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Organic Gardener's

by Steve Solomon


What Is Compost

    Do you know what really happens whenthings rot? Have other garden books confused you with vague meanings for words like"stabilized humus?" This book won't. Are you afraid that compost makingis a nasty, unpleasant, or difficult process? It isn't.

    A compost pile is actually a fast-trackmethod of changing crude organic materials into something resembling soil, calledhumus. But the word "humus" is often misunderstood, along with the words"compost," and "organic matter." And when fundamental ideas likethese are not really defined in a person's mind, the whole subject they are a partof may be confused. So this chapter will clarify these basics.

    Compost making is a simple process.Done properly it becomes a natural part of your gardening or yard maintenance activities,as much so as mowing the lawn. And making compost does not have to take any moreeffort than bagging up yard waste.

    Handling well-made compost is alwaysa pleasant experience. It is easy to disregard compost's vulgar origins because thereis no similarity between the good-smelling brown or black crumbly substance dug outof a compost pile and the manure, garbage, leaves, grass clippings and other wasteproducts from which it began.

    Precisely defined, composting means'enhancing the consumption of crude organic matter by a complex ecology of biologicaldecomposition organisms.' As raw organic materials are eaten and re-eaten by many,many tiny organisms from bacteria (the smallest) to earthworms (the largest), theircomponents are gradually altered and recombined. Gardeners often use the terms organicmatter, compost, and humus as interchangeable identities. But there are importantdifferences in meaning that need to be explained.

    This stuff, this organic matter wefood gardeners are vitally concerned about, is formed by growing plants that manufacturethe substances of life. Most organic molecules are very large, complex assemblieswhile inorganic materials are much simpler. Animals can break down, reassemble anddestroy organic matter but they cannot create it. Only plants can make organic materialslike cellulose, proteins, and sugars from inorganic minerals derived from soil, airor water. The elements plants build with include calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus,sodium, sulfur, iron, zinc, cobalt, boron, manganese, molybdenum, carbon, nitrogen,oxygen, and hydrogen.

    So organic matter from both land andsea plants fuels the entire chain of life from worms to whales. Humans are most familiarwith large animals; they rarely consider that the soil is also filled with animallife busily consuming organic matter or each other. Rich earth abounds with singlecell organisms like bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, protozoa, and rotifers. Soillife forms increase in complexity to microscopic round worms called nematodes, variouskinds of mollusks like snails and slugs (many so tiny the gardener has no idea theyare populating the soil), thousands of almost microscopic soil-dwelling members ofthe spider family that zoologists call arthropods, the insects in all their profusionand complexity, and, of course, certain larger soil animals most of us are familiarwith such as moles. The entire sum of all this organic matter: living plants, decomposingplant materials, and all the animals, living or dead, large and small is sometimescalled biomass. One realistic way to gauge the fertility of any particularsoil body is to weigh the amount of biomass it sustains.

    Humus is a special and veryimportant type of decomposed organic matter. Although scientists have been intentlystudying humus for a century or more, they still do not know its chemical formula.It is certain that humus does not have a single chemical structure, but is a verycomplex mixture of similar substances that vary according to the types of organicmatter that decayed, and the environmental conditions and specific organisms thatmade the humus.

    Whatever its varied chemistry, allhumus is brown or black, has a fine, crumbly texture, is very light-weight when dry,and smells like fresh earth. It is sponge-like, holding several times its weightin water. Like clay, humus attracts plant nutrients like a magnet so they aren'tso easily washed away by rain or irrigation. Then humus feeds nutrients back to plants.In the words of soil science, this functioning like a storage battery for mineralsis called cation exchange capacity. More about that later.

    Most important, humus is the last stagein the decomposition of organic matter. Once organic matter has become humus it resistsfurther decomposition. Humus rots slowly. When humus does get broken down by soilmicrobes it stops being organic matter and changes back to simple inorganic substances.This ultimate destruction of organic matter is often called nitrification becauseone of the main substances released is nitrate -that vital fertilizer that makesplants grow green and fast.

    Probably without realizing it, manynon-gardeners have already scuffed up that thin layer of nearly pure humus formingnaturally on the forest floor where leaves and needles contact the soil. Most Americanswould be repelled by many of the substances that decompose into humus. But, fastidiousas we tend to be, most would not be offended to barehandedly cradle a scoop of humus,raise it to the nose, and take an enjoyable sniff. There seems to be something builtinto the most primary nature of humans that likes humus.

    In nature, the formation of humus isa slow and constant process that does not occur in a single step. Plants grow, dieand finally fall to earth where soil-dwelling organisms consume them and each otheruntil eventually there remains no recognizable trace of the original plant. Onlya small amount of humus is left, located close to the soil's surface or carried tothe depths by burrowing earthworms. Alternately, the growing plants are eaten byanimals that do not live in the soil, whose manure falls to the ground where it comesinto contact with soil-dwelling organisms that eat it and each other until thereremains no recognizable trace of the original material. A small amount of humus isleft. Or the animal itself eventually dies and falls to the earth where ....

    Composting artificially acceleratesthe decomposition of crude organic matter and its recombination into humus. Whatin nature might take years we can make happen in weeks or months. But compost thatseems ready to work into soil may not have quite yet become humus. Though brown andcrumbly and good-smelling and well decomposed, it may only have partially rotted.

    When tilled into soil at that point,compost doesn't act at once like powerful fertilizer and won't immediately contributeto plant growth until it has decomposed further. But if composting is allowed toproceed until virtually all of the organic matter has changed into humus, a greatdeal of biomass will be reduced to a relatively tiny remainder of a very valuablesubstance far more useful than chemical fertilizer.

    For thousands of years gardeners andfarmers had few fertilizers other than animal manure and compost. These were alwaysconsidered very valuable substances and a great deal of lore existed about usingthem. During the early part of this century, our focus changed to using chemicals;organic wastes were often considered nuisances with little value. These days we arerediscovering compost as an agent of soil improvement and also finding out that wemust compost organic waste materials to recycle them in an ecologically sound manner.

Making Compost

    The closest analogies to compostingI can imagine are concocting similar fermented products like bread, beer, or sauerkraut.But composting is much less demanding. Here I can speak with authority, for duringmy era of youthful indiscretions I made homebrews good enough have visitors aroundmy kitchen table most every evening. Now, having reluctantly been instructed in moderationby a liver somewhat bruised from alcohol, I am the family baker who turns out twoor three large, rye/wheat loaves from freshly ground grain every week without fail.

    Brew is dicey. Everything must be sterilizedand the fermentation must go rapidly in a narrow range of temperatures. Should strayorganisms find a home during fermentation, foul flavors and/or terrible hangoversmay result. The wise homebrewer starts with the purest and best- suited strain ofyeast a professional laboratory can supply. Making beer is a process suited to theprecisionist mentality, it must be done just so. Fortunately, with each batch weuse the same malt extracts, the same hops, same yeast, same flavorings and, if weare young and foolish, the same monosaccarides to boost the octane over six percent.But once the formula is found and the materials worked out, batch after batch comesout as desired.

    So it is with bread-making. The ingredientsare standardized and repeatable. I can inexpensively buy several bushels of wheat-and rye-berries at one time, enough to last a year. Each sack from that purchasehas the same baking qualities. The minor ingredients that modify my dough's qualitiesor the bread's flavors are also repeatable. My yeast is always the same; if I usesourdough starter, my individualized blend of wild yeasts remains the same from batchto batch and I soon learn its nature. My rising oven is always close to the sametemperature; when baking I soon learn to adjust the oven temperature and baking timeto produce the kind of crust and doneness I desire. Precisionist, yes. I must bakeevery batch identically if I want the breads to be uniformly good. But not impossiblyrigorous because once I learn my materials and oven, I've got it down pat.

    Composting is similar, but differentand easier. Similar in that decomposition is much like any other fermentation. Differentin that the home composter rarely has exactly the same materials to work with frombatch to batch, does not need to control the purity and nature of the organisms thatwill do the actual work of humus formation, and has a broad selection of materialsthat can go into a batch of compost. Easier because critical and fussy people don'teat or drink compost, the soil does; soil and most plants will, within broad limits,happily tolerate wide variations in compost quality without complaint.

    Some composters are very fussy andmuch like fine bakers or skilled brewers, take great pains to produce a materialexactly to their liking by using complex methods. Usually these are food gardenerswith powerful concerns about health, the nutritional quality of the food they growand the improved growth of their vegetables. However, there are numerous simpler,less rigorous ways of composting that produce a product nearly as good with muchless work. These more basic methods will appeal to the less-committed backyard gardeneror the homeowner with lawn, shrubs, and perhaps a few flower beds. One unique methodsuited to handling kitchen garbage--vermicomposting (worms)--might appeal even tothe ecologically concerned apartment dweller with a few house plants.

An Extremely Crude Composting Process

    I've been evolving a personally-adaptedcomposting system for the past twenty years. I've gone through a number of methods.I've used and then abandoned power chipper/shredders, used home-made bins and thenswitched to crude heaps; I've sheet composted, mulched, and used green manure. Ifirst made compost on a half-acre lot where maintaining a tidy appearance was a reasonableconcern. Now, living in the country, I don't have be concerned with what the neighborsthink of my heaps because the nearest neighbor's house is 800 feet from my compostarea and I live in the country because I don't much care to care what my neighborsthink.

    That's why I now compost so crudely.There are a lot of refinements I could use but don't bother with at this time. Istill get fine compost. What follows should be understood as a description of myunique, personal method adapted to my temperament and the climate I live in. I startthis book off with such a simple example because I want you to see how completelyeasy it can be to make perfectly usable compost. I intend this description for inspiration,not emulation.

    I am a serious food gardener. Startingin spring I begin to accumulate large quantities of vegetation that demand handling.There are woody stumps and stalks of various members of the cabbage family that usuallyoverwinter in western Oregon's mild winters. These biennials go into bloom by Apriland at that point I pull them from the garden with a fair amount of soil adheringto the roots. These rough materials form the bottom layer of a new pile.

    Since the first principle of abundantliving is to produce two or three times as much as you think you'll need, my overly-largegarden yields dozens and dozens of such stumps and still more dozens of uneaten savoycabbages, more dozens of three foot tall Brussels sprouts stalks and cart loads ofenormous blooming kale plants. At the same time, from our insulated but unheatedgarage comes buckets and boxes of sprouting potatoes and cart loads of moldy uneatenwinter squashes. There may be a few crates of last fall's withered apples as well.Sprouting potatoes, mildewed squash, and shriveled apples are spread atop the baseof brassica stalks.

    I grow my own vegetable seed wheneverpossible, particularly for biennials such as brassicas, beets and endive. Duringsummer these generate large quantities of compostable straw after the seed is thrashed.Usually there is a big dry bean patch that also produces a lot of straw. There arevegetable trimmings, and large quantities of plant material when old spring-sownbeds are finished and the soil is replanted for fall harvest. With the first frostin October there is a huge amount of garden clean up.

    As each of these materials is acquiredit is temporarily placed next to the heap awaiting the steady outpourings from our2-1/2 gallon kitchen compost pail. Our household generates quite a bit of garbage,especially during high summer when we are canning or juicing our crops. But we haveno flies or putrid garbage smells coming from the compost pile because as each bucketfulis spread over the center of the pile the garbage is immediately covered by severalinches of dried or wilted vegetation and a sprinkling of soil.

    By October the heap has become aboutsix feet high, sixteen feet long and about seven feet wide at the base. I've madeno attempt to water this pile as it was built, so it is quite dry and has hardlydecomposed at all. Soon those winter rains that the Maritime northwest is famousfor arrive. From mid-October through mid-April it drizzles almost every day and rainsfairly hard on occasion. Some 45 inches of water fall. But the pile is loosely stackedwith lots of air spaces within and much of the vegetation started the winter in adry, mature form with a pretty hard "bark" or skin that resists decomposition.Winter days average in the high 40s, so little rotting occurs.

    Still, by next April most of the pilehas become quite wet. Some garbagey parts of it have decomposed significantly, othersnot at all; most of it is still quite recognizable but much of the vegetation hasa grayish coating of microorganisms or has begun to turn light brown. Now comes theonly two really hard hours of compost-making effort each year. For a good part ofone morning I turn the pile with a manure fork and shovel, constructing a new pilenext to the old one.

    First I peel off the barely-rottedouter four or five inches from the old pile; this makes the base of the new one.Untangling the long stringy grasses, seed stalks, and Brussels sprout stems fromthe rest can make me sweat and even curse, but fortunately I must stop occasionallyto spray water where the material remains dry and catch my wind. Then, I rearrangethe rest so half-decomposed brassica stumps and other big chunks are placed in thecenter where the pile will become the hottest and decomposition will proceed mostrapidly. As I reform the material, here and there I lightly sprinkle a bit of soilshoveled up from around the original pile. When I've finished turning it, the newheap is about five feet high, six feet across at the bottom, and about eight feetlong. The outside is then covered with a thin layer of crumbly, black soil scrapedup where the pile had originally stood before I turned it.

    Using hand tools for most kinds ofgarden work, like weeding, cultivating, tilling, and turning compost heaps is notas difficult or nearly as time consuming as most people think if one has the proper,sharp tools. Unfortunately, the knowledge of how to use hand tools has largely disappeared.No one has a farm-bred grandfather to show them how easy it is to use a sharp shovelor how impossibly hard it can be to drive a dull one into the soil. Similarly, weedingwith a sharp hoe is effortless and fast. But most new hoes are sold withouteven a proper bevel ground into the blade, much less with an edge that has been carefullyhoned. So after working with dull shovels and hoes, many home food growers mistakenlyconclude that cultivation is not possible without using a rotary tiller for bothtillage and weeding between rows. But instead of an expensive gasoline-powered machineall they really needed was a little knowledge and a two dollar file.

    Similarly, turning compost can be animpossible, sweat- drenching, back-wrenching chore, or it can be relatively quickand easy. It is very difficult to drive even a very sharp shovel into a compost pile.One needs a hay fork, something most people call a "pitchfork." The besttype for this task has a very long, delicate handle and four, foot long, sharp, thintines. Forks with more than four times grab too much material. If the heap has notrotted very thoroughly and still contains a lot of long, stringy material, a fiveor six tine fork will grab too much and may require too much strength. Spading forkswith four wide-flat blades don't work well for turning heaps, but en extremisI'd prefer one to a shovel.

    Also, there are shovels and then, thereare shovels. Most gardeners know the difference between a spade and a shovel. Theywould not try to pick up and toss material with a spade designed only to work straightdown and loosen soil. However, did you know that there are design differences inthe shape of blade and angle of handle in shovels. The normal "combination"shovel is made for builders to move piles of sand or small gravel. However, use acombination shovel to scrape up loose, fine compost that a fork won't hold and you'llquickly have a sore back from bending over so far. Worse, the combination shovelhas a decidedly curved blade that won't scrape up very much with each stroke.

    A better choice is a flat-bladed, square-frontshovel designed to lift loose, fine-textured materials from hard surfaces. However,even well-sharpened, these tend to stick when they bump into any obstacle. Best isan "irrigator's shovel." This is a lightweight tool looking like an ordinarycombination shovel but with a flatter, blunter rounded blade attached to the handleat a much sharper angle, allowing the user to stand straighter when working. Sharpirrigator's shovels are perfect for scooping up loosened soil and tossing it to oneside, for making trenches or furrows in tilled earth and for scraping up the lastbits of a compost heap being turned over.

    Once turned, my long-weathered pileheats up rapidly. It is not as hot as piles can cook, but it does steam on chillymornings for a few weeks. By mid-June things have cooled. The rains have also ceasedand the heap is getting dry. It has also sagged considerably. Once more I turn thepile, watering it down with a fine mist as I do so. This turning is much easier asthe woody brassica stalks are nearly gone. The chunks that remain as visible entitiesare again put into the new pile's center; most of the bigger and less- decomposedstuff comes from the outside of the old heap. Much of the material has become brownto black in color and its origins are not recognizable. The heap is now reduced tofour feet high, five feet wide, and about six feet long. Again I cover it with athin layer of soil and this time put a somewhat brittle, recycled sheet of clearplastic over it to hold in the moisture and increase the temperature. Again the pilebriefly heats and then mellows through the summer.

    In September the heap is finished enoughto use. It is about thirty inches high and has been reduced to less than one-eighthof its starting volume eighteen months ago. What compost I don't spread during fallis protected with plastic from being leached by winter rainfall and will be usednext spring. Elapsed time: 18-24 months from start to finish. Total effort: threeturnings. Quality: very useful.

    Obviously my method is acceptable tome because the pile is not easily visible to the residents or neighbors. It alsosuits a lazy person. It is a very slow system, okay for someone who is not in a hurryto use their compost. But few of my readers live on really rural properties; hopefully,most of them are not as lazy as I am.

    At this point I could recommend alternative,improved methods for making compost much like cookbook recipes from which the readercould pick and choose. There could be a small backyard recipe, the fast recipe, theapartment recipe, the wintertime recipe, the making compost when you can't make apile recipes. Instead, I prefer to compliment your intelligence and first explorethe principles behind composting. I believe that an understanding of basics willenable you to function as a self-determined individual and adapt existing methods,solve problems if they arise, or create something personal and uniquely correct foryour situation.

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