art of turning death into life
In nature, animal and plant life die on the forest floor, and decay with time, water, decomposers, sun and air. This produces a layer of humus on which plants thrive.
Building soil by composting follows the same process. It is neither letting nature take its course, nor is it violating it's principles. It is simply speeding things up a bit.
Compost is the key to growing. It suppresses most plant diseases and pathogens in the process, increases water retention, improves soil structure, retains nutrients, help absorb heat, balances the pH, traps soil toxins...
Composting has been neglected by chemical farming. Fertility is about giving life to the soil, overlooking this basic fact has serious ecological implications.
How to kick start your compost
Building the pile
Reading your compost
What really happens- the scientific bit
Any organic substance can be composted.
A simple recipe is to mix kitchen scraps, weeds, leaves, paper, grass...
The main thing to look out for is the carbon-nitrogen ratio.
Materials such as sawdust, paper, straw or dead leaves, have a high carbon content. (Usually brown)
Manure, fresh plants, guano, blood meal, urine, slurry are high in nitrogen. In the garden, anything green will do the trick.
Print out to the table of composition, to get a better idea of the properties of different materials. As a general rule aim for half carbon, half nitrogen.
Find out the compositions of a variety of materials, ordered alphabetically or by nutrients
Kick starting your compost
To get the rotting process started you need to add a blend of the bacteria and spores of microorganisms. They are everywhere in the ground, air and water. The compost starter recipes below provide a perfect breeding ground.
Building the pile
Keep a permanent composting area, centrally located in the garden for easy transport of materials.
Place it on the bare ground to allow the bacteria from previous piles to infect it and earthworms to travel to it.
Don't put it into a pit or trample it down, as it would cause anaerobic decomposition. Nitrate-producing bacteria need plenty of oxygen, since they are aerobic. The composts should be loosely piled and kept moist, but not water-logged.
In warmer, drier localities, elderberry, hazelnut, birch and alder make ideal compost shade trees as their leaf and root aid in the decomposition processes.
In cooler climates, composts should be put into wind-sheltered, sunny areas. It is worth protecting the compost with a layer of black plastic, which keeps the compost from drying out during a dry spell, and during a rainy season keeps the nutrients from leaching out. Evaporating moisture will condense underneath the plastic and percolate and circulate through the pile. A roof also protects from drying or leaching.
Windrows about four feet high, six-feet wide, and as long as necessary, are the best shape to give to the compost. In this way, a "critical mass" is achieved, for the biochemical reactions to take place.
If the compost pile is too small, it will not heat and decompose properly; if it is too large the inner layers will remain raw and deprived of air, while the outside mantle will have already broken down. Like any living organism, the compost must have a skin to keep gases and other products of metabolism, such as ammonia and methane, from being dissipated. Peat, sawdust, straw or other nitrogen-poor substance will not let the odours through. Underneath, the compost might be bedded upon straw, hay, peat or a similar absorbent substance if there is a chance of liquid runoff.
For smaller gardens, a wooden composting bin, or a roll of wire mesh, make good composting devices. Fresh material is pitched into the top, while finished compost can be scooped out of the bottom.
For fast results, use a barrel to turn the compost. This technique aerates the compost and mixes the ingredients for greater carbon / nitogen contact.
Compost can be made for specific purposes from various animal droppings. In general, it can be said that the part of the plant upon which an animal characteristically feeds, is best fertilised by the manure of that species.
Liquid manure, used in the watering of the heavy feeders during the growing season or as compost activators, can be made from a number of substances. These are placed into a barrel of water at a ratio of 10:1 and left to ferment for few of weeks.
Reading the compost
If the compost is balanced the smell should be earthy and sweet, the colour rich brown and full of manure worms.
Too close a C/N ratio at the beginning of composting leads to nitrogen losses. This can be noticed by the smell of ammonia and flies. Turn your pile and add carbon rich material.
Too wide a C/N ratio slows the composting. The lack of sufficient nitrogen coupled with low temperatures and too much moisture will produce an acid, peat-like soil.
The initial heating process of the compost, should reach temperatures of up to 140° to 180° Fahrenheit. Add water to prevent it from drying up. Lack of moisture will develop a musty smell, white mildew, and an unusually large number of pill bugs or sow bugs.
If it is too wet and too compacted, the heap will putrefy, developing strong odours, turning black and slimy, and maggots will appear.
What really happens- the scientific bit
The compost carries out life functions and goes through three distinct stages.
The bacteria-fungus stage
This is part of the overall breakdown cycle. Proteins are broken down by bacteria into amino acids and finally ammonia. Carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars' organic acids, and carbon dioxide. Other compounds are similarly broken down. The buildup cycle proceeds with fungi, which eagerly ingest the free ammonia and rebuild amino acids in their mycelia. This stage is characterised by the generation of much heat, given off by energy liberated during the metabolism of thermophilic organisms. The bacteria eat their way into the centre of the pile, and are followed immediately by the whitish mycelia of the fungi which absorb the gases given off.
The earthworm stage
The heating reduces, the heat-loving bacteria have formed spores and the fungi have predigested the organic substances for the earthworms and actinomycetes to work on. If stage 1 has not gone completely satisfactorily, with undigested, putrid or dry sections, turn the pile for a brief re-heating. The earthworms now proceed to mix the organic substances (which the fungi have predigested) with small amounts of clay and calcium within their bodies. In doing so, the polymerised carbon-chains are reconstituted in the form of clay-humus complexes, which absorb cations such as calcium, ammonium, magnesium, potassium, sodium and others. There is as yet little understood of the clay-humus molecule. It is more than a simple anion, but also coats itself with phosphates, sulfates and nitrates - in other words, this macromolecule becomes a sponge for nutrients. At this stage the compost can already be used as mulch or as fertiliser for heavy feeders such as cabbages, corn, okra, pumpkins, squashes and melons. At this point of development a number of arthropods, such as centipedes, millipedes and predatory metallic looking carbide beetles start to settle the compost. For young seedlings and for root crops such as carrots, beets, oyster plants or parsnips, it is better to wait for the compost to reach…
The stage of ripeness
It is during this stage that the compost turns into good, crumbly fragrant, humus earth. Nitrates and saltpeter, which are needed by root crops and young sprouting plants are made available by organisms that further oxidise the nitrogen substances. The speed at which the compost reaches maturity depends upon extraneous factors such as climate, the size of the pile and the kind of ingredients. Compost can be made in two weeks under ideal conditions. (Quick-rotting shredded materials, narrow C/N ratio supplied by grass clippings, legumes, manure and amendments such as bird manure, blood meal, and maintenance of the right moisture and air by frequent turning). The product basically only goes to stage 2, before the earthworms enter. It is doubtful that the clay humus molecules that account for creating permanent fertility result from this speeded-up process. Quick composts seem to be symptomatic of our age of instant success and instant gratification. The quick composts make good top dressings, and food for heavy feeders, but like sheet composting, they do not lead to a permanent buildup of fertility. Ripened composts that have taken six months to a year are more stable.