Spreading the word about ‘living compost’

It’s been a year since we interviewed Michael Kennard of Compost Club about how Maze Compost Tumblers were helping him with his work. As this week is Compost Week UK, what better time to catch up with this wannabe earthworm, who is on a mission to get us all saving our soil.

 Compost Club has gone from strength to strength in the past year and Michael shows no sign of slowing down. He is interviewed in this month’s edition of Gardens Illustrated, recently featured in House and Garden and is also due to give a talk at Gardeners’ World Live at Birmingham NEC in June.

Michael in this month’s Gardens Illustrated

If you haven’t heard of Compost Club before, this is how the scheme – a social enterprise based in Lewes, East Sussex – works: Michael collects members’ food waste every three weeks in his electric van and returns nutrient-rich compost for their garden in the spring. The surplus goes into community gardening projects and is also available to buy.

But this is not just any common or garden compost. Michael has studied the subject, learning from American pioneers such as the microbiologist Elaine Ingham and the molecular biologist Dr David C Johnson. The compost he produces is teeming with biological life; perfect for improving soil structure and making nutrients available to plants to ensure healthy growth.

Great Green Systems bought some of the club’s surplus compost last spring and can vouch for the fact that this really is ‘black gold’, top-notch compost.

The GGS bag of living compost delivered last spring

Michael came up with the idea for Compost Club when he discovered he needed much more compost than he could produce from his own green waste to feed his no-dig allotment.

 He started asking people for input and was soon being offered more than he could use on the allotment.

 ‘People were asking me to take their food waste, because Brighton & Hove Council doesn’t collect it. In the UK, millions of tons of food waste still go into landfill. For every ton of that, there are over 600kg of carbon equivalent emissions – methane, nitrous oxide and all those nasties. If we compost that waste aerobically, the figure goes down to 8kg, which is virtually nothing. So that’s my incentive to do more.

‘Composting is about maximising the diversity of beneficial micro-organisms,’ he explains. ‘They do all the work. I’m just facilitating the process, creating the conditions for the naturally occurring life.’

He currently collects from 180 homes and hopes to set up similar schemes in the area by training other people to compost in the same way. He is also looking to set up a community-based composting system at Great Dixter House and Gardens, near Rye, as well as working with Human Nature, an eco-driven development company who are planning a carbon-neutral neighbourhood in Lewes.

Nutrient cycling

‘My vision is to start Compost Clubs within some of the most densely populated city areas,’ says Michael. ‘The excess compost can go out to the farms, so they can grow naturally pest- and disease-resistant plants that don’t need biocides. The nutrient density will come back to our food again, we’ll all be healthier and there’s a beautiful synchronicity of nutrient recycling that just makes complete sense.’

He is still a fan of his 245 litre Maze Compost Tumblers: ‘I find in-vessel composters like these to be ideal to be able to compost all your food waste in a timely fashion, without concern about rodents and also to produce a really good quality of compost after a good maturation process.’

In Gardens Illustrated (see photo) Michael is shown sitting on top of some of the reclaimed 30 litre buckets he uses to collect food waste. He adds a handful of bokashi, a micro-organism that pre-digests and ferments food waste, to each bucket he hands out. Collected waste is left to ferment in its sealed bucket (with more bokashi added) for three weeks before it’s transferred to a Compost Tumbler for another three weeks mixed 50:50 with woodchips supplied by local tree surgeons. The compost then spends time in a Johnson-Su bioreactor, before curing for two to six weeks.

He says that he used to think the best we could do for the planet was to be ‘the least bad’. Then he dived into the world of permaculture, regenerative growing and soil health. Now he sees sustainability as a minimum requirement for any business. ‘We can actually make things better if we live well,’ he says.

Michael’s on a mission to change the way people see waste and introduce them to a natural nutrient cycle whereby their food waste becomes compost, which helps them grow more food, which becomes more food waste. And so the cycle continues. ‘Waste is a human idea, and it’s a terrible idea.’

He started learning about the soil food web and bought himself a microscope.

‘I found that although the commercial compost is made of organic matter, it’s basically sterile – there’s nothing living in there. That’s the case across the board. ‘

He realised that to get the quality he was after, he would have to start making his own compost, although as he points out, he doesn’t actually make it – ‘I just create the conditions that allow the micro-organisms to do their work.’

His work energises him and has fostered a sense of what he calls ‘joyful service.’ He’s particularly keen to spend more time running workshops to spread the Compost Club ethos of healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people.

Saving the planet

‘By empowering individuals and communities to make compost for themselves, I can have a bigger reach.’

 Michael’s recent appearance in House and Garden was part of a series by Clare Foster about people passionate about saving the planet.

He talks about how soil is the foundation of our health and, if we destroy it, it’s to our own detriment. Improved soil structure also means soil can absorb more water from rainfall to mitigate flooding.

 ‘Healthy soil will filter water, whereas soils that haven’t had organic matter added are insubstantial and the topsoil just gets washed away. As a planet, we’re losing topsoil at an alarming rate – some people say we only have 50 or 60 harvests left if we carry on as we are.

‘Everything is a reflection of the soil. If the plants have that natural cycle going on, they’re really healthy. When we eat those plants, that’s what informs our gut health.’

As Michael says, healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy humans. It makes perfect sense.

On a roll with Compost Tumblers

On a cold day in February we interviewed Michael Kennard from Compost Club in Lewes, East Sussex, about the role that Compost Tumblers play in creating gold-standard compost.

What exactly is Compost Club?

The club’s mission is to help build ‘healthy soil to produce healthy plants for healthy humans and all life on earth.’

Working on a subscription basis, the club offers a double service, taking in people’s food waste and turning it into quality compost.

Members – households and businesses – are given a 30-litre bucket to fill with food waste, which gets collected every three weeks and turned over time into compost. Members receive compost in the Spring and any surplus is sold.

‘This turns the ethical choice into a convenient one,’ says Michael. ‘Often the convenient choice is a negative one when it comes to ecology.’

The service is so popular that membership is full and there is a waiting list. The club is crowdfunding to double the number of households they serve to meet the growing demand and there are plans to develop more sites.

Living compost that regenerates soil

The Lewes site currently recycles 160 tubs of food waste every three weeks, around 80,000 litres per year, but the hope is to expand to a point where they can recycle 60 tonnes of food waste per site per year, serving 240 – 300 households in the Lewes, Brighton and Hove area.

Michael is enthusiastic about the quality of the compost that is produced.

‘It’s full of the organisms which give life to the soil. We call it Living Compost Inoculum but we’re thinking of rebranding it as Zero Waste Compost because it literally is made from waste and turned into something really valuable – living compost that regenerates soil. I’ve looked at it under the microscope – there’s bacteria, protozoa, fungi, nematodes….right up to bigger things like worms.’

Michael also runs workshops and courses for community groups to spread the message so the whole community can grow – literally – along with the club.

How did Compost Club come about?

Michael has always had an interest in gardening and been engaged environmentally.  He and his wife got an allotment and composted all their own food waste. When the first lockdown hit, Michael was growing on a market garden scale and needed a lot of compost.

‘If I was looking to regenerate soil, it had to be of a certain quality, but it just wasn’t available. The only option was to make it, so I needed it on a bigger scale with more food waste and other input.’

He quickly had more people asking him to take their food waste than he could cope with, so the idea for the club came into being. Compost clubs are more common in America but there are not many in the UK. ‘There’s a massive gap for something here,’ says Michael.

The 24 Compost Tumblers on the club’s Lewes site have proved very helpful.

‘We’ve been able to get through a lot more volume because the Tumbler’s turning handle saves time and makes turning effortless, so I’m able to go along the row turning the handles. They also hold moisture and the vents mean the contents can breathe.’

Winter is a particularly busy time as the composting micro-organisms are given a helping hand to keep working efficiently in cold temperatures.

Getting ready to tumble

Food waste is put through the Tumblers mixed 50/50 with wood chips. Wood chips are used because a high volume of carbon is needed to balance the high nitrogen content of all the food waste. When the waste has been tumbled and broken down enough it joins the end of a windrow. From there it continues breaking down, getting turned occasionally and gradually progressing down the windrow until it reaches the maturing stage. Fungi proliferate the pile and worms are added for a finishing flourish. The site is a hive of activity, with different tumblers and maturation bays all playing a part.

Michael adds that many people are now adding biochar to their compost bins. This is a product formed by pyrolysis, whereby scrap wood is burned without oxygen. Biochar provides pure stable carbon, which locks carbon in the soil.

Waste is a human thing

‘It’s beautiful stuff,’ says Michael. ‘It boosts carbon in the soil and if you use the no-dig method it stays there.’

The club hopes to form links with agriculture providing food for the area. Compost Club would intercept the waste that is produced, before exporting the finished compost back to the fields to be used instead of inorganic fertilisers.

‘So you create a closed loop with no waste, which is how natural systems work.  Waste is a human thing. I’m trying to become a giant earthworm, I guess!’

Members come from all walks of life. One is a local footballer who signed for Lewes and had heard about the club on social media. He got in touch with Michael and there is now a community garden at the stadium, along with a couple of Tumblers composting the food waste created there.

‘In Brighton we’re quite lucky, it’s a green city with a lot of green-minded people and businesses,’ says Michael.

Any composting tips for other would-be earthworms?

Michael says he sometimes sees people with a Green Johanna who have added food waste but not provided enough carbon so the mixture is too wet. They have too much nitrogen and not enough carbon.  In such cases, he suggests adding carbon in the form of shredded card and paper.

Again, he recommends wood chips as they ‘last longer, hold structure and create pathways for the air. If you add a bucket of food waste, add a bucket of wood chippings.’

He adds that the compost mix should contain 50% moisture. A test is to take a big handful and squeeze tight – only a couple of drops of liquid should come out.

And don’t forget to turn your compost to get plenty of oxygen into the mix.

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