Composting as Service
“And yet to serve the earth, not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness and a delight to the air, and my days do not wholly pass.” -Wendell Barry, from the poem “Enriching the Earth”
BY CORINNE M. COE
Composting is a practical act of transformation and creation. It is both art and science. And for some, like me, it is a duty and a means of showing gratitude. Strip away all the talk about waste and landfills and climate change, and composting is still a service to the Earth. A crucial one. Only when we serve the Earth, do we serve ourselves. Never the other way around.
When I teach composting, no matter the audience, I always start with three questions:
1. What is compost?
2. Why is it important?
3. How do we do it?
These three questions lead into one another and, in my mind, continually circle back as one’s knowledge of composting through experience grows. So, what is compost? Compost is a noun and a verb. It is a thing, a beautiful and valuable thing that we can hold in our hands. And we, human beings, make it. Mother Nature creates humus; humans create compost.
But, what is it? Technically speaking, compost is the resulting material from the managed decomposition of organic materials and composting is the process of managing that same decomposition. Sounds so… technical. Composting is a form of recycling— instead of aluminum cans or glass bottles, we’re recycling organic materials, like food scraps and leaves. It’s educational, it’s natural, it’s sustainable— indeed it’s regenerative, and it matters.
There are enough reasons to compost that everyone everywhere should be doing it. Unfortunately, a lot of folks don’t think they can. As for the folks who don’t want to, I submit they either don’t truly understand why it’s so important or they simply (and tragically) don’t care. Together we can educate and engage to shift that paradigm. So, when someone says, “Ew, that’s gross, I’m not doing that,” how do we, as stewards of the Earth, respond?
Well, friends, there are two broad reasons to do it. First, waste reduction and climate change mitigation— this is why we make compost, to recycle, instead of waste, organic materials. Second, soil building and rebuilding— this is why we use compost. From these two main objectives, the web of compost’s importance expands. Indeed, it expands past current scientific knowledge! Soil science and compost science are alive!
Only in the last decade, did scientists discover that we can use certain feedstocks (another word for your compost pile’s ingredients) that will encourage fungal decomposition or others that will encourage microbial decomposition and the resulting composts will have different properties that will benefit certain crops or soils to a greater extent than the other. I mean, wow!
Simply, we must reduce our waste. Reducing the organic waste we send to landfills reduces the production of methane—a greenhouse gas twenty times more toxic than carbon dioxide. Likewise, we must feed our soils if we want to feed ourselves and keep breathing. Chemical fertilizers are like vitamins for plants. Would you want to live on vitamins but no food?
Plants need food and they get it from the soil. Smart gardeners and farmers know we must “Feed the soil, not the plants.” Compost protects soil from drought, pest infestation, diseases, heavy metals, erosion, compaction; and it does so naturally. Perhaps most importantly, compost nourishes soil biology, sustaining and enhancing an often unseen and forgotten yet critical ecosystem!
And one of the most marvelous things about compost is that it’s free or very nearly so, it can (and should) be done anywhere on Earth with few tools by anyone with any level of education. Making and using compost are free tools in our fight against climate change.
Remember, anyone can compost and everyone should.
So, how do we do it? Isn’t it hard? Time consuming? Dirty? Well… 1) No. 2) Depends. 3) And, thank goodness, yes!
Composting takes time or it takes effort; the more effort we give, the less time it takes. Having said that, you can’t make compost in 24 hours (though advertisements may appeal to you professing such). Nor can you make compost in a week. Even a month is questionable—while material may appear ‘broken down’ after 4-5 weeks, it’s almost always still releasing nitrogen as ammonium, which can harm plants.
An exception is corn. Corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder and will love your ‘unfinished compost’. Once you start making compost, if you do it right, you’ll have an endless and nearly continual supply of dark, sweet, soft, black gold to use in your garden, on your farm, for your houseplants, and to share with friends, family, and neighbors. If you’re like me, your compost will be so valuable to you that you’ll find yourself becoming stingy with it!
Message: How much is your compost, Corinne?
Me: You can’t afford my compost!
Wicked laugh follows.
To be sure, composting, like gardening, makes people happy. Touching healthy soil and healthy compost has a positive affect on our immune systems and our emotional and mental health. It’s been proven!
The quick and dirty to begin your compost is to collect food and yard scraps, mix them together, make sure they’re sufficiently moist and the pile has enough air— microbes are doing the work, after all, and they are just like us.
Then, sit back, have a cup of tea, and be patient. In the time it takes to grow a head of lettuce from seed, your compost will be well on its way to finished! Beyond the basics of greens + browns + air + water = compost there are a multitude of options at every step. Don’t let that scare you. It is a practice! You must do it in order to learn it.
You can get the basics from an experienced composter, but then you must practice— like cooking and music and art and farming and love— like everything truly beautiful, composting takes practice. You’ll get better with every pile, with every season, with every new feedstock. Your confidence will grow as will your garden.
Love & Compost,
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