Compost for Sustainable Soil Fertility & Disease Suppression

ABOUT A THIRD of farm energy used for food growing supplies fertility. In Florida alone, the energy used to manufacture the 2 million tons of food crop fertilizer each year equals the energy content of 100 million gallons of diesel fuel. Thus, recycling or composting waste materials into fertilizers and mulches can save energy while reducing pollution and enhancing human and crop health.

In the book Farmers of Forty Centuries; Or, Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, early-1900s agricultural scientist Franklin Hiram King observed amazing levels of soil productivity where rural and urban human wastes were recycled back to the land and farmers planted legume (e.g. soybean; adzuki bean; clover) and other green manure cover crops and crop rotations.

“Japanese society once faced the prospect of collapse due to environmental degradation, and the fact that it did not is what makes it such an instructive example,” writes Azby Brown in his 2010 book, Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan. “Japan entered the Edo period in 1603 facing extreme difficulties in obtaining building timber, suffering erosion and watershed damage due to having clear-cut so many of its mountains for lumber, and virtually unable to expand agricultural production…All the more remarkable, then, that 200 years later the same land was supporting 30 million people-2.5 times the population…Deforestation had been halted and reversed, farmland improved and made more productive, conservation implemented…Overall living standards had increased, and the people were better fed, housed, and clothed, and they were healthier. By any objective standard, it was a remarkable feat, arguably unequalled anywhere else, before or since.”

Human waste, euphemistically called night soil, became a valuable soil fertility commodity in old Japan. Perhaps not quite worth its weight in gold, but a valuable commodity bought, sold, traded, and transported long distances from cities to farms. Rather than causing cholera and other diseases by entering the water supply as was common in European cities of the same era, sanitation and composting blessed Japan with multiple dividends. Considerable energy was “expended on toilet design to allow these waste products to be easily collected and processed,” writes Brown. This has culminated in modern dry composting toilets that “by allowing natural composting heat to occur inside a well-ventilated compartment…turn human waste into a dry, nearly odorless compound that looks and feels like peat moss.”

Farmers in old Japan spent their own money to “build toilets and urinals along well-traveled roads for public use, in the hopes of increasing their yields of fertilizer.” Contrast this with the modern difficulty of finding a decent, well-maintained public toilet along roadsides or in cities. China, says Brown, “is poised to become the global leader in composting toilets, partly because relatively few communities are served by the sewer infrastructure and the government is promoting these new designs as an attractive alternative that will help mitigate its freshwater problems as well.”

In the modern Western world, scientists in Germany and the USA have advanced the conversion of animal manures and green plant wastes into composts and tea sprays that boost plant growth and suppress pests. Though long a staple of biodynamics and organic gardening, in the 1980s University of Bonn researchers like Heinrich Weltzien, Andreas Trankner and Ketterer provided experimental proof that watery compost tea sprays high in beneficial microbes reduced powdery mildew on grapes and late blight disease on potatoes. Indeed, in some experiments compost tea sprays formulated from grape marc, earthworm compost, and animal manures equalled synthetic fungicides.

In the USA, in 1969 reports surfaced that some Ohio nursery growers had conquered root rot diseases in rhododendrons, cyclamens, and other ornamentals using pine bark composts and no longer needed methyl bromide soil fumigations. Ohio State University’s Harry Hoitink embarked on scientific studies of this phenomena. To reliably control the plant pathogens causing root rots and other soil diseases, hardwood bark composts were aged like fine wines for 6-12 months or fortified with special biocontrol microbes. In Australia, eucalyptus bark is similarly composted to combat Pythium and Phytophthora root rot pathogens in container or potted plant soils and avocado orchards.

Insect pests can also be controlled with composts. For example, Cornell entomologists like Michael Villani and Roxanne Broadway stopped white grub beetle larvae from attacking turf and lawns using crude proteins extracted from composted leaves and kitchen food wastes. Composted chicken manure and feathers worked best against caterpillars (moth larvae). Cornell University’s Eric Nelson and others have spent years formulating composts to combat root rots on golf greens and maladies like dollar spot and brown patch.

It may take a year or two of aging to brew the right combination of pest-suppressive beneficial microbes in composts. In Japan, composted golf course grass clippings are specially inoculated with a strain of the beneficial bacteria Bacillus subtilis to hasten suppression of the fungus Rhizoctonia solani on golf courses.

However, compost is not always a quick cure. For example, several years of compost applications are needed to control soybean cyst nematodes in agricultural fields or to restore Japanese forest soils. That is because plant ecosystems are complex adapative systems.

15 Responses to Compost for Sustainable Soil Fertility & Disease Suppression

  1. Thank you so much for making this available.

  2. All this information is so helpful. I grow my own vegetables, prepare them, and lose weight for my efforts. I am also well liked by my neighbors because I share.

  3. There is plain a lot for me to discover outside of my books. Thanks for the wonderful read,

  4. Kudos from one brainiac to another. 🙂

  5. Charlie Whipple says:


    When I first came to Japan (1961) there was a compost pit in the corner of almost every rice paddy or group of rice paddies. Most rural homes had what we called “plop-type” toilets where waste dropped directly into a holding tank. It was not a pleasant place to spend minutes contemplating your own navel. Waste collectors came around with long-handled bucket-scoops with which they could reach into the holding tank from the side and remove the waste, which went into “honey buckets” on small hand carts. The household from which the refuse was removed paid a small fee for the pickup, and the farmer in whose compost pit the refuse went also paid a small fee. Thus the honey bucket men could make a living (never saw a honey bucket woman. May have been some kind of glass ceiling involved).

    In feudal Japan, honey bucket men paid for the refuse as they could get more money from the farmers. They paid higher prices for refuse from upper class homes, the logic being the better a household eats, the more nutrients are in its refuse. We’ve come a long way since then.

    Chemical fertilizers sicken the land. It loses a great deal when they are used.

    Joel replies: Thank you for the insightful comment, Charlie. I had no idea these practices continued.

    • Fascinating. I am working on a book called “Japan’s Tipping Point” about Japan’s need to re-invent its own past while adopting a crash program of renewable energy. I was in Japan for six weeks soon after the Fukushima disaster, and I learned about the importance of “night soil” in the Edo period when I was touring the Edo-Tokyo Museum. I got my friend to take my picture holding the double buckets of crap on a pole across my shoulders. Charlie Whipple talks about the honey bucket men from 1961. I doubt they ply their trade any more, as Japan has “modernized” with a vengeance with heated toilet seats etc. But when I was in Yusuhara (population 3900), a mountain village on the island of Shikoku, I found that the town is recycling human waste. Here is that section from my work-in-progress:

      I visited another Yusuhara factory that did make sense. This quasi-government private company makes compost. Forty percent of the human excrement in Yusuhara goes into composting toilets. Plant manager Kimio Ono, who plays one of the characters in the kagura play, took us on a tour. The waste is collected from the toilets and brought to an underground cement tank. It is then mixed with left-over food from restaurants and other organic matter, heated, and fermented. After 120 days of being moved down the building, it is turned into packaged compost, selling for only 250 yen per bag. They also save money otherwise spent on sewage treatment. I told them that in America, no one would allow compost made from human manure to be sold as compost, because people think that somehow their own shit is more disgusting than that of cows or horses.

  6. Soils says:

    such as compost on your lawn each year to restore valuable nutrients and build soil structure. -Soils

  7. Ryan Acklus says:

    This is right on!
    Compost is very important.
    I have come across some fascinating stuff on the use of fungal dominant compost and the applications of compost tea.

    check this out you all will love this

    the website is:

    Joel replies: Thanks, Ryan. You are indeed really into this!

  8. This post was inspired by a long weekend I spent brow(s)ing your blog! So thanks for what you do, and thanks for your comments here.This is awesome! Thanks man!

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  12. […] as mentioned in a previous blog post titled “Compost for Sustainable Soil Fertility & Disease Suppression,” Japanese cities adopted a more sustainable approach and thereby escaped the cholera epidemics […]

  13. […] in various ways, including via soil pH adjustments, tillage systems, cropping sequences, fallows, composts, amendments, nutrients, etc. The specifics can vary widely among crops, individual fields, regions, […]

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