Courtesy Karl Dawson/Flickr
By the end of last summer, my compost piles were heaped with organic matter: spent tomato plants, giant leaves from zucchini, and long spirals of vegetation created by watermelon and cucumber plants. Add grass clippings and trees’ leaf debris to that, as well as kitchen scraps, and the mix was ready to stew through the winter months creating a new, rich compost to add to gardens and flower beds.
There are many reasons compost is the best renewable resource for enriching soil. Here are six of my favorites.
1. Compost Reduces Pollution
According to Stan Slaughter, named Grassroots Compost Educator of the Year in 2000 by the United States Composting Council, approximately 16 percent of residential trash is food waste. Breaking down in landfills, food waste slowly produces methane gas, which is then released into the air. While there are a limited number of programs working to siphon methane gas from landfills and use it as alternative power, the processes are inefficient, capturing only about 10 percent of the gas being produced.
These same food products increase the load put on sewer and water treatment plants when put down garbage disposals. The most efficient way to handle non-meat food scraps is through backyard composting.
2. Your Backyard Heap Is Energy Efficient
Many municipalities offer composting of woody brush, leaves and other organic matter. However, these processes are energy-intensive, requiring the use of heavy machines and large spinners to compost garden waste. Homeowners wishing to take advantage of city composting services require fuel to haul it home and personal energy to load, unload and distribute to beds.
Commercially produced composts also have the carbon footprint of travel from wherever they are composted to retail stores to the home of the person wishing to add it to their garden beds. Composting at home not only saves you a trip, it saves you money by gaining new organic material through recycling kitchen, garden and yard waste just steps from your back door.
3. Compost Is Easy to Make
The ingredients for making compost are readily available: kitchen scraps, grass clippings, spent plants and leaves.
"I collect bags of leaves in the fall,” Slaughter explains, calling himself a leaf thief, as he snags leaves left at the curb by other homeowners. "I save the leaves and use them to cover food scraps.”
Slaughter no longer stirs his compost piles, instead adding a brown layer of dried leaves over new organic materials. "The wet material at the top of the pile rains compost juice deeper into the pile,” Slaughter says. "Decomposing juices move throughout the entire compost pile.”
In addition to being easy, this slow compost method is a good way to discourage wildlife from becoming a problem, as the leaves cover the enticing food scraps.
4. Compost Is Like a Soil Snack
The nutrition available in compost helps support existing soils that may have become depleted after a growing season, explains Sheri Hinshaw, who manages Seattle Tilth’s Master Composter/Soil Builder Program, which is sponsored by Seattle Public Utilities and teaches residents about composting.
"When you add compost you are feeding the soil’s microorganisms,” she says. "The microorganisms live, reproduce, excrete and die in the soil creating more nutrients for plants to use. Composting is adding to the whole web of life in the soil.”
Composted material also provides highly concentrated minerals to the soil and plantings. This added health boost, gives soil protection from garden invaders, such as fungus and molds, adds Slaughter. Good soil has about 4 percent organic matter in it, creating enough life so that the soil is balanced.
Finally, compost helps soils drain better and aerates the soil so plant roots can access oxygen. Can your afternoon snack do that?
5. You’ll Water Your Garden Less
Composting is a way to conserve the planet’s water supply. Adding composted organic matter to existing soil helps the soil maintain more moisture.
"Composted soil can cruise through the hot summer months better,” Slaughter says. "Plant roots really love to wrap around composted matter and consume it. Gardeners need to keep adding compost because plants use it.”
6. Compost You Make Is Chemical-Free
Although compost is often thought of as a fertilizer replacement, Slaughter explains that compost is actually a soil conditioner.
"If you washed your hair every day with hand soap, within a week it would strip out the essential oils and lose the natural sheen,” he says. "Compost is like hair conditioner for soil—it adds that something luxurious to the soil.”
Compost also loosens soil high in clay content. Through agglutination, the fine clay particles stick to compost letting air and moisture in and allowing roots to penetrate the soil. All of this changes the soil structure over time so that it becomes a darker, richer resource.
If you're looking for a cheap and easy way to improve your land for fruit and vegtable production, put in a compost bin and get to work creating this so-called black gold.
About the Author: Deb Buehler is a professional writer who grew up on a hobby farm in central Indiana where she gardened, raised animals and developed a deep love for the environment. Today she lives in Indianapolis with her husband, Craig, and they grow vegetables, keep bees and play with their dogs, Abby and Tucker.