The Science of Compost: Life, Death + Decay in the Garden
by Julian Doberski
Pimpernel Press, £9.99
This book is truly for the compost geek and I, for one, have been waiting a long time for it. It takes a very serious, rigorous and thoroughly referenced deep dive into your compost heap. Not that this makes this book heavy in any way; it’s a breeze to read, but as it has science at its heart, it’s not going to forgo the fine detail.
First, there is a thorough discussion of the whats, whys and wherefores of the compost heap, which can roughly be broken down into living and chemical components.
Everything gets a look-in, from the largest (earthworms) to the smallest: the microscopic organisms that live on leaf surfaces, a habitat known as the phylloplane (there’s a good Scrabble word); those found within plant tissues (endophytes); and those associated with plant roots (the root microbiome).
Thus, you learn that some invertebrates directly chew organic material – thank you
slugs, woodlice and millipedes – and that some graze on the microbial flora found on, in and around the surface of dead plant material. And because this is a web, rather than a chain, sometimes the big guys eat the small guys and a whole load of microbes dine on their faeces.
The book then delves further into matters of physicochemical and environmental decomposition – heat, moisture, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, sugars, pH and secondary metabolites.
The last chapter is a hymn to the importance of leaves, as leaf litter carries large amounts of microorganisms that aid the breakdown of organic matter. This chapter also acts as a reminder about why we might want to compost in the first place.
Interestingly, at no point in this book does the author tell you how to compost; there are already reams of literature on the topic, he says. This is primarily an analysis of the layers of the heap, and as such, an absolutely riveting read.