Weeds -- Guardians of the Soil

by Joseph A. Cocannouer

9. Weeds in the Compost

COMPOST farming is a type of soil fertilization that dates back to the first recorded agricultural history. One modern dictionary defines compost as "a fertilizing mixture." Which really doesn't define a great deal, for there are many fertilizing mixtures that fall far short of properly built compost. In ordinary language, compost is what results when vegetable materials are thrown into a hole or stacked up on the level in some out-of-the-way place and permitted to rot as they will.

Scientific compost making, however, follows a more exacting formula. A true compost is a mixture of plant ingredients, all right, but there is more to the processing than is generally believed. Actually, almost anything organic short of saw logs can be turned into good fertilizer if the right procedure is followed.

Probably the first compost formula was the one introduced and developed by Marcus Cato, a Roman scientist, statesman, and general all-round farmer who lived and lectured on agriculture some two hundred years before the Christian era. At least, I think Cato's compost formula is the first that history records. Until the fall of Rome, the teachings of Cato were the last word in farm management. There is little doubt that this old Roman was one of the world's greatest agriculturists. Many of our modern agricultural discoveries were advocated by him.

Cato was a strong believer in compost as the soil builder. Indeed, one gets the idea from his writings that he considered compost making and compost fertilization indispensable if one expected to hold one's land to a high production level. Farm animals were kept as much for what they could supply to the compost pits in the way of manure as for any other purpose.

Cato's method of compost making required two deep, covered pits, one to hold the finished fertilizer, the other to take the stuff as it came from the barnlot or field. On the larger estates the pits were in charge of men who were thoroughly versed in the science of compost making. As a first step in getting the materials ready for the pit, Cato directed that everything should first be scattered in the corrals or used as bedding in the animal stalls, to be trampled under the feet of the livestock. Treating the vegetable materials in this way did two very important things: the trampling broke up the roughage and insured quicker disintegration in the pits; also the spongy material collected the liquid manure which otherwise would go to waste. After this initial treatment, the ingredients went into the pit, where they remained a year. During this period the stuff was turned periodically to bring about uniform disintegration and assure against loss from firefanging.

One of Cato's most interesting -- and certainly progressive -- agricultural principles was that the raw materials must always be composted before being inculcated into the soil. This, he claimed, saved the plant roots from having to do a lot of extra work that was not directly connected with the production of crops. He wanted plant food materials served ready for immediate consumption. No raw manures or other undecayed ingredients should ever be applied directly to the soil.

Some suggest that the Romans may have learned compost making from the Chinese. I doubt this, for the Romans seem to have employed only dry materials for making their compost, whereas the Chinese always have preferred green vegetation. It is true that dry rubbish is never wasted in China; but during my explorings over there I never met a farmer who did not rank the green vegetation above straw and other dry refuse.

The only reason I could discover why the Chinese were partial to the green material was because the processing was quicker. A few farmers I talked to also considered the "green compost" more quickly available when applied to the soil. I found only occasionally a Chinese farmer who was building or had built what he considered a complete compost, though any of them could tell you all about Chinese composts. Green weeds would be the best possible materials for making composts, they say, but these are no longer to be found in sufficient abundance on the hills. As a general rule, like the old Chinese woman already described, they chop up the small amount of green stuff they are able to gather and apply it directly to the soil.

The people in several countries of Europe prior to the outbreak of the last war were far more compost conscious than American farmers and gardeners have ever been. Farmers in America seem to think of compost making as kid work; not a man-size job of farming. Compost for a small house garden is all right, some will tell you; but for a cornfield -- well, men have enough to do without wasting time hauling and tossing rubbish into a hole in order to get a hatful of fertilizer after waiting several months.

To compost organic materials into the superb fertilizer that is possible is a man's job from start to finish. Yet the composting of plants or plant refuse is simple in comparison with the results obtained. Nature's constructive laws are usually like that. They are exacting but easy to follow, and the returns are great.

An English agricultural scientist, the late Sir Albert Howard, was beyond doubt the outstanding compost authority of modern times. Making use of the best compost knowledge to be found in the Orient and elsewhere, he added to this the results of his own extensive experience and experiments in several parts of the world, until he came up with a formula which, if followed, results in a fertilizer that ranks with Nature's best.

Fertilizer made according to the Howard formula will re-establish balance in weak soils in a much shorter time than will any of the fertilizers with which most of us are familiar; and it reveals its richness in the harvested produce in a way that is almost unbelievable. Both quality and quantity are enhanced. In some respects, soil built up by means of the Howard compost surpasses virgin land in that it can be held to a more uniform balance because the farmer has the soil-improving operations completely under his control.

For full information about the Howard compost, its method of processing and so on, the reader is referred to The Soil & Health, by Sir Albert Howard, the great scientist's own record of his life work. (Published by The Devin-Adair Company, New York.)

What I wish particularly to bring out here is the place of weeds as compost material; weeds in the light of the Howard compost. Just as the Chinese have proved through long experience that weeds, when used green, differ in their fertilizing ability, so should we expect to find that different kinds of weeds in our own country will differ in their ability to enrich the soil, both while they are growing and foraging for food materials and when they are employed for making compost. Unfortunately, our knowledge of this difference between our valuable weeds is at present very limited. What we do know is that several familiar weeds are excellent soil improvers and that all weeds rank high as compost material. Consequently, the farmer or gardener should employ in his compost as many kinds of weeds as he can get hold of, from sunflowers to carpet weeds, with all the in-betweens, and at every stage of growth.

Most farms have an abundance of compost material. Here is one worthy use for the weeds along the road or highway. Those weed areas should not be denuded. Ample weeds should always be left to hold the soil and to provide seed for the next crop. And rare is the farm that does not have some vigorous weed patches temptingly available other than the weeds along the highway: next to fence lines and in fence corners; around out-buildings and here and there in the barnlot. Also, there are those weed strips along the forest edge, or weed coves that have grown undisturbed for a long period of time. On depleted land and on eroded farms, weeds are likely to be scarce. At least, the most desirable weeds. In such cases the roadside weeds may prove to be a valuable asset capable of lending aid well worth considering in soil conservauon.

In the small town garden, compost can really prove its worth. For all types of small gardens compost is beyond question the most economical as well as the most desirable fertilizer. This is because the Howard-type compost makes it possible for the gardener to get an amazingly high production of quality vegetables from a small plot. For vegetable plots, shrubbery, or flowerbeds, compost made from weeds combined with barnyard manure, the mixture correctly processed, will satisfy every plant-food demand. The town gardener, though his plot may not be larger than a four-by-ten table, should learn how to build compost the Howard way, and then use it for all it is worth along with green weeds turned under occasionally, and with mother weeds in his plots wherever the latter is practicable.

As a compost gardener, the town gardener will then never burn the leaves from his street trees. Fallen leaves are tops as compost material. Aside from containing excellent fiber, which all soils need, tree leaves are rich in minerals. Do not forget that tree roots delve deeply into the soil for food and moisture. They bring up enormous quantities of these food substances, a goodly portion of which go back to the soil when the leaves fall, after having completed their work as the food-processing laboratories of the plant.

In case a gardener does not feel he can spare the time and effort to build a Howard compost pile, he can still make use of his fallen leaves in a manner that will give him a lot of feeding material for his garden, his flowers in the yard, his lawn, or his shrubbery. A simple compost stack -- or pit -- can be built to meet restricted conditions in town. And here is a word of caution about the composting of leaves: weeds should always be mixed with the leaves when building the compost, whether a shallow pit is used or the stack is built on level ground, since the leaves, when piled up alone, have a tendency to compact together. This compacting of the leaves prevents suitable aeration while the stack is processing. By alternating a layer of weeds with a thin layer of leaves, this can be eliminated. And in order to have a more nearly balanced fertilizer, there should also be a layer, some two or three inches thick, of reasonably fertile soil, this also alternated regularly with the leaf-weed layers. The soil, wherever possible, should be mixed with poultry or other animal manure, as well as a bit of slaked lime or ground limestone. If dry materials are employed for making the compost, all of the stuff should be thoroughly soaked with water as the different layers are put in.

Being unable to meet all the requirements for an ideal compost mixture should not deter one from doing the best one can. Weeds and leaves alone will give back a very desirable fertilizer. If you have some reasonably good dirt handy, just build a three-layer stack as follows: weeds, leaves, soil; weeds, leaves, soil, etc. Or, weeds and soil; weeds and soil. Where manure is used, weeds, manure, leaves; weeds, manure, leaves, work out well. The point is, make use of those lawn mowings, fallen leaves -- all stuff that will decay in a reasonable time -- for making a better fertilizer than you can possibly buy.

No farmer or gardener has a valid excuse for not getting some value out of his weeds. If he is unwilling to welcome weeds as a green manure in his rotation, or as mother weeds in his cultivated crop, he can still compost his weeds into a fertilizer that will live up to every claim made for it. And once tried, those thistles and pigweeds and sunflowers -- all kinds of weeds will be seen as possessing some worth, though many may rightly be pests in some situations. Some of the very worst weed villains make the very best of compost.

In a town where there are gardening enthusiasts, there should be compost clubs in which the Howard system of compost making should be studied as a science and through actual demonstrations. This can be done, and is practical. After a gardener learns through his own efforts what quality of flowers or vegetables he can harvest from a few square yards of land, that gardener will be a compost booster wherever he goes. He may even reach the point where, like many gardeners in Europe at the present time, he will plant weeds in a special plot so as to make sure of an ample supply of this best of compost material. He will discover also that practically all vegetable refuse and discards from the kitchen, lawn mowings, prunings, garden leftovers, fallen leaves -- all can be turned into rich plant food -- a far better fertilizer than he can purchase on the market.

Next: 10. Weeds as Food

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