Composting Is Back and Bigger Than Ever!
COMPOSTING is almost as old as home gardening. Roman farms had their compost pits, where human and animal excrement were piled up along with weeds, leaves, and whatever household wastes had accumulated. From time to time, water was added to assist in the process of decay. A thousand years later, in Moorish Spain, an agricultural treatise described three methods for making heaps of “artificial dung,” as the compost was called—pigeon dung being added to hasten decay.
With the advent of community landfills for waste disposal and no-fuss-no-muss chemical fertilizers for easy use on lawns and gardens, home composting in general became almost a rarity. But composting has recently made a comeback. Landfills were beginning to overflow, states were putting restrictions on what and how much could be dumped, and dumping fees might range from $30 to $100 a ton. Moreover, environmental concerns have increased, and this also has made composting fashionable once more.
Not only is composting back, it is back bigger than ever. Its eye is on landfills as the next target. “Composting is a promising technology that may end up helping to solve the ever-growing waste-disposal problem,” said an article in The New York Times Magazine. “Its proponents believe it is capable of making use of up to half the garbage—kitchen waste, yard trimmings, even some waste paper—that most Americans now throw out. They believe composting can create farms that build the soil instead of destroying it, that compost can replace eroded or damaged soils, protect young plants from disease and reduce dependence on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.”—September 8, 1991.
“They Are Making Meals for Bugs”
“The new composters are seeking to understand and direct an already existing process: microbial digestion. Essentially, they are making meals for bugs,” the Times article explains and gives details:
“Composting is simple in essence, but complex in detail. Basically, it is the means by which the earth turns raw organic leavings into material that is useful to plants. The microbes that live in the land—a billion of them in a gram of good soil—have a tremendous appetite for organic compounds, which are themselves made largely out of carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen atoms. The bacteria and fungi burn the carbon for energy and use the nitrogen and some of the carbon to build their cellular bodies. Most work in the presence of oxygen, but some do better without. When they run low on raw compounds, they begin to eat each other. Out of all this mutual gobbling and engulfing comes heat, water, carbon dioxide and the substance called humus, a complex of organic molecules that attracts and holds the nutrients, water and air that plants need for growth.”
With the right mixture in the compost, the microbes can even devour diesel oil, TNT hydrocarbons, and uranium. Certainly, they are potent little microorganisms, but in your backyard composting, they will not face such challenges.
Preparing Your Own Compost
First of all, forget about those untidy heaps of garden refuse, where you used to dump, year after year, all the leaves, grass clippings, straw, old hay, and weeds and which were likely to sprawl out of control. When kitchen debris was added to such a heap, an obnoxious odor used to be unavoidable, as any gardening sage well knows. To solve this problem, you need a proper compost bin. The idea is to produce in your garden the amazing natural process described above. It is the same process that recycles dead organic matter that accumulates on every forest floor, and it has been going on for thousands of years. As usual, God did it first, when he created green land plants that eventually died and initiated the composting process to recycle the needed chemicals for reuse.—Genesis 1:11-13.
A bin is preferable for composting, since it holds the material together and allows for better ventilation, which increases the efficiency of the decomposition process. Gaps or holes should be made in the sides of the bin to allow entry of the oxygen needed for the bacteria. Also, the dampness should be controlled. The bin should be elevated from the ground, and the right location chosen. The composting process does not work well if exposed all day to the full force of the sun, yet neither does it thrive in total shade.
The composting mixture itself may be thought of as a many-tiered sandwich: one layer of garden debris, one layer of soil, one layer of household waste, with this composition repeated until you have a pile some four or five feet [1.2 to 1.5 m] high. Finally, the completed stack might be covered with sod or similar material.
After two years you will have very good humus and the gardener’s best friends—lots of earthworms. They will work tirelessly to break up and oxygenate the topsoil of your garden. The composting process can be accelerated by turning the pile over every once in a while or by adding products to hasten decay, such as small quantities of manure. With a properly constructed bin and the right mixture of materials, the decomposition process can be speeded up until the compost is ready for use after only three or four months instead of two years.
And remember, the compost needs to breathe, so adequate ventilation, with the right humidity, will reduce the mixture to the mulch so delectable to your plants. When you spread it on the topsoil, the table is set, and the feast for your flowers and vegetables can begin. Give your garden such a treat, and it will reward you with a bountiful harvest of beauty for your eyes and taste delights for your palate.