What’s in Your Soil?

Compost: Turning waste into gold  with Dana Ecelberger

So, what’s special about compost? Why not just use chemical fertilizers? Aren’t they cleaner, easier and more effective?

Well, the answer is not really a simple one, although I could just tell you “Because it is better for you and the planet”. But, there are scientific reasons as well as the emotional and intuitive reasons to choose compost over chemicals.

What is compost anyway? Compost is nature’s way of recycling and replenishing itself. It can be made from fallen leaves, branches, grass clippings, animal manure, garden waste, food scraps, newspaper, cardboard, sawdust, oyster shells and ideally a combination of a number of those elements. Once organic materials begin piling up, micro and macro organisms start eating them and excreting manure as a waste product. Their excreted manure is basically what compost is. Earthworms are an important decomposer, as are beetles, mites, fungi, other types of worms, microbes, and lots of bacteria. These large and minute organisms each have their own area of expertise and habitat in the compost pile. Fungi, for example, are great at breaking down the lignin in woody matter but bacteria are not. You can expect to find up to a billion bacteria in one teaspoon of compost and one ounce of healthy soil may contain 54 miles of fungal strands. Amazing!

Compost can be made through an aerobic (with oxygen) process or through an anaerobic (without oxygen) process and there are both aerobic and anaerobic bacteria. The rotten, stinky smell you get with a wet, dense pile of compost is from anaerobic bacteria and is not generally ideal. It is closer to a rotting pile of garbage than the sweet smelling compost most of us aim for.

Compost can be tailored to the nutritional needs of your plants. A richer compost, high in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium can be made utilizing the manure of herbivores (generally speaking, the manure of carnivores is avoided to minimize the risk of pathogens). A leaner compost can be made by reducing or excluding manure inputs.

This brings us back to why compost is a great option for creating optimal health, vigor and long-term productivity in our soils. All those living organisms contribute to the microfauna in the soil which are critical in keeping chemical reactions alive and in delivering just the right amount of nutrition to the plants over time. Chemical fertilizers work quickly (in general) and can bind up other chemicals in the soil that may not be included in the NPK ratio but which can be limiting factors to plant growth. Compost contains micronutrients essential to those chemical processes as well as fungi which extend the plant’s root mass and length for miles, making them more able to access water and nutrients farther and deeper in the soil. This is key as it gives the plant more options in less than optimal conditions such as drought or high heat.

Chemical fertilizers can damage fungi and microorganisms and can burn plants if not applied correctly. It is not hard to overdose with chemical amendments; it is much less likely that you will over-compost your garden. In addition, compost increases the workability of soil by improving structure. The texture of soil is the proportion of sand, silt, or clay. Short of removing large chunks of the native soil we aren’t going to change soil texture, although we can improve it by increasing the organic matter. Soil structure is the arrangement of the above types of soil particles. Soil structure is important in root development of plants, water holding capacity, permeability, oxygen holding capacity and tillage of the soil. Addition of compost increases the abundance of microorganisms, fungi and organic matter, all of which have a big impact on soil structure. The goal is to create stable soils and this is best achieved through a conscientious, long-term program of soil testing and careful application of well-made compost and natural amendments such as oyster shell calcium and mineral powders from ancient lake beds and glacial rocks.

Composting and soil health is a deep subject with a wealth of avenues for exploration and further study. Soil is one of the most fascinating subjects in the natural world, and one of our most endangered natural resources. It is estimated that we lose up to 1% of our topsoil annually. When you consider the average depth of the earth’s “skin” is only about three (3) feet, and you harken back to the Dust Bowl Era and the devastating impacts of erosion, it might make you sit up and take a bit more notice of the dirt beneath your feet. I encourage you to get to know your soil a bit better by taking a tablespoon of your garden soil and look at it under a hand lens or a microscope. Better yet, mix a little with water and see the teeming world contained in just a drop of soil.

For more information on composting, join us at the Home and Garden Show in Port Townsend on February 28th at 10 am. Or, visit our website at www.jeffersoncd.org for links to composting articles and how-to’s.