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Composting > What is Compost

What is Compost

Do you know what really happens when things rot? Have other garden books confused you with vague meanings for words like "stabilized humus?" This book won't. Are you afraid that compost making is a nasty, unpleasant, or difficult process? It isn't.

A compost pile is actually a fast-track method of changing crude organic materials into something resembling soil, called humus. But the word "humus" is often misunderstood, along with the words "compost," and "organic matter." And when fundamental ideas like these are not really defined in a person's mind, the whole subject they are a part of may be confused. So this chapter will clarify these basics.

Compost making is a simple process. Done properly it becomes a natural part of your gardening or yard maintenance activities, as much so as mowing the lawn. And making compost does not have to take any more effort than bagging up yard waste.

Handling well-made compost is always a pleasant experience. It is easy to disregard compost's vulgar origins because there is no similarity between the good-smelling brown or black crumbly substance dug out of a compost pile and the manure, garbage, leaves, grass clippings and other waste products from which it began.

Precisely defined, composting means 'enhancing the consumption of crude organic matter by a complex ecology of biological decomposition organisms.' As raw organic materials are eaten and re-eaten by many, many tiny organisms from bacteria (the smallest) to earthworms (the largest), their components are gradually altered and recombined. Gardeners often use the terms organic matter, compost, and humus as interchangeable identities. But there are important differences in meaning that need to be explained.

This stuff, this organic matter we food gardeners are vitally concerned about, is formed by growing plants that manufacture the substances of life. Most organic molecules are very large, complex assemblies while inorganic materials are much simpler. Animals can break down, reassemble and destroy organic matter but they cannot create it. Only plants can make organic materials like cellulose, proteins, and sugars from inorganic minerals derived from soil, air or water. The elements plants build with include calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, sodium, sulfur, iron, zinc, cobalt, boron, manganese, molybdenum, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen.

So organic matter from both land and sea plants fuels the entire chain of life from worms to whales. Humans are most familiar with large animals; they rarely consider that the soil is also filled with animal life busily consuming organic matter or each other. Rich earth abounds with single cell organisms like bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, protozoa, and rotifers. Soil life forms increase in complexity to microscopic round worms called nematodes, various kinds of mollusks like snails and slugs (many so tiny the gardener has no idea they are populating the soil), thousands of almost microscopic soil-dwelling members of the spider family that zoologists call arthropods, the insects in all their profusion and complexity, and, of course, certain larger soil animals most of us are familiar with such as moles. The entire sum of all this organic matter: living plants, decomposing plant materials, and all the animals, living or dead, large and small is sometimes called biomass. One realistic way to gauge the fertility of any particular soil body is to weigh the amount of biomass it sustains.

Humus is a special and very important type of decomposed organic matter. Although scientists have been intently studying humus for a century or more, they still do not know its chemical formula. It is certain that humus does not have a single chemical structure, but is a very complex mixture of similar substances that vary according to the types of organic matter that decayed, and the environmental conditions and specific organisms that made the humus.

Whatever its varied chemistry, all humus is brown or black, has a fine, crumbly texture, is very light-weight when dry, and smells like fresh earth. It is sponge-like, holding several times its weight in water. Like clay, humus attracts plant nutrients like a magnet so they aren't so easily washed away by rain or irrigation. Then humus feeds nutrients back to plants. In the words of soil science, this functioning like a storage battery for minerals is called cation exchange capacity. More about that later.

Most important, humus is the last stage in the decomposition of organic matter. Once organic matter has become humus it resists further decomposition. Humus rots slowly. When humus does get broken down by soil microbes it stops being organic matter and changes back to simple inorganic substances. This ultimate destruction of organic matter is often called nitrification because one of the main substances released is nitrate—that vital fertilizer that makes plants grow green and fast.

Probably without realizing it, many non-gardeners have already scuffed up that thin layer of nearly pure humus forming naturally on the forest floor where leaves and needles contact the soil. Most Americans would be repelled by many of the substances that decompose into humus. But, fastidious as we tend to be, most would not be offended to barehandedly cradle a scoop of humus, raise it to the nose, and take an enjoyable sniff. There seems to be something built into the most primary nature of humans that likes humus.

In nature, the formation of humus is a slow and constant process that does not occur in a single step. Plants grow, die and finally fall to earth where soil-dwelling organisms consume them and each other until eventually there remains no recognizable trace of the original plant. Only a small amount of humus is left, located close to the soil's surface or carried to the depths by burrowing earthworms. Alternately, the growing plants are eaten by animals that do not live in the soil, whose manure falls to the ground where it comes into contact with soil-dwelling organisms that eat it and each other until there remains no recognizable trace of the original material. A small amount of humus is left. Or the animal itself eventually dies and falls to the earth where ….

Composting artificially accelerates the decomposition of crude organic matter and its recombination into humus. What in nature might take years we can make happen in weeks or months. But compost that seems ready to work into soil may not have quite yet become humus. Though brown and crumbly and good-smelling and well decomposed, it may only have partially rotted.

When tilled into soil at that point, compost doesn't act at once like powerful fertilizer and won't immediately contribute to plant growth until it has decomposed further. But if composting is allowed to proceed until virtually all of the organic matter has changed into humus, a great deal of biomass will be reduced to a relatively tiny remainder of a very valuable substance far more useful than chemical fertilizer.

For thousands of years gardeners and farmers had few fertilizers other than animal manure and compost. These were always considered very valuable substances and a great deal of lore existed about using them. During the early part of this century, our focus changed to using chemicals; organic wastes were often considered nuisances with little value. These days we are rediscovering compost as an agent of soil improvement and also finding out that we must compost organic waste materials to recycle them in an ecologically sound manner.

Back to Composting





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