Compost Magazine

Composting tips, advice and science.

Front cover of Compost Science for Gardeners.

Compost Science for Gardeners: Can Robert Pavlis’ Book Help You Create a Thriving Garden?

Compost science is a fascinating topic, but getting a decent grasp of it online often means wading through realms of densely written material. 

Simply put, science-based articles on compost are rarely written for the layperson. 

So when I was recently offered a copy of “Compost Science for Gardeners: Simple Methods for Nutrient Rich Soil” for review I was keen to take a look.

The book is written by experienced (40+ years!) gardener, teacher and speaker Robert Pavlis, and it wasn’t until I started reading the book that I realized I have already spent some time reading his blogs, Garden Myths and Garden Fundamentals

Overview

Despite the name, Compost Science for Gardeners is about more than science.

It’s a useful guide for people new to composting and contains great tips for saving time and eliminating tasks that don’t actually benefit your garden soil.  

Still, science gets 2 dedicated chapters (The Role of Compost in Soil and the Science of Composting), and is permeated throughout the book. 

What I like about the chapters on science (and the book) is that it doesn’t assume knowledge on the part of the reader. 

That’s key, as many of the other sources that could shed a light on the science of composting have an impenetrable thicket of words that keeps the lay composter out. 

There’s none of that with this book, and you’ll find it easy to understand.

(Do make sure to remember what the NPK ratio is, though, as you will need to know this to understand much of the rest of the book.)

Beyond science, you’ll also learn about the different methods of composting and how to use them.

If you’re an experienced composter, don’t expect an in-depth discussion or many new tricks here. 

Pavlis covers the basics of the composting process (Managing the Compost Process) in just 11 pages.

Perhaps that’s because Pavlis really believes composting should be a simple process. He even includes his own, the very easiest: Cut and Drop. (As an avid composter, I did recoil at the lack of traditional composting involved with this!)

However, there’s plenty of (sometimes very skeptical) discussion of different composting methods, with whole chapters devoted to compost tea, Bokashi bins, eco-enzymes and vermicomposting.

The author will also guide you through buying compost, walk you through selecting a composting method and guide you on how to use the compost when it is finished. 

Busting myths

Comfrey plants with vivid violet flowers.

If you’ve ever read Pavlis’ blogs, you’ll know busting gardening myths is a big part of his writing. 

It’s no surprise that myth-busting permeates the book, and the author even has a Facebook group where you can learn more about them.

Comfrey Benefits Exaggerated?

For an example of Pavlis’ myth busting, let’s take the example of Comfrey. 

Comfrey is widely touted as having special nutrient benefits and is often grown for use in compost. Many gardeners believe it is a dynamic accumulator.

Pavlis challenges this, stating:

“A dynamic accumulator is a plant that has much higher nutrition than other plants, and it gets those nutrients from deep in the ground. Comfrey meets neither of these conditions. It is not particularly high in nutrients, and most of its roots are near the surface. It doesn’t really form a taproot either.”

I do get the sense of just a touch of anger at times, which you can also pick up from his blogs. 

There’s also a lot of certainty from the writer, and I am not sure we can be certain about everything involved in gardening and composting. 

One example is how the author criticizes electric kitchen composters, arguing that they only provide dehydrated food. That’s an opinion I shared recently, quite possibly having read one of Pavlis’ blogs on the topic!

However, having recently been sent the most new-fangled kitchen composter to test, I’d have to say that may depend on the device!

Some do use actual microbes, stirring, air and water to break down organic material over a period of weeks.

I was fascinated to see that after throwing soft bread in mine, it had completely disappeared in a few hours. 

I don’t know if it will produce compost yet (I’ve only been testing it for a few days at the time of writing) but at present, I am keeping an open mind. 

That aside, I think the myth-busting covered in the blog could save the average gardener a lot of time, money and effort.

Do you really need all that science?

For centuries, keen gardeners have achieved excellent results without access to the same level of knowledge that is available to us today.

That’s still the case now. I have friends who follow the advice that has been handed down from their fathers.

In the pub, their eyes glaze over their pints of lager when I start talking about no-dig gardening and mycorrhizal fungi (and with decades of experience, you can understand why), but they still get great results. 

Some of the things they do are very much against what we are told to do by those who know science better, from digging the ground to growing vegetables in huge quantities of manure.

There’s no doubt, though, that knowing some of the science can help improve gardening. 

Knowing what to do, and what not to do, is a start, but knowing why (or why not!) can increase motivation. 

It’s also true that some people I know have probably wasted a lot of money on things they don’t need, such as compost activators, and time on things they don’t need to do, such as digging the ground.

So while knowing the science may not be essential, it’s definitely a bonus.

Who’s the book for?

This book will benefit anyone who composts and who is happy to take in a bit of science.

It won’t make you a compost scientist, but it will give you a thorough, clear and well structured introduction to compost science. 

It will also steer you clear of mistakes (and away from composting methods that likely just waste your time), save you money and help you make decisions that will benefit your soil and plants. 

However, you do need to have a passing interest in that science to get the most out of it. 

If you’re not interested in science, and just want a practical How-To guide, you’re probably better off with something like Composting for a New Generation by Michelle Balz. 

For anyone else who’s interested, though, I’d recommend the book.

(2023) and published by New Society Publishers.

Also available on UK Bookshop and Amazon UK.