Making Compost and Using It

If you expect to have any hope of success as an organic gardener making compost is essential.

| August/September 1991


If you're so inclined, making compost can be a group project.


Rural author Wendell Berry once wrote of the farmer, "He has seen the light lie down in the dung heap and rise again in the corn." These words have sharply clarified for me the agricultural lifecycle—or even better, light cycle. Plants convert solar energy into food for animals (ourselves included), Then the wastes from those animals, along with dead plant and animal bodies, "lie down in the dung heap," are composted, and "rise again in the corn."

This cycle of light is the central reason that making compost and using it is such an important link in organic food production: It returns solar energy to the soil. In this context, such common compost ingredients as onion skins, hair trimmings, eggshells, vegetable parings, and even burnt toast are no longer seen as garbage, but as sunlight on the move from one form to another.

By making use of such substances, composting enables us to have large amounts of "dung" for our gardens without necessarily passing most of the ingredients through an animal first. It also greatly speeds up the earth's own soil-building processes to achieve results in months instead of centuries.

The benefits of using compost are so great that it's no exaggeration to call it the key to soil fertility. The end product of composting is humus, the broken-down organic matter that is the basis of soil life. In a single teaspoon of fertile soil, there are billions of microorganisms that perform numerous functions. They change nutrients into a form your plants can use, provide an ongoing flow of that food, and bind earthen particles into small aggregates, helping to build a friable soil.

Other composting benefits:

Controlled pH. Acid or alkaline soil can lock up many nutrients, making them unavailable to plants. The regular addition of compost balances the soil, helping to bring it to the crop-favoring pH range of between 6.5 and 7.5.

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