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Composting > Growing Plants in Compost

Growing Plants in Compost

One of the things I enjoy most while gardening is GROWing some of my plants. I don't GROW them all because there is no point in having giant parsley or making the corn patch get one foot taller. Making everything get as large as possible wouldn't result in maximum nutrition either. But just for fun, how about a 100-plus-pound pumpkin? A twenty-pound savoy cabbage? A cauliflower sixteen inches in diameter? An eight-inch diameter beet? Now that's GROWing!

Here's how. Simply remove as many growth limiters as possible and watch the plant's own efforts take over. One of the best examples I've ever seen of how this works was in a neighbor's backyard greenhouse. This retired welder liked his liquor. Having more time than money and little respect for legal absurdities, he had constructed a small stainless steel pot still, fermented his own mash, and made a harsh, hangover-producing whiskey from grain and cane sugar that Appalachians call "popskull." To encourage rapid fermentation, his mashing barrel was kept in the warm greenhouse. The bubbling brew gave off large quantities of carbon dioxide gas.

The rest of his greenhouse was filled with green herbs that flowered fragrantly in September. Most of them were four or five feet tall but those plants on the end housing the mash barrel were seven feet tall and twice as bushy. Why? Because the normal level of atmospheric CO2 actually limits plant growth.

We can't increase the carbon supply outdoors. But we can loosen the soil eighteen to twenty-four inches down (or more for deeply-rooting species) in an area as large as the plant's root system could possibly ramify during its entire growing season. I've seen some GROWers dig holes four feet deep and five feet in diameter for individual plants. We can use well-finished, strong compost to increase the humus content of that soil, and supplement that with manure tea or liquid fertilizer to provide all the nutrients the plant could possibly use. We can allocate only one plant to that space and make sure absolutely no competition develops in that space for light, water, or nutrients. We can keep the soil moist at all times. By locating the plant against a reflective white wall we can increase its light levels and perhaps the nighttime temperatures (plants make food during the day and use it to grow with at night).

Textural improvements from compost depend greatly on soil type. Sandy and loamy soils naturally remain open and workable and sustain good tilth with surprisingly small amounts of organic matter. Two or three hundred pounds (dry weight) of compost per thousand square feet per year will keep coarse-textured soils in wonderful physical condition. This small amount of humus is also sufficient to encourage the development of a lush soil ecology that creates the natural health of plants.

Silty soils, especially ones with more clay content, tend to become compacted and when low in humus will crust over and puddle when it rains hard. These may need a little more compost, perhaps in the range of three to five hundred pounds per thousand square feet per year.

Clay soils on the other hand are heavy and airless, easily compacted, hard to work, and hard to keep workable. The mechanical properties of clay soils greatly benefit from additions of organic matter several times larger than what soils composed of larger particles need. Given adequate organic matter, even a heavy clay can be made to behave somewhat like a rich loam does.

Perhaps you've noticed that I've still avoided answering the question, "how good is your compost?" First, lets take a look at laboratory analyses of various kinds of compost, connect that to what they were made from and that to the kind of growing results one might get from them. I apologize that despite considerable research I was unable to discover more detailed breakdowns from more composting activities. But the data I do have is sufficient to appreciate the range of possibilities.

Considered as a fertilizer to GROW plants, Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) compost is the lowest grade material I know of. It is usually broadcast as a surface mulch. The ingredients municipal composters must process include an indiscriminate mixture of all sorts of urban organic waste: paper, kitchen garbage, leaves, chipped tree trimmings, commercial organic garbage like restaurant waste, cannery wastes, etc. Unfortunately, paper comprises the largest single ingredient and it is by nature highly resistant to decomposition. MSW composting is essentially a recycling process, so no soil, no manure and no special low C/N sources are used to improve the fertilizing value of the finished product.

Municipal composting schemes usually must process huge volumes of material on very valuable land close to cities. Economics mean the heaps are made as large as possible, run as fast as possible, and gotten off the field without concern for developing their highest qualities. Since it takes a long time to reduce large proportions of carbon, especially when they are in very decomposition-resistant forms like paper, and since the use of soil in the compost heap is essential to prevent nitrate loss, municipal composts tend to be low in nitrogen and high in carbon. By comparison, the poorest home garden compost I could find test results for was about equal to the best municipal compost. The best garden sample ("B") is pretty fine stuff. I could not discover the ingredients that went into either garden compost but my supposition is that gardener "A" incorporated large quantities of high C/N materials like straw, sawdust and the like while gardener "B" used manure, fresh vegetation, grass clippings and other similar low C/N materials. The next chapter will evaluate the suitability of materials commonly used to make compost.

Analyses of Various Composts
Source N% P% K% Ca% C/N

Vegetable trimmings & paper

1.57 0.40 0.40 24:1
Municipal refuse 0.97 0.16 0.21 24:1
Johnson City refuse 0.91 0.22 0.91 1.91 36:1
Gainsville, FL refuse 0.57 0.26 0.22 1.88 ?
Garden compost "A" 1.40 0.30 0.40 25:1
Garden compost "B" 3.50 1.00 2.00 10:1

To interpret this chart, let's make as our standard of comparison the actual gardening results from some very potent organic material I and probably many of my readers have probably used: bagged chicken manure compost. The most potent I've ever purchased is inexpensively sold in one-cubic-foot plastic sacks stacked up in front of my local supermarket every spring. The sacks are labeled 4-3-2. I've successfully grown quite a few huge, handsome, and healthy vegetables with this product. I've also tried other similar sorts also labeled "chicken manure compost" that are about half as potent.

From many years of successful use I know that 15 to 20 sacks (about 300-400 dry-weight pounds) of 4-3-2 chicken compost spread and tilled into one thousand square feet will grow a magnificent garden. Most certainly a similar amount of the high analysis Garden "B" compost would do about the same job. Would three times as much less potent compost from Garden "A" or five times as much even poorer stuff from the Johnson City municipal composting operation do as well? Not at all! Neither would three times as many sacks of dried steer manure. Here's why.

If composted organic matter is spread like mulch atop the ground on lawns or around ornamentals and allowed to remain there its nitrogen content and C/N are not especially important. Even if the C/N is still high soil animals will continue the job of decomposition much as happens on the forest floor. Eventually their excrement will be transported into the soil by earthworms. By that time the C/N will equal that of other soil humus and no disruption will occur to the soil's process.

Growing vegetables is much more demanding than growing most perennial ornamentals or lawns. Excuse me, flower gardeners, but I've observed that even most flowers will thrive if only slight improvements are made in their soil. The same is true for most herbs. Difficulties with ornamentals or herbs are usually caused by attempting to grow a species that is not particularly well-adapted to the site or climate. Fertilized with sacked steer manure or mulched with average-to-poor compost, most ornamentals will grow adequately.

But vegetables are delicate, pampered critters that must grow as rapidly as they can grow if they are to be succulent, tasty, and yield heavily. Most of them demand very high levels of available nutrients as well as soft, friable soil containing reasonable levels of organic matter. So it is extremely important that a vegetable gardener understand the inevitable disruption occurring when organic matter that has a C/N is much above 12:1 is tilled into soil.

Organic matter that has been in soil for a while has been altered into a much studied substance, humus. We know for example that humus always has a carbon to nitrogen ratio of from 10:1 to about 12:1, just like compost from Garden "B." Garden writers call great compost like this, "stable humus," because it is slow to decompose. Its presence in soil steadily feeds a healthy ecology of microorganisms important to plant health, and whose activity accelerates release of plant nutrients from undecomposed rock particles. Humus is also fertilizer because its gradual decomposition provides mineral nutrients that make plants grow. The most important of these nutrients is nitrate nitrogen, thus soil scientists may call humus decomposition "nitrification."

When organic material with a C/N below 12:1 is mixed into soil its breakdown is very rapid. Because it contains more nitrogen than stable humus does, nitrogen is rapidly released to feed the plants and soil life. Along with nitrogen comes other plant nutrients. This accelerated nitrification continues until the remaining nitrogen balances with the remaining carbon at a ratio of about 12:1. Then the soil returns to equilibrium. The lower the C/N the more rapid the release, and the more violent the reaction in the soil. Most low C/N organic materials, like seed meal or chicken manure, rapidly release nutrients for a month or two before stabilizing. What has been described here is fertilizer.

When organic material with a C/N higher than 12:1 is tilled into soil, soil animals and microorganisms find themselves with an unsurpassed carbohydrate banquet. Just as in a compost heap, within days bacteria and fungi can multiply to match any food supply. But to construct their bodies these microorganisms need the same nutrients that plants need to grow—nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, etc. There are never enough of these nutrients in high C/N organic matter to match the needs of soil bacteria, especially never enough nitrogen, so soil microorganisms uptake these nutrients from the soil's reserves while they "bloom" and rapidly consume all the new carbon presented to them.

During this period of rapid decomposition the soil is thoroughly robbed of plant nutrients. And nitrification stops. Initially, a great deal of carbon dioxide gas may be given off, as carbon is metabolically "burned." However, CO2 in high concentrations can be toxic to sprouting seeds and consequently, germination failures may occur. When I was in the seed business I'd get a few complaints every year from irate gardeners demanding to know why every seed packet they sowed failed to come up well. There were two usual causes. Either before sowing all the seeds were exposed to temperatures above 110 degree or more likely, a large quantity of high C/N "manure" was tilled into the garden just before sowing. In soil so disturbed transplants may also fail to grow for awhile. If the "manure" contains a large quantity of sawdust the soil will seem very infertile for a month or three.

Sir Albert Howard had a unique and pithy way of expressing this reality. He said that soil was not capable of working two jobs at once. You could not expect it to nitrify humus while it was also being required to digest organic matter. That's one reason he thought composting was such a valuable process. The digestion of organic matter proceeds outside the soil; when finished product, humus, is ready for nitrification, it is tilled in.

Rapid consumption of carbon continues until the C/N of the new material drops to the range of stable humus. Then decay microorganisms die off and the nutrients they hoarded are released back into the soil. How long the soil remains inhospitable to plant growth and seed germination depends on soil temperature, the amount of the material and how high its C/N is, and the amount of nutrients the soil is holding in reserve. The warmer and more fertile the soil was before the addition of high C/N organic matter, the faster it will decompose.

Judging by the compost analyses in the table, I can see why some municipalities are having difficulty disposing of the solid waste compost they are making. One governmental composting operation that does succeed in selling everything they can produce is Lane County, Oregon. Their yard waste compost is eagerly paid for by local gardeners. Lane County compost is made only from autumn leaves, grass clippings, and other yard wastes. No paper!

Yard waste compost is a product much like a homeowner would produce. And yard waste compost contains no industrial waste or any material that might pose health threats. All woody materials are finely chipped before composting and comprise no more than 20 percent of the total undecayed mass by weight. Although no nutrient analysis has been done by the county other than testing for pH (around 7.0) and, because of the use of weed and feed fertilizers on lawns, for 2-4D (no residual trace ever found present), I estimate that the overall C/N of the materials going into the windrows at 25:1. I wouldn't be surprised if the finished compost has a C/N close to 12:1.

Incidentally, Lane County understands that many gardeners don't have pickup trucks. They reasonably offer to deliver their compost for a small fee if at least one yard is purchased. Other local governments also make and deliver yard waste compost.

So what about your own home compost? If you are a flower, ornamental, or lawn grower, you have nothing to worry about. Just compost everything you have available and use all you wish to make. If tilling your compost into soil seems to slow the growth of plants, then mulch with it and avoid tilling it in, or adjust the C/N down by adding fertilizers like seed meal when tilling it in.

If you are a vegetable gardener and your compost doesn't seem to provoke the kind of growth response you hoped for, either shallowly till in compost in the fall for next year's planting, by which time it will have become stable humus, or read further. The second half of this book contains numerous hints about how to make potent compost and about how to use complete organic fertilizers in combination with compost to grow the lushest garden imaginable.

Back to Composting

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