My family will tell you that I am positively evangelical about making compost. In fact, I once took on a gardening job just so that I could sort out a family's problem compost pile. It's true! So when Ben Raskin's engaging family guide on how to turn scraps into 'black gold' for your garden arrived on my desk I read it in a single session with a large mug of coffee and the last slice of Lemon Drizzle. (Sorry kids. Mum got to the cake before you, for once.)
Ben is a local boy who lives just down the road in Wiltshire so we took the opportunity to find out a little more about how he got into gardening and why he thinks encouraging young growers is such a great idea. You can read his comments at the bottom. Ben is a father of two who also happens to be Head of Horticulture at the Soil Association so he knows a thing or two about compost and how to get your little growers interested in helping out. His book is utterly child-friendly and is of the sturdy kind, which will happily take being flicked through by grimy fingers. It's held together with metal rivets (so don't leave your toddler alone with it) and the rest is compostable. 'Rot this book - add it to your heap' is stamped on the cover. Not that you'd want to. It's stuffed full of useful information, engagingly presented and written in a warm, humorous way with just the right balance of fact and yuk factor which children adore.
Read it from cover to cover or dip in and out when you feel like it, this book will answer all your family's questions about how the entire composting system works, the difference between hot and cold composts and how to troubleshoot any problems. Children will love the pull-out pages to measure worms, spinning wheels of suitable ingredients, games and stickers. The book is written with the American market in mind with multiple references to 'yards' rather than gardens and charming folksy illustrations but it has universal appeal and ought to be recommended reading for every school gardener. It's produced in association with the Soil Association and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
Here's our interview with Ben about his love of gardening, his earliest gardening experiences and why he thinks inspiring a new generation of growers is a good thing.
Gardening seems to connect with people in a unconscious (if not sometimes spiritual way). Perhaps I sensed as a child that adults somehow seemed happiest when in the garden or was it just that I liked playing with mud? I had a fair amount of exposure to growing as a child, my father grew most of his own vegetables in his garden in Bath and my grandmother was a very skilled gardener. My earliest memories are probably picking peas and beans (thinking I had got them all, only to be told to get back out and finish the job), and going round my grandmothers garden in Wellow picking bunches of flowers to take home to my Mum.
Despite these positive experiences I never really considered gardening as a career although I knew I didn’t want to follow my parents into the legal profession. My love of food took me from catering, via an Ancient History degree and a transformative couple of years living in Italy, to a one year horticultural course at Lackham College (now part of Wiltshire College). Various growing jobs around the UK eventually led me back to the South West to work for the Soil Association in Bristol where, as Head of Horticulture, I now work supporting our 700+ professional fruit and vegetable grower members. I feel very privileged to spend my time working with and for such dedicated and skilled organic producers, and perhaps the biggest perk is that I get to visit farms on a regular basis and learn so much about growing. I only have an allotment now, so miss the practical growing of previous jobs and still struggle with working in an office too many days in a row.
When I was about five years old one of my teachers apparently said to my parents “the trouble with Ben is that he doesn’t seem to understand the difference between work and play” to which they replied “isn’t that great, let’s keep it that way as long as possible”. If you enjoy something – or others make it fun – then it’s not a chore. While there are important messages and wider political context to gardening and compost; food security, dwindling fertility resources, soil erosion, obesity and so the list goes on, I believe the best way to engage people (both children and adults) is to show the excitement and wonder of growing your own food. Even after 20 years in horticulture I still get a thrill as seeds germinate and the first shoots poke from the soil, and the more I learn about what is going on under our feet in the earth the more I want to know. My reason for writing the book is to share this with people, and perhaps encourage them to compost and grow for themselves.
I have 2 children under the age of 4 and both love being in the garden with me, the older one particularly enjoys sowing and weeding (is this one a weed Daddy? as he pulls up yet another beetroot). However gardening is often seen as a pastime, while only those who have “failed” at school are encouraged to look at horticulture as a career. Producing our food is one of the most important roles of a society and yet the UK does not appear to value it or put any investment into it. One of the things I am proudest of being involved in since joining the Soil Association is our Future Growers Apprenticeship and Trainee schemes which trains people to become growers, but we are only scratching at the surface of the issue, we will need thousands more skilled growers to produce our food. A good grounding in the basics as children (even if they forget about it a little as teenagers) is a start.
My top three tips for composting are
- Keep looking at it, and turning it – then you can begin to understand what is happening
- As long as it’s covered then keep it maturing for a long time – this will help the stability (and disease suppressing quality) of the final compost
- A small amount of sieved compost as top dressing for potted plants is the best way to keep them healthy (though doesn’t help the weeds)
to this what's not to love?