The Mystery of ‘Black Gold’
What is compost anyway? Simply enough, compost is decomposed organic matter. It can come from anything: leaves, pine needles, trees, food scraps, paper products, manure…anything that was once alive. It may look like dirt, but it’s anything but.
Compost is the result of the natural breakdown of matter to its basic chemical state. But compost doesn’t just happen with a pile of waste and a wish. The big pile of organic waste that you see is actually an entire ecosystem of bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes working hard to break down that organic matter into the dark, nutrient dense amendment farmers and gardeners cherish. In one handful of compost you will hold more living organisms than there are people on earth. Pretty cool, huh?
The natural process of compost is one of the biggest forces in human life. Think about a forest floor. The forest has the cool rich dark earth out of which spring the great evergreens and deciduous trees and bushes that teem with life. Nobody goes out to water forests or giving the trees fertilizers but yet they thrive. How do they do this? Forests make their own compost, that’s how. Forests take in carbon and provide oxygen, without which humans would not be around. The compost the forest naturally makes actually feeds the forest that makes it, which completes a cycle from which humanity benefits. Without the natural composting process, we wouldn’t be able to breath.
So now I know what compost is, what can it do for me?
New Mexico soil is…well…dirty. Dirt is not soil. Dirt is essentially finely eroded rock that contains no organic matter. Soil is living dirt: the mix of micro-organisms, water, air, insects, plants and minerals that make up the microecosystems that allow the healthy development of plants. Adding compost to your existing soil will, over time, create or enhance the microecosystem in your yard or garden. Sure, you can add chemical fertilizers and bagged nutrients and achieve some modicum of success with your tomatoes, but you will be left with dirt at the end of the growing season. When you create a thriving living soil with compost the soil feeds itself.
A living soil that is built well, and regularly amended with compost, will create its own nutrient factory, so you will never need to use chemical fertilizers. Even “organic” fertilizer solutions can have detrimental effects on your garden. The influx of specific nutrients can create in imbalance of what your plants actually need. Excess nutrients get leached through the soil and into the groundwater, creating a dangerous imbalance of nutrients in our environment. The EPA says that “[n]utrient pollution is one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems,” and a large part of the nutrient pollution comes from chemical fertilizers. Compost added to soil, however, creates an environment where beneficial bacteria and fungus thrive and foster the needs of plants.
A healthy soil does more than feed plants.
Healthy soil regulates the flow of water and absorbs more water. Compost is like a fluffy sponge: it absorbs water and creates pockets in the soil for air and excess water to flow into. This is great for your garden, lawn and your water bill. It is also good for your community and your planet. 38% of freshwater use is used for irrigation in the United States, and the fresh water supply keeps dropping. Adding compost to your garden or lawn will help substantially reduce your water use.
Healthy soil also plays a big role in carbon sequestration and pollution buffering. Living soils trap pollutants and the microorganisms in the soil go to work breaking down all the bad stuff. Don’t worry though, the bad stuff won’t end up in your tomatoes. The bacteria and other organisms actually break the pollutants down to basic carbon: they are powerful little guys!
There are many other reasons to use compost in your soil: you divert waste from the landfill, reduce the carbon footprint and plastics involved in shipping bagged fertilizers, and maintain the micro-ecological balance of your community.