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A talk given at our local garden center in 2012.

By the end of today, some of you may feel as if you have been to a revival meeting.
And that’s OK because, in fact, I am here to preach.  Not a religion, but a philosophy.
As well as inform, I want to inspire, stimulate and activate.  I want more and more people to embrace the philosophy (not unique to me) with two simple tenets:
    First, do no harm
    Second, do good whenever you can
Or to put it somewhat differently, try to leave the world a better place than you found it.  There are obviously many ways that you can make the world a better place, but one far-reaching and simple way is, you guessed:
MAKE COMPOST!!

 

That is why I am on mission.  I want to teach the world to make compost.  I want to improve the earth one heap at a time.
To that end, I started Compost International, which currently is me, my website and my mission.  But I also started a Compost Club, with the mission of developing  and implementing  a plan to turn Corning into the epitome of a green city, and example for others to copy.  For the past few months the Compost Club has been sadly neglected, but now that I am back at the Farmers’ Market, I will be thinking about the idea again and hopefully doing something positive.
We’ll talk about:
       the reasons for composting
       what to compost
       and how to compost

 

WHY COMPOST?
You’re here so obviously you think it’s a good idea – why?
Left to her own devices Nature quietly composts every scrap of organic material and maintains a harmonious, fertile environment.

Unfortunately, man has interrupted this age-old cycle of returning organic matter to the soil, to the very great detriment of man and animal.  But it is possible to emulate nature, and in the 1930’s Sir Albert Howard developed the now-famous Indore method, which has nothing to so with composting under a roof, but rather refers to the place in India where he worked as an agricultural adviser and was in charge of a government research farm.  Howard has been called the father of modern composting and by extension organic farming, for his refinement of a traditional Indian composting system.  Among his disciples, if you like, was J.I. Rodale who brought organic farming to the United States.  The Indore method is still widely used.  It was supplanted as the number one scientific method of composting by the Berkeley method, developed by the University of California.  We will look at both methods in more detail later, but I want to say that, while I respect the science behind them, I can’t help feeling that in both cases, the scientists were a little carried away with their own cleverness and forgot that Nature got there first, and can take care of composting very nicely thank you. 

My approach to composting leans more towards Nature than towards science. (Disclaimer – not talking as a Master gardener)

Whatever your approach, There are three broad reasons for making compost
    Recycle organic material keeping it out of landfills
    Improve the health and fertility of the soil
    Dispose of problem materials


The end result is to improve the health of the soil – and whatever the motivation for making compost, no-one is then going to say I don’t want this (the finished product), I think I’ll send it to the landfill!

One’s motivation for making compost is greatly affected by one’s environment.  Here in the United States, it is very important to reduce the amount of organic material that goes to landfills (where it just produce methane), while in other areas compost can be the solution to disposing of unwanted matter such as sewage.  More about that later.

Whatever your original motivation, you will reap the benefits of making and using compost in more ways than you ever imagined.

This almost miraculous compound:
·      Improves soil structure


·.     Improves water holding capacity, thus  reducing water loss or leaching.
·

       Improves and stabilizes soil pH


·.     Increases microbial activity, by providing ideal conditions
· Improves the ability of soils to hold nutrients for plant use.
In other words, compost produces exactly the right conditions for good, fertile soil.  It encourages large numbers of microbes, which in turn nourish and sustain plants.
But it also:
·       Greatly reduces use of chemical fertilizers


      · Reduces run-off and erosion

      
· Reduces pollution of aquifers, rivers and the ocean

     
· Neutralizes many toxins


·      Helps restore wetlands

     
· May act as a mild herbicide


     · Increases plants' resistance to disease


     · Controls many pathogens in the soil

Improving the soil, in imitation of nature, is the original purpose.  How absolutely wonderful that people have discovered that compost does a lot more than improve the fertility of the soil.

COMPOST –WHAT IT IS AND WHAT IT DOES
Compost is the end product of the planned decomposition of organic matter.
Compost is man’s attempt to create humus, the natural end product of decomposition.
Compost is not strictly speaking a fertilizer, although it improves the fertility of the soil, and contains macro and                          micronutrients that are released into the soil over time.
Compost is the solution to many environmental problems, which we will talk about more in the bigger picture.
Compost is a state of mind

Let’s go back to the list of what compost does and look at them one by one.
· Improves soil structure
· Improves water holding capacity, thus  reducing water loss or leaching.
· Improves and stabilizes soil pH
· Increases microbial activity, by providing ideal conditions  The activity of soil organisms is essential in productive soils and for healthy plants. Their activity is largely based on the presence of organic matter. Soil microorganisms include bacteria, protozoa, actinomycetes, and fungi. They are not only found within compost, but proliferate within soil media.
Microorganisms play an important role in organic matter decomposition which, in turn, leads to humus formation and nutrient availability. Microorganisms can also promote root activity as specific fungi work symbiotically with plant roots, assisting them in the extraction of nutrients from soils.
Sufficient levels of organic matter also encourage the growth of earthworms, which through tunnelling, increase water infiltration and aeration.

· Improves the ability of soils to hold nutrients for plant use.
Provides Nutrients
Compost products contain a considerable variety of macro and micronutrients. Although often seen as a good source of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, compost also contains micronutrients essential for plant growth. Since compost contains relatively stable sources of organic matter, these nutrients are supplied in a slow-release form. On a pound-by-pound
basis, large quantities of nutrients are not typically found in compost in comparison to most commercial fertilizers.
However, compost is usually applied at much greater rates; therefore, it can have a significant cumulative effect on nutrient availability. The addition of compost can affect both fertilizer and pH adjustment (lime/sulfur addition). Compost not only provides some nutrition, but often makes current fertilizer programs more effective.)
 Greatly reduces use of chemical fertilizers
· Reduces run-off and erosion
· Reduces pollution of aquifers, rivers and the ocean
· Neutralizes many toxins
· Helps restore wetlands
· May act as a mild herbicide
· Increases plants' resistance to disease
· Controls many pathogens in the soil
Provides Soil Biota

Suppresses Plant Diseases
Degrades Compounds
The microbes found in compost are also able to degrade some toxic organic compounds, including petroleum (hydrocarbons).
This is one of the reasons why compost is being used in bioremediation of petroleum contaminated soils.

Wetland Restoration
Compost has also been used for the restoration of native wetlands. Rich in organic matter and microbial population, compost and soil/compost blends can closely simulate the characteristics of wetland soils, thereby encouraging the reestablishment of native plant species.

Erosion Control
Coarser composts have been used with great success  as a mulch for erosion control and have been successfully used on sites where conventional erosion control methods have not performed well. In Europe, fine compost has been mixed with water and sprayed onto slopes to control erosion.

Weed Control
Immature composts or ones which possess substances detrimental to plant growth (phytotoxins), are also being tested as an alternative to plastic mulches for vegetable and fruit production. While aiding in moisture conservation and moderating soil temperatures, immature composts also can act as mild herbicides.

WHAT TO COMPOST
Anything organic.
Glass, plastics, metals won’t work

Carbon-rich material, also known as brown material is anything that has died off or dried out through natural processes.  Browns include:
corn stalks
hay
leaves
peanut shells
peatmoss
pine needles
straw
wood ash
apple pomace
bagasse(from sugarcane)
sawdust
shredded cardboard
shredded newspaper
telephone books
wood chips
wool

Nitrogen-rich materials, also known as greens, are anything of animal origin, or recently harvested plant materials, even if they have now withered.
Greens include:
Alfalfa
blood meal
bone meal
clover
food scraps
coffee grounds (they may look brown, but they act  as green)
cow manure
fish wastes
fruit peels
garden debris
grass clippings
hen manure
horse manure
humanure
pig manure
seaweed
seed meals
septage (from septic tanks)
sewage sludge
sheep manure
urine
vegetable scraps
weeds

HOW IT WORKS
Macros chomp, chew, shred etc reducing size of particles, giving more surface area for microbes
Bacteria take over – bacteria will work at near freezing temperatures (very slowly)
        Above 55 really get going
        Temperature of pile is affected by type of bacteria working, mesophiles and thermophiles, and vice versa
        Need c for energy, N for growth/reproduction, O to make it happen.  All in the presence of water. Activity happens where all three are present – at intersections of aggregates - illustration
        When all nitrogen is used up, fungi take over  - they are the decomposers on the forest floor.  And they decompose the woodier, carbon rich materials
        All the other soil organisms also have a go and finally you have a wonderful dark, earthy-smelling crumbly material known as compost.

WHAT DO YOU DO WITH IT
You spread it around – as a top-dressing, as a side dressing, mixed into planting holes, used to prepare new beds, or as compost tea.  However you introduce compost to the soil, what you are actually doing is increasing the population of micro-organisms.  They are the true fertilizers.