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The Secret Life of Compost by Malcolm Beck

Malcolm Beck’s knowledge of soil and composting came from being a lifelong farmer, as well as years in the composting and recycling business, as founder of his own company – Garden-Ville.

“Malcolm Beck’s intuitive knowledge and lifelong research on the subject of compost and composting gives us a holistic presentation of the process in The Secret Life of Compost,” says John Dromgoole, radio host and organic gardening authority.

In this excerpt, Beck discusses soil microbes, and their role in soil organic material, and how it relates to recycling and composting:

From Part 1: The Why of Composting

There are many beneficial forms of life in the soil. Scientists now tell us there is more tonnage of life and numbers of species in the soil than growing above. All of this life gets its energy from the sun. But only the green leaf plants have the ability to collect the sun’s energy. All other life forms depend on the plant to pass energy to them. The plants above and soil life below depend on each other for their healthy existence and continued survival.

Another beneficial microbe that colonizes plant roots was introduced to me by Mr. Bill Kowalski of Natural Industries. He said he had a microbe that has been shown to knock out a half dozen root rots in the laboratory. At first I told him I was not interested unless it was known to stop cotton root rot, because the only deterrent to a booming apple industry in the hill country of Texas is cotton root rot. He replied it hadn’t been tested on cotton root rot, but he would be glad to give me some if I wanted to try it.

Okra is related to cotton and back when we were farming we planted lots of okra. We had a spot on the farm where the plants suffered from cotton root rot. To test the new microbe, we planted two rows of okra across the root rot spot, then skipped two rows and planted two more rows of okra. The seed in these last two rows had been soaked in the product for a few minutes to ensure they would be inoculated with the microbe.

The Secret Life of Compost
The Secret Life of Compost

After the okra was in full production, Bill came over and we went out to inspect. Immediately we noticed the inoculated okra averaged a full 12 inches taller than the control rows. We walked down the control rows first and pulled up the smaller and weaker looking plants. We found the roots to be badly infected with some form of root rot and also full of root knot nematodes. Inspection of the inoculated row found not a single case of root rot or nematodes.

This was exciting. I immediately called Dr. Jerry Parsons. He came out and did his own inspection, and he too found lots of root rot and nematodes in the control rows but none in the inoculated rows. Then Dr. Parsons told us he had seen microbes such as these tested before and sometimes they worked perfectly, other times a little, and sometimes not at all.

I later contacted Dr. Don Crawford at the University of Idaho about this root rot-destroying microbe. Dr. Crawford originally discovered it. He tells me it is a saprophytic, rhizosphere-colonizing actinomycete, which means it is a microbe that lives on the roots and eats the skin sloughed off by a healthy, normal growing plant. As long as the plant is flourishing and the root is growing and lots of root skin is being shed to feed the actinomycete, it doesn’t let a disease organism or root knot nematodes attack the plant roots.

The soil life and the plant life support each other. Dr. Parsons said the reasons these things don’t always work is because the plants were probably growing so poorly they couldn’t feed the beneficial root colonizer, allowing them to weaken; then the bad guys get a toehold. Hence the Laws of Nature: Destroy the weak and allow survival of the fittest. Without the colonizers feeding and protecting the plant, it falls victim to the natural laws. Weakened plants are attacked by all kinds of pests below and above ground. Nature wants the weak and sick plants to be destroyed. But man interferes. He uses his arsenal of pesticides to keep the unfit plants alive. Then he eats from the poisoned sick plants — and wonders why he gets sick.

The beneficial soil life can perform its job only if we do our part in following six important rules when growing plants.


  1. Use the best adapted varieties for each environment.
  2. Plant in preferred season.
  3. Balance the mineral content of the soil.
  4. Build and maintain the soil organic content — humus.
  5. Do nothing to harm the beneficial soil life.
  6. Consider troublesome insects and diseases as symptoms of one of the above rules having been violated.

Of the above rules, number 4 is the most important. It is the law of recycle and return. When practiced, it supports the other five rules and makes them less important. Because of rules 4 and 6 being ignored or not understood, the big use of pesticide became necessary. As a result, 1.9 billion pounds of pesticide are sold each year in this country.

We recognized and followed these rules on both of our farms. The first farm had a fruit orchard, an acre-and-half garden, and the rest was covered with pecan trees under which we grazed our milk cow and other farm animals. One day Dr. Sam Cotner, the vegetable specialist of Texas A&M, came for a visit. After looking around he said, “Beck, your farm is beautiful. Are you sure you are not using any modern farm chemicals?” I told him our little farm was more of a hobby than a necessity, as I made my living working on the railroad. As an experiment, we kept the farm all organic. He replied, “This is nice but it is not practical on large acreage. We have to feed the world.”

The more I thought of Dr. Cotner’s statement the more I realized a new challenge. We soon sold the little 11-acre place and moved onto a much larger farm where we learned that the larger the area over which you have control, the easier organic farming becomes. You have more different environments to use, more room for rotation, and no close neighbors upsetting the natural balance with toxic sprays.

There are large farms all over the United States that have turned toward a more natural way of growing. And more are changing daily. Many are certified organic, following strict rules and using absolutely no harmful agricultural chemicals of any kind. The certified farms have a niche market and usually get better prices for their products.

In my travels around the country, and because of our business, I get a chance to visit with many farmers and ranchers who are changing or have changed to more natural, organic ways. When I ask what made them decide to change, the answer is always the same: “I was going broke following the modern, conventional ways.”

Modern conventional farming is not all bad. It gives a lot of attention to NPK and other minerals needed to grow crops. But not enough importance is put on the soil life. Many agricultural pesticides and herbicides — and even some of the fertilizers — are harmful to soil life, especially when there isn’t enough organic matter in the soil to supply the energy microbes and earthworms need.

Without this needed energy, the soil life can’t properly process the applied minerals. The minerals may become imbalanced and toxic to the plants. The plants become weak. Then they can’t feed the beneficial root colonizers. The colonizers can’t furnish nutrients or protection to the roots. The plants get sicker. Nature wants to get rid of the sick plants and sends pests to attack and destroy them. Then the farmer is told to use toxic rescue chemistry. The environment, the farmer, and the consumer suffer. It is a vicious cycle. All become losers because of a lack of organic matter in the soil.

Organic materials from sewer plants, landfills, dumps, factories, feedlots, and other sources become waste materials only after we have wasted them. In Nature nothing is wasted, she has no waste. When we recycle an organic product, it immediately becomes a natural resource. When organic resources are recycled back into the life stream, the whole environment comes out a winner. There are no losers. The soil life, plant life and animal life all gain tremendously. And all contribute to man’s well-being so he wins the greatest.

About Malcolm Beck

MALCOLM BECK was a lifelong organic farmer and the founder of Gar­den-Ville, a composting/recycling business and retail horticultural supply house. He spoke widely throughout the country, but was particularly well known in south-central Texas. His Garden-Ville operation has grown from a composting pile on his family farm to a multi-million-yard operation in a few years. His compost, fertilizers, bedding mixes, and soils supply leading landscapers throughout Texas. He authored and co-authored many books on organic gardening, including Lessons in Nature.

This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. original book, The Secret Life of Compost, written by Malcolm Beck. Copyright 1997, softcover, 170 pages. $19.00 regularly priced.