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by Malcolm Beck

Every living thing on earth will sooner or later die, no plant or animal lives for ever, when it dies it will rot whether we want it to or not.

When we compost, we are assisting nature in the rotting process. And our helping requires more art than science.

When mixing nitrogen and carbon materials, with air and water, we should strive for a blend that the de-composing microbes will happily work in.

Composting must be economical. If we use more energy to make a given measure of compost than the finished product contains, we lose and nature gains nothing.

The microbes use carbon as an energy source and protein (nitrogen) to build their bodies. The microbes also need many of the other minerals of the earth to build their bodies but the decaying materials will supply them.

Even though organic materials contain both carbon and nitrogen, some materials like sawdust, dried leaves, bark, wood chips and dry grass are high carbon material. And if left in a pile and moistened, nothing happens, it doesn't stink, draw flies or seem to ever rot.

High protein/nitrogen materials are manure, kitchen waste, green vegetable matter and animal matter such as blood and meat scrapes, this material quickly rots, stinks and draws flies when wet. These materials should be ground small and mixed well with the carbon materials when composting.

It is always better to start the compost pile with the carbon materials and add the nitrogen materials a little at a time until the microbes are really working and creating heat without a stink. Then you will know you have the correct carbon to nitrogen (C\N) ratio and can continue building the compost pile successfully.

Like other plants and animals, the microbes need air and water, but they don't want to be drowned. Just keep the pile moist, about like a squeezed out sponge.

For air, construct the pile with different sizes of the carbon materials, from dust up to three-inch particles. Odd sizes help keep the pile fluffy and it will breath by heat convection, gas diffusion and atmospheric pressure changes.

Compost can be made in static piles or windrows. Static piles are best in dry environments (less surface area is exposed to drying) and when light fluffy materials are being composted.

Turning the pile is for further mixing the materials, blending the microbes and fluffing the pile so it can breathe. Turning also makes sure the outside layer spends time on the Inside of the pile.

If compost is to be used in the garden or on the farm lands it should be used as soon as all putrid smells are gone but still in a heating stage. The decomposing activity is best completed in the soil so the ammonia nitrogen can be absorbed by the clay and humus in the soil and then used by growing crops especially cover crops. Any ammonia free in the soil will be used by microbes and turned into nitrites and then nitrates a more preferred form of nitrogen for plants.

The carbon dioxide released by the decomposing microbes will be captured by the leaf surface of growing plants which use the carbon and release oxygen to be used by soil life, their roots and higher forms of life such as the animals and us.

Keeping a compost pile too long and turning too often may waste the ammonia to the atmosphere and the carbon dioxide to the air In a location where and when plants aren't growing causing a big Waste to nature and the compost maker.

It is easy to tell when compost is aged enough to be worked into the soil. With one hand dig into the pile as far as possible and pull some out and smell, if it is still rank it is not ready, if you only smell ammonia it may be ready, to tell for sure walk a distance from the pile and wash your hand with water then smell both hands, if the hand from the pile smells it is not ready, but if no smell lingers the compost can be used, because by now weed seeds and pathogens will be dead and the soil will gain from the continued composting activity.

You don't need to be a scientist to make compost. Mother nature has been decaying things into the soil to nourish new life since the very beginning. She uses little effort and has no loss of nutrients and energy. And, she is a willing teacher, only if we observe her ways.

I have consulted with many cities, garbage companies, dairies, feedlots and industries and their reason for composting is always to save landfill space or to get rid of a waste product.

With nature there is no waste. Materials only become a waste when man wastes them.

Few people really understand why nature decays all dead things, how they should be used and they benefit man.


Every living thing will sooner or later die, no creature lives forever.

When it dies, it will rot whether you want it to or not.

Composting is the art of working with this rotting process in an economical way.



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last updated:  February 9, 2004