The Beauty of Compost

May 25 2015

Rodale News
by Matthew Benson

Source: Joy Ito

Healthy dirt forms the building blocks of a beautiful garden.

The garden soil you begin with will most likely need to be amended before you plant out your precious seedlings. Even if your future garden site supports a lawn, it may not have the nutritional strength necessary for fruiting plants and hungry vegetable crops. If you’ve had your soil tested, you know what to add and—hopefully—when to add it for the best results. But if you’re flying without a net, as gardeners often do, you really can’t go wrong by applying compost.

Incorporating ½ to 1 inch of compost into the soil each growing season is a reasonably sound soil-care program that will add modest amounts of nutrients along with organic matter to support both good drainage and moisture retention. For a new garden bed, cover the surface with 1 to 2 inches of compost or composted manure and dig or till it into the top 4 to 6 inches of the soil. Incorporate compost in fall and then mulch the bed with straw or wood chips to protect the soil from weathering during winter. In spring, pull back the mulch to let the bed warm for early crops then plant into the compost-enriched soil. Or leave compost atop the garden as a protective winter mulch and incorporate it in spring as you prepare beds for planting.

For the most part, your garden will thrive as you build the soil and nourish the plants according to their specific needs. Your soil will need amendments, fertilization, and remineralization to restore the nutrients that hungry fruit and vegetable crops require. Remineralizing, in particular, is as essential as composting when it comes to soil health, fertility, and the nutrient density of what you grow: The healthier the soil, the more nutrient-packed and healthful the food it produces.

My Compost Philosophy
Think of this as a patient, steady process—a way of providing a healthy, balanced diet for both soil and plants—rather than as some super-supplement pill that top-loads plants with a megadose of nutrients while doing nothing to contribute to the long-term health and fertility of the soil that supports them.

I’ve been amending my beds and soil for years with composted horse manure from a friend’s stables. He lets me load the previous year’s piles into my pickup each spring, and it’s become something of a ritual. His horses look on, seemingly amused by my compulsive shoveling of their waste. Once, his 10-year-old chestnut gelding stood curiously by as I shoveled composted manure into the truck, then slowly approached and brushed his long, warm muzzle against my shoulder as if to ask, “What are you doing with my poop?” I love this horse, with his sweet and massive tenderness.

My compost is a mix of last year’s greens and carbons and manures left to cold compost in a large contained pile along the edge of the orchard. I think that not rushing compost and allowing all of its richness to form into complex soils, as nature does (over time), is the best for all the bacteria, fungi, and microorganisms—and human energy—involved.

Quick-and-hot composting can kill a lot of the beneficial life you’re trying to preserve. Besides the organic vegetable waste from the farm’s harvests, we add fall leaves and straw and have a small electric chipper to shred plant stalks and stems into biodegradable, manageable pieces. I’ll also add richly soiled straw bedding from the chicken coop in fall and early spring, along with aged horse manure, and turn it into the pile. The mound gets worked and turned only occasionally and produces a healthy, friable soil every season.

There’s a lot of blather about the do’s and don’ts of composting, and some folks seem to get so caught up in the conversation that they lose track of why they’re composting in the first place. Some composting methods can seem daunting, full of arcane references to organic chemistry that will remind you of why you dropped out of pre-med. Composting does feel like a kind of alchemy, turning waste into something rich and viable, and it appeals to our resourceful, enterprising spirit as growers, but it’s not the end-all. Make it a part of what you do, not the whole point.

The compost you make should resemble the one nature makes on her own: deep brown, crumbly, full of organic matter. With the right mix of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials, water, and air, plant material will decompose, worked on by millions of tireless microorganisms, and regenerate itself as soil.

What to Compost
While you may need to forage locally for ingredients for compost making, there should be little need to buy materials to put in the pile or bin. Our gardens, lawns, landscapes, and kitchens typically provide plenty of raw materials for the composting process, with the exception of animal manures, which you may need to seek out if you don’t have a few critters of your own.

The more diverse the materials that go into the compost pile, the more nutritionally varied the outcome. With the exception of meat scraps, dairy products, and greasy foods and quantities of oil (they’ll put up a stink and attract pests), put all the organic wastes from the kitchen and garden into the compost pile: eggshells, coffee grounds, tea leaves, fruit peels, vegetable trimmings, cooked pasta, crumbs from the bottom of the cereal or cracker bag, bread scraps, and more. Almost everything you eat can be converted to compost.

From the garden and landscape, collect weeds, fading plants and plant parts, grass clippings, fall leaves, twigs and branches, stems of perennials cut back for winter, cornstalks, and ornamental grasses. We use a small electric mulcher, or shredder, to break down thicker plant stalks, and you can also use a mulching mower to break down small twigs and leaves.

Don’t despair if you lack a lawn or trees to yield clippings and leaves. Often these can be picked up from local curbsides during municipal yard waste collections. Or your local government agency may have a central collection point where it produces “compost” or wood chips that are free to residents. Not surprisingly, municipal products can be highly variable—not everyone is scrupulous about what they toss into the leaf pile or drop off at the collection facility. To be safe, you can get your yard waste from a friend or neighbors you know are tending their landscape without a chemical soup of weedkillers or toxic pesticides.

Green grass clippings are known as the “manure of suburbia” and can boost microbial activity in a compost pile with their high-octane shot of nitrogen. A combination of chopped dry leaves and fresh grass clippings makes a fine compost mix without anything else added.

To the rich mix of plant wastes from home and garden, add manure if it is available. Skip the wastes of carnivores—no dog or cat droppings in the compost—because they can carry disease organisms that can affect humans. The bedding from a chicken coop, the material from beneath a rabbit hutch, and straw and manure from stables or barns that house horses, cows, sheep, goats, and llamas are all nutritionally potent additions to the compost.

How Compost Happens
While it might seem like you are doing most of the work of transforming all this organic waste into compost, your contribution actually pales in comparison to the labors of countless microorganisms (and there are billions of them in a gram of compost, including bacteria, fungi, and protozoa) that munch their way through the heap.

Launching a successful compost project is quite simple, but what happens to the assembled materials is remarkably complex. Compost ingredients can be generally classified as either “browns” (carbon) or “greens” (nitrogen), and they represent the two main nutrients required. While each material contains its own ratio of these nutrients, and complex algorithms can be devised to perfectly balance the amounts of each that go into a compost pile, there’s really little need for that level of scrutiny.

As a general rule, a compost pile should be constructed of two or three parts of carbon/brown materials to one part of nitrogen/green materials by volume, typically expressed as a 3:1 ratio. Think of two or three bags of dry leaves mixed with one bag of fresh, moist grass clippings or a similar amount of manure.

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Dec 2023