Composting is a garden practice that went out of vogue in the 20th century, only to come back into vogue again at the start of the 21st century with the rise of sustainable gardening practices. In October 2009, San Francisco became the first United States City to mandate composting among its residents. However, the history of composting is far older than this.
The origins of composting pre-date written history. Ancient Mesopotamian cultures, such as the Akkadian Empire, wrote of using mixtures of manure and straw in their gardens approximately 1,000 years before the biblical Exodus from Egypt. It's highly probable that prehistoric farmers noticed that plants that were planted in soil near their midden piles flourished better than plants that were not. The Bible and Talmud both speak of using manure and rotted straw to grow plants.
The first compost recipe was invented by Marcus Cato the Elder, a roman farmer and statesmen. Cato's book Di Agri Cultura, which was published around 160 years after the time of Christ, discussed the kind of low-tech sustainable farming practices that returned to vogue with the green movement of the early 21st century. Cato's compost recipe called for mixing oak leaves with animal manure and burying it in trenches around crops such as olive trees to increase the quality of the soil.
Writings by the church as well as a number of scholars indicate that the use of animal manure and straw continued through the fall of Rome, the dark ages, the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. In colonial times, recipes for compost involved mixing 10 parts 'muck,' a mixture of mud and animal manure, with one part fish. The fish was allowed to decompose and then the bones were crushed before the mixture was added to colonial crops to increase their yield.
The rise of the industrial age saw many farmers retreat from traditional compost methods of farming in favor of chemical means. In 1840, scientist Justus von Liebig identified certain chemicals found in soil as being the carriers of nutrients in plants. Liebig, who was building on Leonardo Da Vinci's theory that plants absorbed nutrients from water as they drank, dismissed compost as being inferior to chemical fertilizers because it was insoluble in water.
In 1905 Sir Albert Howard, an agronomist who worked for the British government in India, first developed modern composting. Howard developed the idea that compost should be composed of three times as much plant matter as manure, and that the materials should be layered in sandwich fashion while they deteriorated and then frequently turned to speed decomposure. In 1943 Howard published his findings in a book entitled An Agriculture Testament. Howard's methods were brought to the United States by J.I. Rodale. Rodale expanded on Howard's work and published his findings in a magazine that he began entitled Organic Gardening.