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The Compost Gardener by F. C. King

I’ve just read The Compost Gardener by F. C. King. Mr King was the Head Gardener at Levens Hall in South Westmorland. South Westmorland became the South Lakeland district of Cumbria in 1974.

The Compost Gardener by F. C. King Cover

The Compost Gardener by F. C. King

The book contains a foreword by Sir Albert Howard, a famous pioneer of the organic movement and the man who brought the Indore method of composting to Britain from India. Sir Albert met Mr King when he was evacuated from his home in Blackheath, London in 1940 to Heversham which was just a mile away from Levens Hall.

Levens Hall’s ten acres of gardens date back to 1690s including the world’s oldest topiary gardens. Even though the days of estate gardens were fading following the First World War, being Head Gardener of something like Levens Hall was a very prestigious position.

As you may infer from the title and association with Sir Albert Howard, Mr King was a proponent of organic growing. He actually uses the term ‘organic’ in his book. This was not common parlance at the time.

Published in WW2

The book was first published in October 1943 and my copy is the second impression from May 1944. It’s a fascinating work and whilst I can’t pretend to agree with all he says, some of his ideas and assertions are both interesting and thought provoking. Where a statement caused my eyebrow to raise, I kept in mind that it must have worked for him. Head gardeners do not last long in the job if their methods fail.

Levens Hall Gardens

Levens Hall Stately Home and Famous Topiary Gardens c. 1880

In some ways they were rather like today’s top football managers, poached to different gardens and tied by contract. The aristocratic owners of the stately homes relied on their gardens to grow superb produce for their tables when entertaining guests and playing games of one-upmanship. During the war the emphasis was on volume, of course.

Mr King was a bit of a maverick, his methods were very much at variance with the accepted wisdom as enshrined in Dig for Victory. Not least in his vehement condemnations of artificial fertilisers. He actually says;

I admit my views are revolutionary in many cases, but evidence is continually pouring in to prove that others who have adopted the same principles are satisfied with the results.

He claims that growing using compost prevented everything from damage by pests like caterpillars and slugs to pigeons eating the crops. I so wish it were true. Incidentally, when he uses the term compost, he seems to include using manures and his favourite additive, sewage sludge.

Attitude to Weeds

Where his work is, in my opinion, really radical and intriguing is his attitude to weeds. Whilst he doesn’t advocate sowing them, he looks on them as a benefit, protecting empty soil. I can see this as it’s a tenet of permaculture not to leave soil naked. When ‘harvested’ the weeds become compost material. Remember convention wisdom, even more so then than now,  is to hoe, hoe, hoe!

He says;

During the late summer and autumn every effort should be made to secure a good crop of weeds, for without a carpet of weed much of the soil fertility is lost.

Surprisingly I find no mentions of green manures which were not unknown albeit uncommon in that period.

He actually uses weeds when growing onions to remove nitrogen from the soil during the ripening process at the end of their growth, thereby ending up with bulbs that store better. Maybe I’ll give that a try myself.

It was interesting where he suggests varieties to grow. Many I’ve not come across that are unavailable today but many that I have. Onions like Ailsa Craig, Bedfordshire Champion and James Long Keeping. Cabbage like Wheeler’s Imperial, French beans like Canadian Wonder and leeks The Lyon, Musselburgh. Gardening changes but the foundations remain.

Feeding the Family in Wartime Cover

Feeding the Family in Wartime

Feeding the Family in Wartime

Another contributor to the work was Mrs Gordon Grant (Doris Grant) with a three page excerpt from her 1943 Feeding the Family in Wartime. Air Albert contributed to this work as well along with others.

In this she recommends cooking methods to improve the vitamin content of food and makes this comment regarding Vitamin C. I found it struck a chord with me as I often hear people saying that blanching isn’t necessary when freezing food. Blanching, of course, destroys the same enzyme.

As soon as vegetables are cut, or shredded, vitamin C is gradually rendered inactive by a substance in the vegetables called an enzyme or ferment. This substance, however, is itself killed at a temperature just under boiling point. The quicker this enzyme is killed by means of water at boiling point, the less loss there will be of vitamin C.

One thing this book really proves is that gardening has had it’s alternative practices for a long time. Those who think organic and alternative methods are new should take note. One of my interests is regenerative agriculture, improving the land. This has become awfully trendy of late. But once again, the methods were well known some 80 years ago at least. Most probably longer than that.

Posted in Allotment Garden Diary
15 comments on “The Compost Gardener by F. C. King
  1. E M B Watson says:

    It sounds like a fascinating read, in what format did you read the book ?

  2. Colin Haworth says:

    A propos compost control of caterpillars etc a certain Mr Habgood, organic fruit grower in Essex I think ( there was an article about him in TheCountryman in the 1970s), and who’s holding I visited one time, said that home produced compost on a field scale made the sap of the trees more alkaline so that aphis, which taste with their feet , move on to other leaves which taste better.

  3. Alyson Laydon says:

    Interesting. One of my neighbours adds horse manure to his compost pile, and also to his water butts. Not sure how I feel about that but his plot always looks lovely.

  4. Robert Bray says:

    If your soil has been well tilled in the past and with only annual weeds to deal with,there maybe gain in this method. Even so, it’s going to need a huge amount of waste material to produce enough compost to cover the soil with required depth of about 4 inches. Any ground with perennial weeds such as bindweed, ground elder and creeping thistle, I would of thought this method would only further encourage.

    • John Harrison says:

      Good point, Robert. His approach wasn’t to stop weeding generally so much as to use the weeds in compost rather than bonfires. I think we have to look at all options and methods, taking on those things that are relevant to our individual situation.
      There’s no ‘One true path’.

      • Robert Bray says:

        I quite agree with you John. In the BBC series The Wartime Kitchen and Garden, the book which accompanies the TV series contains a section about Mr.King and his adoption of the Indore Process at Levens Hall. It would seem later generations are not so impressed with Mr.King’s devotion to compost gardening! I know there are many gardeners on YouTube who advocate putting down a layer of cardboard, before applying the compost,to inhibit perennial weeds. Surely,at best,this would only be temporary.

        • John Harrison says:

          I’d forgotten that in the Wartime Kitchen & Garden! The card covered in compost or, as I do, grass clippings does work to suppress annual weeds. It’s very useful for mulching under fruit bushes – and does encourage worms whilst improving the soil.
          I’m not proud, I’ll steal any good idea I find that helps!

    • John Holland says:

      I’m sure he’s referring to annual weeds only, as no one wants stuff like bindweed growing more than absolutely necessary. I tend to keep shallow-rooted weeds in the ground until sowing and planting, then just uproot them and leave to decay on the spot.
      The volume of compost suggested by no-dig organic growers always amazes me though. I not only compost everything from the kitchen and allotment, but add a great deal of specially gathered stuff to the pile, and I still won’t have enough compost to cover even half the allotment to the depth often suggested.

      • gordonnorris13@gmail.com says:

        My sister-in-law and myself have been working on a 20m ×10m allotment plot and have never managed to produce enough of our own compost, probably a quarter of what we need. But we are lucky as we live on the west coast of Scotland and collect seaweed every week between October and the end of November after every storm when available and that usually provides all the nutrients we need. Hope this helps

  5. Linda Lawson says:

    I really enjoy your e mails I have a quarter allotment which is plenty big enough for one.I am on our local parish council so I have forwarded the water station idea which I think is brilliant. We are fortunate to have mains water and we all have water butts but we would not only save money but more importantly save water. Really good idea. Thank you

  6. Tony Horsley says:

    I leave my compost heap for two years then use it as a top dressing for the spring. And I’ve never found slugs in horse manure or cow manure. Tony

  7. Penny McCrea says:

    General George Washington, the first American president, considered himself a farmer first and soldier/politician second. He’s known as the first American composter. His home, Mt. Vernon, just south of Washington, DC, is well worth a visit for that reason alone.


  8. David Rochester says:

    I too have a standard size allotment of about 90 feet 30 feet and can never produce enough compost for the whole site. I do however add manure to those patches where a rich soil is needed. There is some unstated pressure to run a ‘neat and tidy’ plot however , and failure to do so can result in warnings and eventual eviction. I have back problems ( which gardener doesn’t) and just can’t anymore keep the plot constantly weeded so ,like an earlier correspondence, l tend to leave weeding until l am sowing/ planting and hoe when possible ( no point though in damp weather). Your article gives me hope that l am inadvertently on the right lines!

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