Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Celebrate Life, Compost!

Celebrate Life, Compost!

By Rob Arner

What better way to celebrate life then composting. Compost pays: it reduces the need for fertilizers, waters and pesticides; extends the life of landfills; prevents erosion, stormwater runoff and degrades many types of pollutants; enriches soils besides providing numerous additional benefits.

George Washington was one of our nation's first dedicated composters. As archaeological excavations at Mount Vernon have revealed, Washington was a pioneer of progressive farming, who constantly experimented on how to make his soil more fertile since tobacco depleted his farm. The Mount Vernon dung repository is the only structure of its type documented to exist in colonial America. Washington placed a high priority on careful management of the land and its resources. He not only experimented with organic materials and animal manure but also rejected such farming practices of his day as shallow plowing, which led to erosion of the topsoil. He characterized the practice as "misguided, destructive and wasteful."

Over hundred years latter, George Washington Carver noted that failure resulted when farmers did not seize the opportunity to convert waste materials into new resources, and proved his point by promoting compost piles to America’s agricultural wastelands.

Organic is a significant portion of our waste stream that requires your leadership to become good soil again. Yard waste is almost one-fifth of municipal waste in the nation and organics contains about one-half of our solid waste. Also, we throw enough food waste away each day to feed all of Canada. This is 96 billion pounds of food a year or one quarter of America’s food wasted.

Compost offers tremendous benefits to our earth. First, it is exactly what our soil needs to thrive, good natural additives, prevents erosions and replenishes a product back to the ground from where it came. Up to fifty years ago, compost was the most prevalent means of fertilizer.

Just a few hundred of years ago the U.S. had hundreds of inches of top soil. Today we barely have a few inches. Erosion is the leading pollution source to our waterways. All you have to do is when flying above the countryside after it rains and look down to see it for yourself. In 1975 there was that 3,700 million tons of eroded sediments came from 223 million acres of cropland; an average of nearly 17 tons of soil lost per acre of cropland per year1. One expert estimates that cropland, pasteur and rangeland contribute more than 50% of the sediments discharged to surface water in 1977 (Van der Leeden et. al 1990). Just 2 billion tons of topsoil lost through erosion every year. Also our accelerated building, construction and road development and you can see why we must compost and purchase this recycled humus.

Compost helps to both stabilizes and enriches soils. When rain and snow exceeds the rate soil can infiltrate this water, runoff happens. Compost lessens this process since this natural recipe works to engage our soil unlike most fertilizers or sludge we land apply. Such dislodged soil particles erodes and also transport pollutants. Plant nutrient phosphorus, used as fertilizer often bonded clays and organic matter. Also, pesticides also bond to eroded clays, and organic clays. Also, compost can help clean up certain pollutants.

Composting offers a cost effective and environmentally significant products such as mulch, topsoil, potting soil, and as a general soil amendment has attracted greater interest in composting as a waste reduction measure. Also, this material adds more nutrients to plants than fertilizers and lessens the run-off despoiling water quality. A compost pile is a teeming microbial farm of decaying organic matter.

Many types of organic materials are readily composted. Yard trash such as fallen leaves, remains of garden plants, non-woody plant trimmings, and grass clippings can be composted, as well as vegetable kitchen scraps. Some "raw" (uncomposted) organic materials, such as grass, weeds, and green garden plant waste, contain fairly large amounts of nitrogen. Others, such as leaves and small twigs, contain much less nitrogen and a higher proportion of carbon. These raw materials with high nitrogen should be combined with those with low nitrogen. This will result in better compost and soil amendment materials.

One simple act to compost can come from a simple weekly yard task. We spend a lot of time and fuel trucking lawn clippings to be disposed creating further waste and pollution. With proper lawn management, grass clippings do not need to be removed from the lawn (termed grasscycling). If grass clippings are collected and composted, they should be mixed with other yard waste to provide bulk and a proper ratio of two important plant nutrients, carbon and nitrogen (C/N). Otherwise, the clippings may compact and restrict air flow in the compost pile and cause unpleasant odors.

Besides yard trimmings kitchen wastes, such as vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, and egg shells, may also be composted in a home pile. Although meat scraps, fat, bones, grease, and dairy products are should not be incorporated in the home compost pile. These items attract animals, create nuisance odors, and are slow to decompose.

Your windrow or pile may differ greatly with the amount of materials on hand. It should not be less than 3 feet high and 3 feet wide, or it may not maintain the high temperatures necessary for rapid decomposition. Your compost pile should be built in layers or all ingredients should be thoroughly mixed. This helps ensure the proper mixing of nitrogen-rich and carbon- rich materials. Your pile must have nitrogen-containing material such as manure, kitchen waste, grass clippings, or inorganic fertilizers containing nitrogen bulky material such as leaves, chipped twigs, straw, or sawdust.

The compost pile work best when they are mixed to incorporate oxygen (which is required for composting) and to expose seeds, insect larvae, and pathogens (disease-causing organisms) to the lethal temperatures at the core of the pile. This can be done with a pitch-fork, shovel, or a tool that can be purchased which is specially made for this task. Piles should be turned immediately if odors associated with anaerobic conditions (lack of oxygen or air) are detected. Anaerobic conditions can be caused by too much water or by compaction. However, some water may be applied between each completed set of layers to achieve the proper moisture content. The material should be wet, but not so wet that you can squeeze water out of it with your hand. Within a month after starting, the pile should be hot in the center. Heating indicates that the material is composting properly. Temperatures within the compost pile increase during the decomposition process and may approach. Failure to heat may be the result of too little or too much water, a lack of nitrogen, air not getting into the center of the pile (material packed too tightly), or the pile being too small. As the material decomposes, the pile may shrink to about one-half its original volume. The composting process is complete when there is no heat produced in the pile after turning and the material is dark, friable and does not contain distinguishable plant parts like leaves.

Depending on how you compost, your end product may ready after 1 to 12 months, subject to the design, shredding and pile management of the composting unit. The finished material will be dark and crumbly in texture, fairly dry, and have an earthy odor.

Can we afford not to compost? Whether we are from the country or the city we all must start to farm this home grown soil amendment called compost. We can only reap what we sow. Compost may also be blended with soil, sand and other materials to make an excellent potting mix for your indoor plants. Also, you add a layer of compost into your garden soil. Finally, compost can also be used as a mulching material around trees, shrubs, flowers, and garden plants. These recycled nutrients serve the soils via: increase plant growth, nutrient and moisture retention and improve drainage and host of other positive things. Become a gardener and a farmer who cares to transform your waste into fertile soil! Compost happens only if you help things best rot. Is helping our earth too much to ask? Help to compost; when you try it and buy it you celebrate new life.

1 Vellides, Smith and Lowrance, “Impact and Control of Agricultural Runoff,” Stormwater Magazine, May/June 2003, p.42