Spreading the word about ‘living compost’

Compost Club’s Michael Kennard is a man with a mission – to build healthy soil for healthy plants and healthy people.  And his 24 compost tumblers play a big part in his grand plan.

Michael founded Compost Club, a social enterprise based in Lewes, East Sussex, a few years ago and it’s going from strength to strength. He collects the club’s members’ food waste every three weeks in his electric van and returns nutrient-rich compost for their garden in the spring.

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

Michael 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

The compost tumblers are used in the early stages of the recycling process.  Michael adds a handful of bokashi, a micro-organism that pre-digests and ferments food waste, to each bucket he hands out to his members.  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. Wood chips are used because a high volume of carbon is needed to balance the high nitrogen content of all the food waste.

The compost then spends time in a Johnson-Su bioreactor, before curing for two to six weeks.

 ‘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.’

He is a big fan of the 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.’

And 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.

‘It’s living compost, full of the organisms which give life to the soil. I’ve looked at it under the microscope – there’s bacteria, protozoa, fungi, nematodes….right up to bigger things like worms.’

Surplus compost that is produced goes into community gardening projects and is also available to buy.

Great Green Systems bought some of the 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.

‘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.’

 He needed more food waste to make more compost so started asking people for it and was soon being offered more than he could use on the allotment.

 ‘People were asking me to take their food waste, because Brighton and 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.’

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.

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.

‘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. I’m trying to become a giant earthworm, I guess!’

Members of Compost Club 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.

 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 is keen 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.’

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.

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

His work energises him and has fostered a sense of what he calls ‘joyful service.’ Sounds like the ideal recipe for the perfect work life balance.

Inside 245 Litre Maze Compost Tumbler

Spare Parts