A single hen can produce about 10lb of manure a month and is the perfect compost accelerator – although Jason Goodwin is looking a little closer to home to produce his compost this year.
Together with Bill and Melinda Gates, I like an egg and a hen in lay. The Microsoft billionaires and philanthropists have reached the conclusion that raising chickens provides a route out of poverty for millions of women around the world. On Melinda’s website, there’s a picture of a hen divided into sections labelled Education, Empowerment, Financial Security, Health, Entrepreneurship.
Folk wisdom seems to suggest that when a girl takes her eggs to market and starts dreaming like Melinda, she’ll drop the basket and break the eggs, but an earlier philanthropist had a solution for that. ‘Put all your eggs into one basket,’ Andrew Carnegie advised, ‘and watch that basket!’
These days, what gets me excited about going out to the hen house is not so much the eggs as the straw. I see a hen divided into sections marked Eggs, Alarm Clock, Responsibility, Compost. I approach with my fork and wheelbarrow, my eyes fixed on the bedding spread under their perch. It’s a damp straw cake richly ennobled by copious droppings. It’s matted and full of nutrients. Although I’m not going to eat it myself, at least not directly, I have developed an incredible greed for it, fuelled by compost mania.
Fresh chicken manure, as any gardener knows, contains nitrogen, which plants use to photosynthesise and to build cells; potassium, which aids growth and the development of flavour; and phosphorus, the root-builder. A single hen can produce about 10lb of manure a month and it is the perfect compost accelerator.
‘Fresh chicken manure contains nitrogen, which plants use to photosynthesise and to build cells’
I lust after compost, thick as cake and dark as chocolate and smelling of the earth. I want all the muck and all the magic. It’s like the seasonal craving you develop for red meat, as if the rain and cold and the dark nights bring on a creeping anaemia that can only be banished by blood and iron in the diet. Bard me with brisket, stay me with steak and, in the dark watches of the night, whisper to me in the language of stroganoff, the dialects of bourguignon!
I’m in a fever for compost, too. I am a devotee of the Shropshire-born agronomist Sir Albert Howard, who devised the Indore composting method and had the deepest respect for Indian peasants and pests, his twin Professors of Agriculture, as he called them. When I am not tearing cardboard boxes into strips or tossing tea leaves into the kitchen compost, I happily read about compost for hours at a stretch. In her authoritative History of Kitchen Gardens, Susan Campbell describes how gardeners’ boys in the heyday of the potager were instructed, in return for their modest pennies in wages, to spend their own in the compost heap.
‘I’m also tempted by The Humanure Handbook: Shit in a Nutshell by J. C. Jenkins’
I recommend the bucket-by-the-back-door method, myself. Urine is sterile. It contains plenty of the magic nitrogen and I refer naysayers to a study that found greenhouse tomatoes fertilised with a mixture of human urine and ash yielded nearly four times more tomatoes as non-fertilised plants. So there.
Not everyone is happy about the bucket. Kate approves, although she’s reluctant to contribute until the weather gets better. The children are less sure – it seems to them a little offensive. They should count themselves lucky.
I’ve been reading Harnessing the Earthworm by Dr Thomas J. Barrett, but I’m also tempted by The Humanure Handbook: Shit in a Nutshell by J. C. Jenkins. The youth would be horrified, but Sir Albert would approve.
Jason Goodwin undertakes a family cycle ride along the Danube.
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Jason Goodwin was feeling decidedly nostalgic for village life — until he had a run-in with one of its discontents.
Jason Goodwin looks at his nearly-fully-grown children and wonders how it all came to this. (In a good way.)jas