Compost – Part 1

Compost is a great topic with all sorts of room for discussion and investigation, so I am going to take on the topic in parts.

It is also a BIG topic. Understanding compost requires a few layers of biology, a layer of agriculture, a layer of physics, and some thrown in construction, environmentalism, gardening, and spirituality. Well OK, its not that complicated of an idea, but it touches on a lot of important issues.

First and foremost, composting is the rotting of organic material (Not the little green label on food, but things made of molecules that contain carbon) into humus (Not the yummy tan colored food, that’s hummus. Humus is the part of the soil that is organic). Composting happens pretty much everywhere that organic materials occur; forests, oceans, gardens, the dump, behind your refrigerator. You might say that composting is the biological version of entropy; if there is something that can be broken down in nature, it will.

Once the maintaining properties of life leave an object, the doors are opened to a range of organisms that want to recapture any stored energy from that object. In nature, things just keep on rolling, so any creatures whose biological defenses fail become, quite literally, dirt; and that is a good thing. It can happen fast or slow, and through a whole range of processes. Sometimes there are feathered or furry creatures involved, but at a certain point, almost assuredly, some ants come into play. If there is enough chemical energy left in the object for it to become food, then some ants will find it, and eat it. This goes for a piece chocolate you drop, to a damaged flower seed. Eventually though, in all the dark quiet places of the world the more important processes take over .

Fungi and bacteria are the heart of the composting process. They are always in a battle to find food, so living things develop strategies to defend against their onslaught. We, humans shed our skin and hair, we have kamikaze immune white blood cells, acidic stomachs, oils, saliva, you name it, all in an attempt to keep fungi and bacteria away from our energy, i.e. cells and tissues. When those things fail, I think we know of some of the things that can happen; infections, stomach problems, and disease. It’s pretty ugly stuff.

Finally, once things settle down and a little moisture is mixed in, the real work begins; active microbial decomposition. All those brilliant fiber structures, cell membranes, complex molecules, and energetic chemical bonds that make up our beautiful living world are cracked open, broken down over and over again, and become raw materials and energy for a host of microbes.

In the garden, it is the compost’s job to take advantage of this process and turn all the left over organic material back into something that can be used in the garden. It can be as simple as piling up leaves in the Fall, to carefully layering “brown” material with “green” material to build a hot “heap.” Striking a balance can be tough sometimes, when things like, speed, space, smell, and output are considered.

When I first started composting, I was living in a townhouse with a small patio, and I didn’t get the balance right in many ways. Space was limited, I didn’t have access to enough “brown” material, and my inputs were too high. I’ll confess, the outcome was not pleasant for anyone within nose-shot. Not only that, I had good humus mixed in with fresh food material, making deployment of the compost impossible. Here’s some pics of the experiment:

The ideas were sound, but my execution was not so great. The most important thing was that I learned about how a biological composting system functions, and how that sort of composter might work. When building something from scratch, its always good to have some hands-on knowledge to go along with the ideas. I did go on building fortunately, and I now have a good functional 2 yer old system up.

In Compost – Part 2, I will post about the composter I have now, along with my techniques, and what I gain from the activity. Part 3 will be about the ramifications of composting on several levels, and why I do it. Oh, and I have a video to stick in somewhere, too!


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