As a nation, we have forgotten the importance of soil and what makes it tick (nutrients, like those that come from compost). This is fascinating, given that everything from food to raw materials for manufacturing and other purposes comes either from on top of the land or beneath it. Think about that for a moment because I don’t think enough of us appreciate the magnitude of that. Our soil is the richness that makes life on earth possible. From it springs forth trees that cleanse our air and pump out our life-enabling oxygen. From soil comes the plants that feed us or feed the animals that we in turn eat. Franklin Roosevelt is famous for saying: “A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself”. This simple quote yields powerful and indisputable logic. If we destroy our soil, we destroy everything that it produces, i.e. our resources.
It is hardly surprising that we have lost sight of the incredible and undeniable treasure of soil because the vast majority of us have no connection to it. For the vast preponderance of us, soil is a messy inconvenience. We call it ‘dirt’ and it’s the stuff that stains our clothes and gets stuck under our fingernails. Even to many farmers, who rely on it for their livelihood, soil is something less than ‘black gold’. For large and industrial-scale operations, a tremendous amount of petroleum-based fertilizers are added to depleted soils in order to prop them up and force productivity. Regardless of our interaction or dependence on soil, it seems that we aren’t treating it as the indispensable resource that it deserves.
So, if soil is so important, why aren’t we doing more to establish a genuine relationship with it? Why don’t we foster it and treat it as well as we do our house, car, money? Soil is one of our richest assets that we can acquire. It’s an asset that can be acquired without risk and increases in value indefinitely if we only treat it right. With good soil you can produce any plant food you eat (climate dependent), feed your livestock, grow beautiful gardens, and create environments that are hedged against climate change. How does this relate to compost? Well, compost is one of the best ways to build and maintain excellent soil. Once you see your food thrive in compost-rich soil, or see your garden burst with bloom, color, and pollinators spring forth after the addition of compost, you’ll understand with both senses and emotion that soil is worth what you put into it and it truly matters.
What is compost and what can you make it from?
Compost is defined as: “a mixture that consists largely of decayed organic matter and is used for fertilizing and conditioning land”. In this definition, “land” is soil and compost is a fertilizer and conditioner of soil. Essential, compost is building fertility from fertility through deliberate repurposing. So if we can agree that soil is one of our most valuable assets, then compost is both a safeguard and accelerator of its value.
Pretty much all biomass found within the yard can be used for compost, though amounts of certain things should be limited. Even weeds can go in it if you are hot composting. You just want to make sure that you get the compost hot enough to kill the seeds or you may inadvertently spread them throughout your garden.
Things that can go into compost include:
- Kitchen scraps such as vegetable and fruit trimmings, nut shells, and eggshells
- Untreated cardboard, paper (including bags), napkins, and paper towels
- Used coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, etc.
- Fireplace ashes
- Grass clippings, chipped leaves, broken up sticks, bark, dead plant material, straw, wood chips, sawdust, etc.
- Animal manure from pig, cows, chicken, etc.
Why is it resilient?
Since disruption and uncertainty has become the norm, resilience is no longer a nice but unnecessary notion. Resiliency becomes essential if you want to keep any semblance of normalcy in your life. Any way in which we can reduce dependency from outside sources and provide for ourselves is crucial. Compost is one of our greatest potentials for resilience. Compost-enriched soils can grow a plethora of food and greatly offset what we need to buy. Compost creates vibrant gardens and other thriving outdoor spaces that are sources of entertainment, happiness, and solace when our normal outlets and means for achieving those things may not be accessible during times of lockdowns and restrictions. Compost therefore nurtures us. Here are some more reasons that compost builds resilience.
- Obtaining and recycling materials from your own property is the most efficient, practical, environmentally-minded, and controllable option for building soil and establishing fertility. To bring fertility in from elsewhere involves energy-consuming production (usually) and transportation as well as other carbon footprints that do not make a healthy case for outsourcing organic matter as opposed to building productivity from your own stock, even if you have lower quantities or qualities than desired. Also, bringing in nutrients from elsewhere is a band aid solution to the real problem of building fertility onsite. If things as pivotal as your food source and sources of enjoyment, fulfillment, passion, (like what you get with gardens), etc. are dependent upon factors outside of your control, particularly in times of disruption, scarcity, and increasing uncertainty, you are reducing your resilience.
- One of the most obvious reasons that compost is a great use of resources is because compost typically consists of things that would otherwise go to waste. Whenever you can close the loop on resources, you are ensuring things cycle through in a way that maintains vibrancy. And if you aren’t growing your own food and instead obtaining it from the grocery store, you should treat the wealth of vegetable and fruit trimmings you get from preparing food as a windfall. Not items destined for disposal.
- It harbors more beneficial microbial and fungal life than just soil or mulch alone.
- It can be the start of a native wildflower meadow or new life for your yard with sheet mulching. Learn more about sheet mulching here. And if you feel compelled to go the route of creating a natural wildflower meadow with native plants, check out this native plant finder to figure out what to plant from the NWF!
- It can be the fuel for a supercharged liquid fertilizer known as compost tea. Learn about the uses of compost tea and how to make it here.
- It prepares your soil to withstand the vicissitudes of changing precipitation patterns, which will vacillate for many areas between deluges and droughts. Compost-enriched soils allows for exceptional moisture absorption to get through drought periods, yet is airy and well-draining to keep roots healthy and oxygenated during heavy rain events.
How can you use it?
Compost can serve many impactful purposes, including:
- Providing nutrients during the growing season
- Conditioning garden beds during the off-season so that nutrients can become incorporated into the bed over a longer term
- Remediating damaged soils
- Being a direct growing medium for certain plants and veggies that are able to grow in it
We need to take a serious interest in our soils and make them as productive and valuable as possible. The key to many wonderful things that come from our soil are dependent its health and quality. Engage and embrace your compost so that you can master resilience and appreciate the independence and joy that comes from prolific soil that is capable of producing things we both need and enjoy.