Dare to ask for hair

Ok, so if you’ve read some of the other posts, you’ll know this blog is a little obsessive about composting. You have been warned. The topic of this post is: human hair.

I did a socially challenging thing today: I asked my hairdresser if I could collect my hair (see Cindy Rajhel’s cartoon). She was predictably non-plussed. I quickly explained it was for a community compost project and pointed out that my hair had never been coloured or treated, so it was top of the range stuff for plants. She hesitated a moment and said that er, they didn’t often get asked for hair, but yes, it would of course be fine. Her fellow stylist offered his client’s hair (the cut-off bits on the ground) and soon we had a plastic bag of it.

Instead of talking about what I was doing at the weekend, my hair-dresser and I then engaged in a quasi-philosophical conversation about why we were so squeamish about our own hair. All those shorn locks on the floor: what a waste of nutrients! Yet we gleefully buy packets of ‘Hoof and Horn’ and ‘Blood, Fish and Bone’ to fertilise our gardens. Why do we shun our own stuff? She suggested I start a survey: on a scale of 1 to 10, how squeamish are you about handling human hair? (Do respond using the Comment tab below!)

Which then led me, following my hair-dresser’s scientific spirit, to check the nutrient value of human hair. Sure enough, in 2009, Science Daily reported a study in HortTechnology by Zheljazkov, Silva, Patel, Stojanovic, Lu, Kim and Horgan of Mississippi State University which found that yields in lettuce, wormwood, yellow poppy and feverfew ‘increased relative to the untreated control’; these yields were, however, lower than those where more conventional, inorganic fertilisers had been used. The problem with hair is it takes time – over one and a half years – to break down. Zheljazkov et al.’s conclusion: ‘once the degradation and mineralisation of hair waste starts, it can provide sufficient nutrients to container-grown plants and ensure similar yields to those obtained with the commonly used fertilisers in horticulture.’ So yes, hair is a good but slow-acting fertiliser, and therefore ideal for composting, if not for the commercial growing of lettuce.

The blogosphere is full of discussion about composting human and pet hair. My favorite, less academic, experiment was conducted by Dan Moore of Boulder Vermicomposting. He fed his worms human hair (I told you this post was going to be wierd). Unsurprisingly, they didn’t like it: it clumps too much, doesn’t absorb water and takes a long time to break down. His conclusion was don’t use it on its own to feed worms: you can add it to other compostable materials, just don’t overdo it!

Don’t worry, I won’t. I promise all other LRSP composters that they will not be able to see my hair. The alternative of course is simply to bury it neat at the bottom of one of our raised beds. Another blogger suggests that hair has an ‘amazing capacity for restoring support in soil that is somewhat deficient’. But, as yet another post points out, there is a potential risk: your fellow gardeners, in turning over the soil, may freak out if they believe they’ve uncovered a corpse.



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