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

Christmas eco gifts give back to the planet

Christmas Green Johanna

‘Tis the month before Christmas when all through the house not a single thing’s stirring except Rachel’s mouse…

Still on her laptop at midnight, Rachel’s searching for gifts for the family that won’t cost the earth but also won’t cost the Earth.

She’s hit on a solution for her husband Paul’s parents, Dick and Liddy, who are so tricky to buy for. They say they don’t want any more presents because they already have everything they need. And Dick says he doesn’t need any more gloves because he’s not an octopus. Ditto socks.

They’re already keen recyclers and want to do their bit for the environment in an easy way for people in their eighties.

So how about a Green Cone food waste digester? It takes all food waste, even bones, and no stirring or turning is required. It doesn’t produce compost, but that’s OK; Dick and Liddy will be perfectly happy with the nutritious soil conditioner that will seep from the underground waste basket into their flower beds once worms and microbes have broken down the food scraps.

Dick will like the fact that they’re in control of their own food waste, turning something that harms the planet in landfill to something that heals it by nourishing the soil. Liddy will love the idea that, in their own small way, they’re doing something to save the planet for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The little we can do is a lot – that’s Liddy’s motto.

Composting for a busy brother

For her brother Stephen, who is officially the busiest man on the planet (which he would love to save if he could only get the staff), Rachel plans to get a Green Johanna hot composter. He’s seen Paul and Rachel’s Johanna at work in their garden and has even been known to make himself useful by emptying the kitchen caddy into it. The idea of having a ready supply of his own free compost would definitely appeal too.

Green Johanna Winter Jacket

Worm-farming for children

Stephen’s wife Jill would also like to save the earth; she just doesn’t want it being traipsed through the house on the children’s muddy boots. So Rachel thought a great present for their children, Billie and Ben, would be a wormery. She managed to sell the idea to Stephen by saying it would get the kids interested in eco-science (anything educational always gets his vote), and Jill agreed when she knew the Maze Worm Farm could be kept in the shed. Rachel knows the kids will be fascinated by the process, and if through harvesting their own vermicompost they gain a passion for gardening, well…that’s the very definition of a gift that keeps on giving.

Rachel suspects it might become her job to teach her niece and nephew how to harvest the compost, but it will be more than worth it to see them giggle when she tells them that this nutritious soil food is essentially the worms’ poo. If you’re under 10 it doesn’t get much funnier than that.

Gifts for the eco-conscious young

What could be better for Rachel and Paul’s son, George, than a Compost Tumbler for the back yard of his student house? The compost it produces will come in handy for all their potted plants and vegetable raised beds, as well as at the  community garden where they help out.  

And a useful stocking filler would be a kitchen cooking oil container. George has taken on the job of storing his household’s used oil in various containers to take to the local recycling centre where it’s collected to be turned into electricity. But this purpose-built 3 litre container with its secure lid will make it so much easier to store and transport the oil.

George has had to stop his housemates pouring their used oil down the sink, which they thought was the right thing to do. In fact, what happens is the oil binds with other objects that should never have been flushed away, creating huge fatbergs that block sewers. Everybody thinks their own little bit of oil can’t do any harm but try telling that to the engineers who get the lovely job of breaking down these monster blockages so that the rest of us can flush the toilet confident the waste will just disappear. Sewage backflow anyone?

Every millilitre adds up. Isn’t this at the heart of recycling? Grandma Liddy says: The little we can do is a lot. And she’s right; there are no small acts.

A present for the planet

For Millie, George’s girlfriend, Rachel will get a bokashi bin. Millie showed great interest in Paul and Rachel’s Maze Bokashi Bin when she saw it on their kitchen worktop and was fascinated when Rachel explained the anaerobic process which ferments all food waste, turning it into pre-compost. Well, not every girl wants scented candles…

14 litre Maze Bokashi Bin

Millie will be able to feed her houseplants with the diluted bokashi ‘tea’ fertiliser that drains from the contents of the bokashi bin. The tea can also be used concentrated as organic drain cleaner. Another freebie – what’s not to like? When the food waste has fermented to become pre-compost pulp, she will add it as an accelerator to the Compost Tumbler to break down into compost.

Paul suggested that with all this festive recycling going on, perhaps he could give back to Stephen and Jill the flashing-nose Rudolph jumper they gave him last Christmas?

Rachel said no.

Spare Parts