Compost: The Black Gold of the Garden

Handful of compost

Handful of compost

After a short autumn snooze, there still may be time to spread some compost in your garden, that is, if the ground hasn’t already frozen. This doesn’t usually happen until mid-November in my neck of the woods, depending on your location. Woodchuck gardeners of the organic bent like myself consider compost the “soul food” of the soil.

Compost or what some enthusiasts call “black gold,” is the heavyweight champ of the organic gardening world. Compost is becoming rather “in” these days as natural food and organic gardening are making a resurgence throughout the United States. Healthy food without the use of harmful chemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seeds is a priority for many families. This is especially true because of the increased rates of cancer.

Ironically, most farms and gardens used nothing but organic methods as late as the 1930s. (That’s about the time nitrate fertilizer, (chilean of nitrate), was dug from the rich bat caves of Chili where the soil is sandy dry, and easy to mine.) Animal manure and compost were inseparable in those days and rotted manure was the main source of fertilizer on small New England hill farms. Mucking out animal stalls was as much a part of life as milking. It was a hard but necessary task. Farmers knew instinctively that animal manures and other vegetable matter were more beneficial to the soil after going through a process of breakdown and stabilization.

Animal manures

Animal manures add beneficial organisms, disease resistance and organic matter to the compost pile. Some commercial compost operations no longer use animal manures in their mix of organic ingredients, which significantly lowers the value of the compost. Soil needs the addition of composted animal manures. Studies show that animal manure is critical in creating the right balance of bacteria, fungus and microorganisms in the pile. Today, you can drive through the rich farmlands of Ohio where miles of soybeans and corn are grown and not see a cow. This was not the case fifty years ago. To view a farming landscape without animals is not only sad; animals and their manure are essential to a healthy soil.

The art and science of composting began over 5,000 years ago in China where compost is still the fertilizer of choice even though chemical fertilizers were introduced in the 1950s. When you consider that China comprises one quarter of the world’s population on seven percent of the earth’s cultivated land, there must be something special about compost.

The nature of soil

To understand why compost is so critical, we need to learn about the nature of soil. Soil in a healthy condition can be pictured as a collection of crumbs made up of one or a combination of sand, silt, clay plus minerals, fungi, and other decaying matter, and the bodies (both living and dead) of millions of microorganisms. These microscopic organisms give off sticky substances which hold the particles together into a cluster-like structure. Roots of plants move through a honeycomb of passageways made possible from this structure. Fine feeder roots meander through this maze of tunnels searching for nutrients, minerals, and moisture. Chemical fertilizers and poisonous insecticides destroy the micro-organisms, fungi and bacteria and can change the very structure and life of the soil. This is where compost comes in.

[box]Ron Krupp is an organic gardener from Vermont and the author of The Woodchuck’s Guide to Gardening. Visit his website at www.woodchuckgardeningvt.com.[/box]
image: Plan for Opportunity (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)
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