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Howard creates land "with good heart"

I have been shoveling loads of compost around a garden. The job was big enough that several of us pitched in to help. One of the guys kept stepping back to admire the result of a bed full of tulips, a weeping cherry in bloom, and just-about-to bloom blueberry bushes surrounded by lush dark compost.

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Image: BBC’s Year at Kew

Fortunately for me, the pile was nowhere near the size of the mountain at Kew or those working farms where the compost piles stand “here and there in the fields like huge pre-historic structures” (Green Thoughts).

The stuff is so good for soil and plants it seems surprising it was not created until Sir Albert Howard, the father of organic gardening, made his discoveries in the 1930s and 40s. Howard had been posted to a British agricultural station in India where he noticed that plant and animal diseases were more prevalent on the government’s artificially fertilized lands than on those farmed by Indians. However, the yields of the Indian farmers, who used no fertilizer except natural manure, were low. (To add manure to soil was the defintion of compost in medieval England.)

Howard had a theory he could make land more productive, and plants more resistant to pests, and he decided to experiment. He discovered that soil was dead without decaying plant matter “cooked” by sun and rain. This is what he called compost. Full of microorganisms, compost brings nature’s eternal cycle of decay and renewal to a farm. It shields plants from drought and freezing, protects them against insects, and is the world’s finest soil conditioner. After he applied compost to his test fields, Howard’s crops became virtually immune to pest attack, and so did his livestock, which easily resisted foot-and-mouth disease.

The trick is making compost efficiently. Howard worked out the process, and described many other aspects of farming organically in An Agricultural Testament, which was published in the 1940s. Organic farmers consider it the most brilliant and helpful treatise on farming ever written.

In the States it’s possible that only one person read Howard’s book, but that man was JI Rodale. The Testament changed his life. He moved to the country, turned a toxic farm into lush proof of Howard’s methods, and started churning out articles and magazines about his experiences. His publications inspired millions of people in America to follow Howard’s advice on creating land “with good heart”. Rather wonderfully, Howard’s influence can be seen in my friends’ pretty garden, in gardens and farms in Britain, including Highgrove, and in farms as far away as India and Australia.

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