compost value, but I sent a sample of each to a well-known soil analyst, and the returns were practically identical, with the comment: 'Of equal manurial value'. I thought that was good enough.

From then, it was the heaps that taught me the most valuable lessons. I had realized that heat was a vital part of the breaking-down process, and that the conservation of this heat was of utmost importance. To this end, wooden bins were made; they had no bottom, but stood directly on the soil. The cheapest form of timber in those pre-war days was old railway sleepers, 9 ft. long and 9 in. by 4 in. thick. They were everlasting, solid. Three half sleepers made each side, and three sleepers, one on top of the other, gave length and height. They could easily be sub-divided into any desirable width. The bins were built against a stone wall. The irregularity of their edges admitted air, and a roof of stretched hop-sacks kept out the rain.

The heap taught me how essential it was to keep an extra piece of sacking on the top layer all the time it it was being built. One day a large corner of this covering was blown back, and that corner was stone cold while the covered portion remained hot and happy. I learnt the lesson: its importance cannot be overlooked.

It was the heap that taught me that if a large quantity of any one material is piled together, it takes a long time to break down, and in the case of lawn-mowings it packs together into a slimy mush. Hence the advice to make no layers thicker than four inches -- and if possible to follow a layer of tough stuff with one of soft, juicy weeds, or cut grass -- the one helps the other. I learnt too the importance of keeping the layers flat, by light pressure, so as to prevent crossing stems forming large pockets of air, and to ensure that the sides were packed up to the level of the centre. Heavy pressure is bad, but light treading or packing with a spade is beneficial, and I learnt that, in the bin, with level packing and the control of the natural heat of decomposition, the breaking-down process was even throughout the heap, right up to the sides. I learnt moreover that by the injection of the solution (the activator) the need of turning was eliminated, and the speed of decomposition increased, so much so, that a spring heap became soil, rich black compost, in from four to six weeks! A summer heap took from six to eight weeks; an autumn one from eight to twelve weeks, but a winter heap remained asleep, unchanged, and unchanging, till the surge of spring reawakened the life in the earth. The quick ripening of the compost meant a great increase in the amount available for the garden, and the garden soon responded. The soil became richer, blacker, plants more vigorous, diseases vanished, the colour of flowers deepened and the flavour of vegetables improved. Many people visited the garden, tried the system, and were delighted with the results.

There were scoffers, of course, especially of the scientific, chemical-analyst mind. I came up against this type twice in quick succession: one was a science master in a boys' college, who openly scoffed at the idea of the homeopathic dose of 1 in 10,000 having the slightest effect as an activator.

The other was the agricultural expert of a Land Settlement Scheme which was started to provide allotments, equipment and advice for certain depressed areas -- a grand bit of social work. One of the heads of the association had heard of the Q.R. method and came to see for himself. (Incidentally the association was spending thousands a year on artificial fertilizers.) He was delighted with all he saw, and departed with leaflets and samples of the compost to show the agricultural expert; naturally nothing could be done without expert sanction.

In a few days the agricultural expert's report was sent me, with deep regret and a request to answer it. The expert turned the system down utterly and completely. He said: (1) plants required certain carbo-hydrates which were not present in the solutions; (2) that if the method were adopted it would result in (a) very slow disintegration: (b) a compost of no manurial value whatever!

I answered the letter, pointed out that modern science recognized and utilized the forces of radiations, vibrations and emanations, all of which were beyond the power of detection by chemical analysis. It seemed a pity that agriculture -- a science of 'life' -- should deny the possibility of achievement along such paths. As to his two authoritative assertions, BOTH were disproved by practical experience.

    (a) No one could call an average of two months 'slow' disintegration.

    (b) My own flower garden had had nothing but vegetable compost for four years and the quality of its produce, the health of the plants, and the colour of the flowers were well known over a wide area.

I received a short, non-committal reply, and the matter dropped.

By then I was longing for some outside proof, some chance happening that would prove the value of the solutions beyond all doubt; and my wish was to be granted in a two-fold manner.

I left home for a three weeks' holiday. Before leaving, I completed an experiment which I feared would prove a failure. I had a heap mainly of lawn-mowings, of which there was a surplus; they were put into a heap with about 25 per cent of dry leaves and soil, and not trodden down, as lawn-mowings make a poultice if they are pressed together. It had taken three weeks to build; I opened it before treating it, out of curiosity, and it smelt bad! I closed it, put in the solutions, left it, fearing the worst, and put it out of my mind.

During my visits, I went to a compost enthusiast, who took me straight out to see a new heap. It had been treated three weeks before (the month was August). It was not quite ripe, but it was getting friable, and it smelt very sweet.

'Now,' said my hostess. 'Come and open this heap. It was treated early in June, and it ought to 'be completely ready.'

I opened it. It smelt to heaven of decomposing cabbages! Awful! It looked slimy, green and yellow. The words burst out, 'This heap has not been treated.'

'But it has,' said my friend, aghast at both sight and smell. She called her gardener. 'Turner, you treated this heap, didn't you?'

In his slow Sussex voice he answered: 'No, marm, not that 'eap I didn't. I never touched that 'eap,' and on further enquiry it was proved that the heap had not been treated.

There was my first outside chance proof. The second was given on my return home! I went straight to the grass heap, left three weeks before as a slimy green mass. I plunged my hands into sweet friable compost, as good as anything I had ever seen.

It was the complete answer. From that day my confidence in the solutions has never wavered.

At this time, the solutions were seven in number, as honey had been added at the same strength, 1 in 10,000. It is a powerful activator. The seven were kept in separate bottles, and inserted separately -- a somewhat clumsy method.

Farmers were beginning to show interest and I realized that some simplification was necessary. I tried putting all the solutions together in one bottle. It proved absolutely successful, except that the honey was too lively and acted as a ferment. It had to be kept apart, till the final dilution for treating the heap; but the seven bottles were reduced to two, and the inoculation of the heap was accordingly simplified.

This led to a wider expansion and greater public interest. In 1938 Mr. L.F. Easterbrook, the agricultural correspondent of the News-Chronicle and an enthusiastic Q.R. compost maker of some years' standing, wrote an article describing the method and its results, with warm appreciation: hundreds of applications for further details poured in.

I then began to wonder what the power was that speeded up disintegration and produced such good results. I knew I had been working blindly, and that further knowledge was essential, if the method were to be really established. A book on herbs (Nature's Remedies) came into my hands by chance and gave me the clue. I found that the plants used in the solutions held between them the chief elements needed by plant life, and it dawned on me that these elements were in living plant form, and would therefore be of greater value than the same elements given in static mineral form by chemical fertilizers. (Can a mineral grow?) The list included iron, lime, soda, potash, phosphorus, sulphur, ammonia and carbonic acid. Further research at the library of the British Museum confirmed, and added nitrates to the list of plant constituents.

A discussion with an expert herbalist revealed some interesting facts. For instance: very few plants have been analysed. The constituents of plants vary each year, not in kind, but in relationship to each other, according to the weather variations within the seasons. One year one constituent will predominate, the next year it may be another. I wondered might this not be a wonderful provision of Nature? The surplus, or lack of rain, sun or wind, in a given season, would have a definite effect on the soil; maybe cause a lack of some essential element. Therefore, Nature gives a little extra of this element to the plants, and as they disintegrate and return to feed the soil, they add an extra quota of the missing element, and so help to maintain its normal balance. If this were so, the practice of making a fresh vintage for the solutions every autumn, would be wise, as it would keep the compost heap closely adjusted to the need of the soil for the coming season.

This line of thought prompted new experiments, to see if a successful activator (solution) could be made by using any two or three of the herbs that supplied, between them, all the chief elements.

I found that yarrow and nettle made a perfect combination.

    Yarrow has: iron, lime, soda, potash, phosphorus, sulphur and nitrates.

    Stinging Nettle has: ammonia, carbonic acid, formic acid and iron.

The heaps treated with these two solutions, plus honey, gave very good results, so good that I was tempted to scrap the full formulae, and use only these two: then came a further and unexpected development.

I had long realized that the activator worked by radiation. By no other means could the injection of a solution of the strength of 1 in 10,000 (approximately one drop to one pint) affect a ton of solid material. The process of injection is as follows:

When the heap is finished holes are made with a crowbar. These holes are from twelve to twenty-four inches apart, and reach to within six inches of the bottom. Three ounces of the diluted solution are poured into each hole, which is then filled with dry soil.

The radiations start from these focal points, travel upwards and outwards and affect the whole heap. A London doctor, a pioneer in radio-therapy, visited me at this time, and was deeply interested in the heaps and the use of the solutions. He asked how they worked? I replied, 'By radiation; their vitality streams through the heap, conveying their living elements to every part of it, stimulating, vitalizing, energizing the whole pile, and all that is in it. I believe this vitality goes on into the garden, and into the plants that grow in it.' Then I added that vegetables should not be judged by size, but by their vitality, and there ought to be a 'vitality measuring' instrument for judging at every show! He laughed and said: 'I would like to test the solutions on my instrument, from the point of view of human health.'

He took a bottle of each of the pure essences, and wrote later that he found them to be the most powerful factors for the destruction of human diseases, and further, that each one affected a different disease, or group of diseases; and, please note, he was using their radiations only.

The outcome of the visit was twofold: First, I undertook to supply him with the essences, and have done so, in one form or another, ever since. Second: I reconsidered my decision to use only nettle and yarrow. They are the two essential herbs, but obviously, herbs possess some personal attributes as well as the elements they largely share. (They have been used in medicine from the beginning of time.) If these gifts are potent as regards human welfare, was it not possible that they might also be a safeguard against plant ailments?

It would be difficult to prove, and require far more knowledge than I possessed; but, with the possibility in mind, the full formulae could not be discarded.

Thus step by step the method has evolved, and last year, 1943-4, in its tenth year of existence, came what I believe to be the greatest step of all.

For two years I had been sending the herbs to the radiotherapist in the form of herbal powders. It had solved some technical difficulties and been very successful.

It struck me that if one could use the dry powder as an activator, it would simplify everything. There were difficulties to overcome; it took nearly a year to experiment, test, and get full and reliable results. But success came, and success beyond all expectation.

The activator now goes out in the form of a herbal powder, which is made of the seven ingredients including the honey. One grain weight (approximately enough to cover a sixpence or American cent) is dropped into one pint of water, shaken, and allowed to stand for twenty-four hours. This is injected into the heap in the normal way. It produces first-rate compost, just as good, if not better, than the original essences. It has been practically tested by several Q.R. enthusiasts, and received a cordial welcome. I believe it marks the greatest step forward so far in the history of Q.R. compost, and it entirely fulfils the directions of the words that rang in my head at the beginning.

The simple mixture of the plants and honey (which is an essence from the flowers) provides a simple agent for quickly turning vegetable waste into compost.

'The Divinity within the flower was and is sufficient in Itself.'

3. The How and the Why of the Heap

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