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Composting > Making Superior Compost

Making Superior Compost

The potency of composts can vary greatly. Most municipal solid waste compost has a high carbon to nitrogen ratio and when tilled into soil temporarily provokes the opposite of a good growth response until soil animals and microorganisms consume most of the undigested paper. But if low-grade compost is used as a surface mulch on ornamentals, the results are usually quite satisfactory even if unspectacular.

If the aim of your own composting is to conveniently dispose of yard waste and kitchen garbage, the information in the first half of the book is all you need to know. If you need compost to make something that dependably GROWS plants like it was fertilizer, then this chapter is for you.

A Little History

Before the twentieth century, the fertilizers market gardeners used were potent manures and composts. The vegetable gardens of country folk also received the best manures and composts available while the field crops got the rest. So I've learned a great deal from old farming and market gardening literature about using animal manures. In previous centuries, farmers classified manures by type and purity. There was "long" and "short" manure, and then, there was the supreme plant growth stimulant, chicken manure.

Chicken manure was always highly prized but usually in short supply because preindustrial fowl weren't caged in factories or permanently locked in hen houses and fed scientifically formulated mixes. The chicken breed of that era was usually some type of bantam, half-wild, broody, protective of chicks, and capable of foraging. A typical pre-1900 small-scale chicken management system was to allow the flock free access to hunt their own meals in the barnyard and orchard, luring them into the coop at dusk with a bit of grain where they were protected from predators while sleeping helplessly. Some manure was collected from the hen house but most of it was dropped where it could not be gathered. The daily egg hunt was worth it because, before the era of pesticides, having chickens range through the orchard greatly reduced problems with insects in fruit.

The high potency of chicken manure derives from the chickens' low C/N diet: worms, insects, tender shoots of new grass, and other proteinaceous young greens and seeds. Twentieth-century chickens "living" in egg and meat factories must still be fed low C/N foods, primarily grains, and their manure is still potent. But anyone who has savored real free-range eggs with deep orange yokes from chickens on a proper diet cannot be happy with what passes for "eggs" these days.

Fertilizing with pure chicken manure is not very different than using ground cereal grains or seed meals. It is so concentrated that it might burn plant leaves like chemical fertilizer does and must be applied sparingly to soil. It provokes a marked and vigorous growth response. Two or three gallons of dry, pure fresh chicken manure are sufficient nutrition to GROW about 100 square feet of vegetables in raised beds to the maximum.

Exclusively incorporating pure chicken manure into a vegetable garden also results in rapid humus loss, just as though chemical fertilizers were used. Any fertilizing substance with a C/N below that of stabilized humus, be it a chemical or a natural substance, accelerates the decline in soil organic matter. That is because nitrate nitrogen, the key to constructing all protein, is usually the main factor limiting the population of soil microorganisms. When the nitrate level of soil is significantly increased, microbe populations increase proportionately and proceeds to eat organic matter at an accelerated rate.

That is why small amounts of chemical fertilizer applied to soil that still contains a reasonable amount of humus has such a powerful effect. Not only does the fertilizer itself stimulate the growth of plants, but fertilizer increases the microbial population. More microbes accelerate the breakdown of humus and even more plant nutrients are released as organic matter decays. And that is why holistic farmers and gardeners mistakenly criticize chemical fertilizers as being directly destructive of soil microbes. Actually, all fertilizers, chemical or organic, indirectly harm soil life, first increasing their populations to unsustainable levels that drop off markedly once enough organic matter has been eaten. Unless, of course, the organic matter is replaced.

Chicken manure compost is another matter. Mix the pure manure with straw, sawdust, or other bedding, compost it and, depending on the amount and quantity of bedding used and the time allowed for decomposition to occur, the resultant C/N will be around 12:1 or above. Any ripened compost around 12:1 still will GROW plants beautifully. Performance drops off as the C/N increases.

Since chicken manure was scarce, most pre-twentieth century market gardeners depended on seemingly unlimited supplies of "short manure," generally from horses. The difference between the "long" and the "short" manure was bedding. Long manure contained straw from the stall while short manure was pure street sweepings without adulterants. Hopefully, the straw portion of long manure had absorbed a quantity of urine.

People of that era knew the fine points of hay quality as well as people today know their gasoline. Horses expected to do a day's work were fed on grass or grass/clover mixes that had been cut and dried while they still had a high protein content. Leafy hay was highly prized while hay that upon close inspection revealed lots of stems and seed heads would be rejected by a smart buyer. The working horse's diet was supplemented with a daily ration of grain. Consequently, uncomposted fresh short manure probably started out with a C/N around 15:1. However, don't count on anything that good from horses these days. Most horses aren't worked daily so their fodder is often poor. Judging from the stemmy, cut-too-late grass hay our local horses have to try to survive on, if I could find bedding-free horse manure it would probably have a C/N more like 20:1. Manure from physically fit thoroughbred race horses is probably excellent.

Using fresh horse manure in soil gave many vegetables a harsh flavor so it was first composted by mixing in some soil (a good idea because otherwise a great deal of ammonia would escape the heap). Market gardeners raising highly demanding crops like cauliflower and celery amended composted short manure by the inches-thick layer. Lesser nutrient-demanding crops like snap beans, lettuce, and roots followed these intensively fertilized vegetables without further compost.

Long manures containing lots of straw were considered useful only for field crops or root vegetables. Wise farmers conserved the nitrogen and promptly composted long manures. After heating and turning the resulting C/N would probably be in a little below 20:1. After tilling it in, a short period of time was allowed while the soil digested this compost before sowing seeds. Lazy farmers spread raw manure load by load as it came from the barn and tilled it in once the entire field was covered. This easy method allows much nitrogen to escape as ammonia while the manure dries in the sun. Commercial vegetable growers had little use for long manure.

One point of this brief history lesson is GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. The finished compost tends to have a C/N that is related to the ingredients that built the heap. Growers of vegetables will wisely take note.

Anyone interested in learning more about preindustrial market gardening might ask their librarian to seek out a book called French Gardening by Thomas Smith, published in London about 1905. This fascinating little book was written to encourage British market gardeners to imitate the Parisian marcier, who skillfully earned top returns growing out-of-season produce on intensive, double-dug raised beds, often under glass hot or cold frames. Our trendy American Biodynamic French Intensive gurus obtained their inspiration from England through this tradition.

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