Jon Mychal Heatherly
Save the Earth with Black Gold
Updated: Dec 3, 2021
Want the dirt on how to level up your green thumb? Keep carbon in the soil by composting!
Today I want to talk dirty to you. One of the filthiest things to discuss involves digging up some dirt on this situation. Previously, we discussed all different kinds. From silty to sandy, the top suggestion to improve your soil was to add organic compost. But what on Earth is “organic compost”?
Ideally, our soils should teem with orgies of microbial activity and once-living materials in various states of decomposition. The tried and true way to enrich this natural process involves compost amendments. Lovingly referred to as “black gold,” today we will learn what compost is, why it’s essential, and how to make your own.
What is compost?
So you want to learn about compost, huh? Composting might seem enigmatic, but it need not be that way. Stated, composting is the process of gathering decaying food and plants, recycling them, and using the resulting decomposed matter to enrich your soil.
You considered this stuff to be trash anyway, so why not make some use of it? What was once an untapped resource can now be put to use! Some cities go so far as to incorporate food waste collection and composting into a municipal service.
Be sure to balance your browns and greens. What’s the difference between “browns and greens” in a compost pile? Brown refers to materials with large amounts of carbon — think dry, woody plant material like leaves. The heavy-carbon materials become an energy source, and they help dry the mixture.
Green means the materials high in nitrogen and protein — like your kitchen scraps. These materials feed a symbiotic ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and more. Seasoned gardeners tend to follow the ratio of three parts brown to 1 part green by volume.
Browns include leaves, corrugated cardboard, untreated sawdust, paper products, Straw, pine needles, sticks, crop stalks, cotton fabric, and even dryer lint!
Greens consist of manure (herbivore), lawn clippings, coffee/tea grounds, eggshells, kitchen scraps, seaweed, and plant trimmings.
Leave out the meats, dairy, oils, diseased plants, carnivore wastes (cats/dogs/humans), pesticide-treated materials, and black walnut. Learn more about what to include or exclude in your compost pile here.
By Ben Kerckx
Why use compost?
Amending soil with compost has several benefits over simply applying conventional fertilizers. Using synthetic fertilizers alter the soil’s chemistry, and excessive applications can lead to harmful concentrations. Composted materials function more symbiotically by encouraging beneficial microbial and fungal activity. Furthermore, organic compost helps to buffer the balance of nutrients and trace elements needed by your crops.
Composting also helps to reduce your trash production. Shockingly 24% of American trash is food waste (EPA), and global food waste accounts for 6–8% of global greenhouse emissions (WWF). 8% might not sound like a large share of emissions but equals six times that of the aviation sector.
Food scraps remain unused in landfills, and the subsequent anaerobic cycles produce methane — a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide. Composting not only encourages aerobic reactions but helps to keep carbon in the soil where it belongs. You can make black gold to enrich your garden and save the planet!
We should mention only to use plant-based materials in your compost. Avoid certain foods like animal products and oils, as these smell, attract pests, and foster harmful bacteria. Hot composting methods exist that stimulate reactions to raise the temperature of your compost pile — sterilizing it But to keep it simple, we recommend only putting plant materials in your compost.
How to compost
Now that you know what compost is and why you should make it discover how to compost for yourself! You have several composting methods — whether a crate, tumbler, or even worm bins (vermicomposting). Ultimately you want to consider a few basics of your compost quality: nutrients, size, moisture, air, and temperature.
For nutrition, we recommended the three parts brown to one part green ratio by volume. Layer it like a lasagna to disperse your materials evenly. You want your particle size to be small enough for organisms to digest readily, but you don’t want them so tiny that your soil compacts. As your compost ages, sift it with a wire screen to extract finished compost and separate large particles for further processing.
In terms of moisture, you want your compost to be wet without being soggy. Add more greens to increase moisture, or add browns to dry it up some. Aerate your compost by tumbling it, turning it, or via worm activity.
Account for the qualities of nutrients, particle size, moisture, and air, and your temperature should stabilize. You want a steady 140°F/60°C to encourage activity without sterilizing your pile of all microbes.
Continue adding to your compost and rotating for at least six months. More static compost piles require up to a couple of years to mature. Save even more time by trying hot compost methods, as this cuts down curing time to less than a month. Hot composting requires a size of at least four feet high by four feet wide.
I would also be remiss if I failed to take this opportunity to mention Recompose — a Seattle-based, human-composting funeral home. They help provide an alternative end-of-life service to traditional embalming or cremation. Rather than prevent decomposition or use energy-intensive combustion, you can have your physical body turned into living compost in a matter of weeks. Consider this another option when you plan your Will.
Composting is an ongoing process, but its benefits are without parallel. You can supplement your fertilizer regiment with it or use only compost to fertilize your soil. Either way, you can bulk up your beefsteaks while helping keep the climate cool.
Just remember a few key takeaways. Maintain a good ratio (3:1) of browns and greens. Avoid scraps from animal products or the manure of creatures who eat meat. Keep your pile turned, and you’ll be enjoying some nutrient-rich compost in no time. You can take a step in the fight against human-caused climate change, and you can grow better petunias than Sally down the street. Happy composting!