Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Rant - Is it Compost or A Dump Heap?

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Remember composting? Remember those innocent days when Arlo was trying to take some stuff to the dump, not the "sanitary landfill"—and before we found out the dump's seepage was poisoning the town's water supply? Remember thinking that compost would transform the world? Perhaps not. Compost didn't even rate a background mention in that "thirtysomethng" nostalgia flick "The Big Chill".

Seen many cookin' compost piles lately? While some plain-ole' heaps of garden refuse are hidden away in the dark corners of many gardens; well-formed, hot, or active, compost piles (the ones that achieved temperatures of 140o F, and decomposed even the starchiest corn stalk within four to six weeks) are an increasingly rare garden fixture. Active composting has slipped rapidly into obscurity. It has been replaced by dump heaps.

Some ardent proponents of composting have survived in the gardening backwaters of the times—but many former "Captains-of-Compost" have let their active piles go dry.

In the  ‘70s I was, alas, an outspoken proponent of the virtues of, the magic surrounding, the healing properties of, and the essential need for Compost—capital "C". I began my career as an organic gardener convinced that compost was the Queen-of-Panaceas for my garden—and all gardens. I loved to make compost. Watching the four foot high piles begin to steam in the brisk early-morning air was fascinating and very gratifying. Turning hot, steaming, "fragrant" compost piles (to the compost purist, the pungent odors of decomposition--tinted with ammonia, sulphur, musk, and wet dirt—is a sweet, delicious aroma) was a mystical, if not religious, experience. I made compost almost every month of the year during this reign-of-fiber period of my gardening history.

Not only did I make literally tons of compost for my garden, but I persuaded, through sheer enthusiasm, nearly every ornamental and edible landscape client I had in the ‘70s to have me build a neat, tidy set of compost bins for their own "cookin' compost

I had expected my clients to gather up their daily kitchen waste, layer it with sawdust in a 30 gallon garbage can, and construct a hot compost pile in one bin with alternate layers of garden clippings, manure, straw, and the stored kitchen scraps. Furthermore, in my heady idealism, I expected the client to turn the first bin's actively decomposing compost into the adjacent bin within a week or two and to continue to stir or turn the pile very week or two until the temperature of the pile began to drop—some four to six weeks later. I gave them copies of articles on the importance of compost and recipes for the well-layered pile. I even, in my deepest enthusiasm, expected them to enjoy, if not revel, in this onerous, odiferous task. Ha!

Alas, in a few short years, all but one of the four or five bin systems I made had been turned into short, little tool sheds. The only bin system still used for “composting” was merely a place to heap piles of landscape clippings and let nature take two to four years to slowly rot the refuse to a fibrous, yet nutritionally insipid, pile of mulch—a dump heap.

I had made two fundamental errors. First, I misjudged the entire sociology  of the "system". The biology of composting is relatively simple, elegant, and easily implemented by the right, enthusiastic person. But, what's important about hot composting is whether-or-not it fits into one's lifestyle. The most important elements in an ecosystem, from a practical, ethnocentric point of view, are the people, the homeowners, and gardeners.

Secondly, defining a "system"; no matter how clever, thoughtful, elegant, or practical, is to set one's self up for potential failure. So often, the circumstances of each household are different from the theoretical "norm". By having a predetermined "system", I ignored special situations that made composting impractical or ineffective. Thus, the ecology of composting must embrace and mesh with each gardener's unique social ecology—with respect for the practical reality of their personality, lifestyle, and the local resources.

There are three levels of compost thermodynamics: cryophlic (cold-tolerant bacteria), mesophilic (bacteria growing only at mild-temperatures) and thermophilic (bacteria for hot compost). Any pile of garden refuse will eventually rot, but I prefer to call these piles heaps—not true, thermophilic compost. With the passing of time, the busy gardener's heap will have a high-fiber material for use a mulch or soil amendment. But I don't treat such material as having any significant  nutrition for the soil since subsequent rainfall leaches valuable nutrients while the heap sits around. I think of a dump heap as merely a soil amendment to improve the texture. This is a form of decomposition that easily fits into the active lifestyle of many of todays gardeners. One significant drawback of heaps is their inclination to provide habitat for critters of the rodent persuasion—rats and mice. So, I usually place a cylinder of chicken-wire on stakes far away from the house, behind a screen of shrubbery, and cover the top of the cylinder with a wire "lid".

There are a number of products on the market that I consider either totally bogus are certainly not worth the money to an accomplished composter. If you are using any fresh material at all, especially fairly fresh manures, there are plenty of bacteria and many types of bacteria and fungi available for free. Buying supposedly complex blends of beneficial bacteria and fungi is like throwing fiber into the wind. My favorite book in the subject, Composting, A Study of the Process and its Principles by Clarence Golueke, puts it very clearly: "In University of California studies, [using horse manure, "rich" soils, composting material, and two commercial preperations] the composting process was neither accelerated nor the final product improved in those runs in which inoculums were tested, even though the inoculums were rich in bacteria."

In other words: The raw material comes with the seeds of its own destruction.

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Hi Folks, I somehow lost the usual selection "Post a comment". To leave a comment simply click on the area/button that says "___ Comments". Or, click on the title of the post under Blog Archive. Robert

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