Common Sense Composting
By Malcolm Beck
About the author: Malcolm Beck is the founder of Garden-Ville, a fertilizer company. This article is excerpted from his pamphlet The Life Cycle and Man, 20 pages, $9.95. Available at the AEHF store (phone: 1-800-428-2343).
The Art of Composting
You can study the science books until the biology, physics, and chemistry of composting are well understood, but that doesnít make you a master. Composting is an art, and just like another art, it can only be perfected by doing it and getting the feel of it. I knew nothing about the sciences that happen in compost, but learned to make compost by watching things decay in Nature. Then, gradually, over time, I began to understand the sciences involved.
When I was a curious child between the ages of two and five, we lived at a place that had a barn with a solid wooden fence running parallel to the east wall. Between the wall and the fence was an area four feet wide. In that little lane were some big hackberry trees. The leaves blown by the wind collected between the barn and that fence up to 14 inches deep. That was one of my favorite places to play. It always smelled so good! I hoped the leaves would eventually build up so high that I could see over the fence, but I noticed every year before the leaves would start falling again, the pile would be way down and the new falling leaves would only bring the pile up to the original height. I would always dig into this leaf pile and find all kinds of neat bugs and worms to play with. It was always nice and moist, even if it had not rained in a long time. I also noticed how the leaves gradually changed into soil and the tree roots were always growing up out of the ground into the decaying leaves. Childhood reasoning told me the roots were eating and drinking from those decaying leaves. By the very young age of five, I had learned from Nature the secret of her life cycles.
Once I got a little bigger, handling the manure and other farm waste was always a part of my life. It was a necessary farm chore, and I didnít mind it any more than any other chore. I could easily see the rewards of hauling the waste back to the fields. The crops were always bigger in the area where it was applied. More earthworms were there, and the soil was softer and easier to plow.
Many books on composting make it so complicated that you need advanced degrees in science to understand them. Most people who successfully make compost learned by observing Nature. It is much easier to understand the science after you have mastered the art of composting than the other way around. Studying the science first seems to dampen the desire to experiment. You try to make something work that doesnít, because you are unaware of some factor that isnít covered in the books. Then you become frustrated. Much of the material written on composting is by people who studied the book science, but I am not sure they conferred with Nature as to when, where, and how it should be done.
Economics and Nature
If you study Nature, you soon learn she is very thrifty. She doesnít make an unnecessary move or process. Nature never wastes energy while she recycles expired life. "The Law of Least Effort" was written by her. We need to study all her laws and learn from her. In Nature, every dead thing is deposited in the very place it dies, and there it serves as a mulch protecting the soil until it finally decays and in due time is covered and replaced by still more dead things. As these dead things are disassembled by the microbes, the proteins are changed into ammonia gas. Some of the gasses are used by the microbes; some are turned into nitrates. A small amount is used by growing plants, and any ammonia not used is absorbed into clay and humus in the soil and held for future plant use. Little, if any, escapes to the air.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is also released as the microbes break down organic matter. Carbon dioxide release is most abundant in warm weather when plant growth is greatest. The carbon dioxide drifts up from the soil surface and is captured by the leaf surface of the many plants growing above. Again, little escapes into the air, and what does goes over to feed plants that are growing in areas that donít have decay processes going on under them. The plants take the carbon out of the CO2, use it for food, and release the oxygen.
Some scientists are saying an excess amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing global warming. But science has also proven an abundance of CO2 in the air allows plants to use water more efficiently and to grow better. I believe global warming is being caused by some of our agricultural practices in which we uncover and leave bare too much soil. My own testing has shown bare soil in full sun to be 35 degrees warmer than nearby soil under mulch or plant cover. Our use of herbicides and ground pavement may also be contributing to global warming.
Mulch also protects the soil from heavy rain drops that settle soil particles together to form an impervious crust. The broken up water droplets filter through the decaying mulch, collect the nutrients released by the microbes, and slowly carry it to the roots of plants that put it back into the life cycle.
The layer of mulch also keeps the moisture from moving up and evaporating back into the air. AS water moves upward in the soil, it carries dissolved minerals with it. When the water evaporates, it leaves the minerals concentrated at the soil surface as salts in a crust that seeds canít sprout or plants grow in. With the evaporation stopped by mulching, the moisture and minerals stay dispersed in the soil for root collection.