It all started with the garden, a derelict garden, but with beautiful bones. There were a few grand old trees, a lovely curved wall, and the rest was a wilderness, except for one strip which was planted with sickly cabbages. It stood on the very top of the Cotswold Hills. The soil was shallow and stony, thin, friable, and very, very hungry. The place. had been a neglected farm. There was a yard full of ancient manure, and as long as that lasted, the garden did well. Then the manure gave out and I could get no more. In one season everything went back and I was in despair; I did not know what to do. I instinctively disliked the idea of chemical fertilizers, though at that time I knew nothing about ‘compost’ (this was nearly twenty years ago). Then a friend told me about Dr. Steiner’s method and the Anthroposophical Agricultural Foundation, as their English branch was called. My friend knew of it by hearsay, but it sounded so interesting that I got into touch, joined the Association, and acquired my first experience of compost and compost-making.
I learnt much of intense interest, accepted some of their theories, rejected more, queried the rest. I had some delightful experiences, pre-eminently a visit to Holland to see the Bio-dynamic Farms and the work of Dr. E. Pfeiffer. I learnt to appreciate the quality of compost and the effect it had on the land.
But, as time went on, I realized that the need for compost was both world-wide and urgent, and I saw that it was the millions of smallholders, allotment-holders and gardeners who needed it most, for they were quite unable to get farmyard manure.
The Steiner Method seemed to me to be too complicated to have a universal appeal. The literature was too obscure. The process of making the ‘preparations’ used as activators is secret and is the property of the Association. Moreover, these preparations can only be obtained by a member of the Association. There are of course many who use the preparations and rejoice in the methods. It always remains a question of individual appeal. I look back with real gratitude and much pleasure to their kindly friendship and all I learnt; but we gradually grew apart, and finally came to a parting of the ways, and I withdrew from the Association.
I was, of course, bound by my pledge of secrecy as regards the making of the special ‘preparations’, but I was convinced that there must be some simple way of reaching the same end, and making good compost, moreover a way which could and should be given to all. I told them of this belief, and that I should do my best to find some other method, and, when found, developed and proved, would publish it, and bring it to as many people as I could reach; and further, that as there was, and never had been, any secret about the identity of the wild flowers used in the Steiner method, I felt free to use the same herbs in my experiments.
There was a slight demur, but when I drew the Association’s attention to the fact that, after all, it was not Dr. Steiner who had given either dandelions or nettles to the world, they could only laugh, acquiesce, and we parted the best of friends, mutually wishing each other ‘good luck’.
My boats were burnt; I can confess now that I felt very lost, completely blank, only believing intensely that an idea would come to my help — and come it did. I woke up one morning with the key to the problem in my mind and the words ringing in my head: ‘The Divinity within the flower is sufficient of Itself’.
With the words came the understanding of what they meant: the life, the vitality within the herbs, in the sap. From previous experience I knew it had to be used in homeopathic quantities, according to the homeopathic creed of ‘the power of the infinitely little’.
I started experiments that very day, extracted the juices from the living plants — dandelion, nettle, chamomile, yarrow, valerian, and made an infusion of oak bark.
In 1921, Miss Bruce purchased her own property, a neglected farm at Sapperton between Cirencester and Stroud in the Cotswolds. Initially, she used the manure from the farm to restore and bring life to the stony Cotswold soil, however, the manure eventually ran out and the soil became in desperate need of sustenance. As a means of producing compost, she had heard about the Anthroposophical society through a friend and decided to join. The society based their work on the theories of Rudolf Steiner and Miss Bruce learnt the virtues of biodynamic compost making. Whilst she maintained a good relationship with the society, she had her own thoughts about the methods and decided to move on and follow her own ideas.
Inspiration came in the shape of her theory; ‘The Divinity within the flower is sufficient in itself“. Miss Bruce decided to experiment; she extracted the essences from the flowers used in the biodynamic method (yarrow, chamomile, nettle, dandelion and valerian), combined them with an infusion of oak bark and added honey and at a dilution ratio of 10,000 to 1. Her activator produced a compost of excellent ‘manurial value‘. What made her compost even more special was the speed with which it was produced; Miss Bruce claimed the compost could be made in 4 weeks for a heap made in the spring, 8 weeks for a summer heap, 12 weeks for an autumn heap and hence she named her composting system ‘The Quick Return Method’ and the white powder sold as QR. Furthermore, because of the way in which the activator worked, the heap required no turning. In 1938, L F Easterbrook, the agricultural correspondent from the daily newspaper ‘The News-Chronicle’ wrote an article about Q.R. composting which provoked a huge response. Hundreds of people wrote in asking about the compost and how it was made By 1940, Miss Bruce had written her first book, ‘From Vegetable Waste to Fertile Soil’, concisely describing the Q.R method, the benefits the compost gave to the soil, the health of crops grown in this soil and the well being of those animals and people who fed on them. Miss Bruce’s intention was to make the composting method available to as many people as possible. It was not her aim to gain from it financially, her primary motive was to ‘Give back Life to the soil, and thus eventually abolishing disease in plant, animal and man’. It would also help gardeners and farmers make their own compost where manure was not available and vegetable waste was predominant.
Her second book, ‘Common Sense Compost Making’ was published in 1946, telling the story of Q.R. compost making, partly set amidst the back drop of World War II. The book reached wide acclaim selling untold thousands of copies over the thirty years or so the book was in print and the method became popular in many countries including Canada, Australia and South Africa. Miss Bruce was a founder member of the Soil Association and close friend of Lady Eve Balfour, the founder of the Soil Association, and together they would attend farming shows, such as the Royal show, taking with them samples of the compost in punnets and leaflets on how to make Q.R. compost. Miss Bruce died in 1964, however, during her time on this earth she made a tremendous impact towards achieving her main aim in life; ‘Give back life to the soil, and thus eventually abolishing disease in plant, animal and man’.