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Composting 101

Show Notes

In our focus to value the earth’s soil, we’ve learned about the importance of our soil health to the planet and regenerative agriculture methods that help restore the soil. Composting is a regenerative agriculture practice accessible to anyone and is one of the easiest ways anyone can contribute to improved soil health. 

In this episode, we talk about the history of compost as well as composting basics and benefits!

Read below or hit one of the links above to listen in!

Composting 101

In our focus to value the earth’s soil, we’ve learned about the importance of our soil health to the planet and to all living things on earth and regenerative agriculture methods that help restore the soil. Composting is a regenerative agriculture practice accessible to anyone and is usually one of the easiest ways that urban and rural areas can contribute to improved soil health.

Most people have at least heard the word compost. Composting is the process of decomposing “brown” and “green” organic materials in a controlled environment into a nutrient-rich soil amendment earning it the nickname Black Gold! The origin of the word compost means a mix of things.

It is nature’s way of recycling. Decomposing fallen leaves, dead animals and insects, animal waste, food – and putting its nutrients back into the cycle. Composting is just a way of speeding up that decomposition process and thoughtfully contributing to nature’s cycle.

The History of compost

Composting is not a new concept. Research tells us that civilizations worldwide have used compost to enrich the soil and increase fertility. This was recognizing that plants grew more where manure had been on the soil for the most part.

Early composting

Early composting methods were developed in China, India, and Malaysia, and the foundation of these practices is still the basis of composting today. At the same time, Indigenous populations in the Americas were developing farming systems that used “fish, fish waste, manure, and plant waste to fertilize their crops.”

Scientists have found clay tablets from Mesopotamia that reference making compost. In his book, Roman general Cato the Elder wrote about using animal waste mixed with plant waste in the fields. And the Egyptians vermicomposted – or used worms to improve their agriculture.

Composting in the united states

And eventually, our founding fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson praised composting for its ability to fertilize the land naturally.

We began to stray from natural composting methods in the US after World War I and II. Farmers were pressured to use synthetic methods to feed the world. The large-scale nitrogen production facilities for explosives needed a new outlet, and they found one – fertilizers and pesticides. We also switched to heavy machinery practices that aided in decoupling livestock from the land – meaning less manure to compost into the ground naturally.

Fast forward to today when the world has realized that the practices we have in place now for industrial agriculture are harming the soil. We have literally been wasting our organic material’s potential by sending food scraps to landfills and positivity contributing to health and safety issues.

We fell off the composting wagon – but I think we are finally ready to get back on it!

What is compost?

So back to our basic definition of compost -the process of aerobic degradation of waste in a controlled environment combining recycling green and brown materials that form a rich soil amendment.

Green and brown

The “green” in this mixture is nitrogen-rich materials – the things that used to be full of life: vegetables, food scraps, yard clippings, eggshells, even meat, and dairy. The “brown” in this mixture is the carbon-rich materials – things like shredded paper, cardboard, dried leaves, or even sawdust. (Read more on my blog post about compost here)

industrial composting

There is also industrial composting, which is similar to but slightly different from at-home composting. Industrial or commercial composting is when your food waste is collected, usually in urban areas, and processed by machinery to help turn and cure the compost at a large scale. One of the main differences I want to point out (because I get so many questions about it when people visit me at my own home and see my compost) is that industrial composting can take meat, dairy, and fish scraps when most people are unable to compost those materials at home due to the smell and pests that generally arise with composting those types of compostables.

This is extremely easy for people on a plant-based diet but something to consider when choosing your composting method.

So let’s talk about that – the different compost methods before we get into WHY composting is so beneficial.

traditional composting

You can compost the quote-unquote traditional way – mixing your browns and greens equally in a backyard composting pile. It is also called microbial composting because it relies on fungi and microorganisms to stabilize organic matter. It’s a hot form of compost.

This type of composting is pretty straightforward and can be virtually free. You choose somewhere that is dry and shady that you can control the conditions. Mix a 2:1 ratio of brown to green or carbon to nitrogen. Keep it moist by watering or keeping a tarp over it. Turn it (or mix it) every 3-5 weeks. Depending on your conditions, it will be ready anywhere from two months to two years.

You can also do a modified version of this by getting an outdoor tumbler (something you could also put on a balcony if you really wanted to). So, for instance, mine is a bin made of recycled plastic that sits off the ground. The tumbler makes it really easy to turn, aerate and cure the compost. It’s ready in about two weeks, depending on the conditions.

Once it’s ready, you can add the soil-like material to your garden or plants!

vermicompost

Vermicompost is another type of compost that utilizes earthworms to create a nutrient-rich soil amendment. Vermicomposting can be done indoors or outdoors, and with a large amount of space or not – it’s pretty flexible. BUT, it does take more professional knowledge and care.

Vermicompost contains not only worm castings but also brown materials and organic wastes in various stages of decomposition. Instead of having to aerate, or turn, your compost – the worms essentially do it for you! Think about it worms have been aerating our soil and carrying nutrients from the surface to the root zone virtually forever – it’s a natural process!

What makes it different

And some say that this type of compost produces more nutrient-rich soil amendment than regular composting. Research at the New Mexico State University says that “Earthworm castings in the home garden often contain 5 to 11 times more nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium than the surrounding soil.” This is because the secretions from the earthworm’s intestines mixed with the soil that passes through them make the nutrients more concentrated and available for plant uptake.

They also say that “it takes approximately 2 pounds of earthworms (approximately 2,000 breeders) to recycle a pound of food waste in 24 hours.” Essentially you have to feed the earthworms your food scraps a little bit at a time, so microbial composting doesn’t take over, heat the compost pile, and kill your worms.

This type of composting will be cool since most of the heat or energy made from the breakdown of materials is held inside the worms.

Learn more about vermicompost methods.

Both traditional and vermicomposting creates this earthy, fluffy, black crumbly material reminiscent of chocolate cake that you can add to plants or your garden – black gold.

There is also a form of composting that uses fermentation, which is anaerobic – Bokashi.

Bokashi

Bokashi is a form of composting that uses microorganisms known as “Bokashi Bran” to ferment, instead of decomposing, organic food waste. The Spruce says that Bokashi involves layering kitchen scraps with either “wheat germ, wheat bran, or sawdust combined with molasses and effective microorganisms (EM). The bran/molasses serves as the food for the microorganisms, which are the same natural microorganisms found in soil.” Unlike traditional at-home composting or vermicomposting – you can pretty much put anything inside of it, including meat scraps, dairy, and bones.

But some say that Bokashi isn’t even a form of composting at all – because it doesn’t decompose, it’s anaerobic, and the end product is quite different. Instead of creating a soil-like material, it ferments the waste, so the result is a liquid tea that you regularly drain and can add to plants or use as a fertilizer. The remains of the organic matter that haven’t decomposed you would then add to your compost, vermicompost, or bury in the soil. So it pairs well with other methods of composting.

This process is extremely fast, from 2-5 weeks, and is incredibly nutrient-rich – but can be more expensive.

When we talk about the benefits of composting, I will be referring to at-home forms of traditional and vermicomposting. Each method has its pros and cons, but any of these methods of composting help reduce waste, benefit the soil, and positively contribute to our environment.

benefits of composting

First and foremost – let’s bring it back to valuing the earth’s soil, our focus for this month. Many of the benefits of composting reflect back to the benefits of having healthy soil.

adding nutrients

You can use compost to enrich soil which helps its soil structure. This allows it to retain moisture so the soil can reduce water runoff, meaning there is less flooding, erosion, and desertification. It also helps to add nutrients back into the ground and helps it keep those nutrients – contributing to healthier plants and more nutritious food for us to eat.

These nutrients added by compost help to suppress plant diseases and unwanted pests. The EPA says that compost helps control parasitic nematodes by adding nutrients that encourage the growth of fungi and other organisms, which, in turn, compete with or destroy nematodes. Compost also contributes to plants’ basic health by encouraging beneficial bacteria, making them less susceptible to pests, and helping to protect them from drought and freezes!

Nutrients also reduce the need for chemicals and fertilizers because it has plenty of nutrients that you’re adding in naturally.

It makes the soil biodiverse and healthy again – remember, healthy soil means healthy people means a healthy planet. And it can start in your backyard.

There is also another big reason we compost other than just improving soil health – it keeps scraps from a landfill.

Reducing greenhouse gases

Composting keeps food scraps from a landfill. It helps to reduce methane emissions and lowers your carbon footprint. 9% of greenhouse gasses from food emissions come from food thrown away by retailers and consumers. Every 100 pounds of food waste in our landfills sends 8.3 pounds of methane into the atmosphere. When our food is piled up in a landfill, anaerobic conditions are established, and bacteria decompose the waste and produce methane as a byproduct. FoodForward reports that “Methane is about 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at creating warming over a 100-year timescale, and over a 20-year timescale, it’s over 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. This is why, even though composting does produce some carbon dioxide, it’s much better for our planet than the methane produced when food rots in landfills.”

And since compost improves the soil – it contributes to its ability to sequester carbon and fight climate change.

it feels good

And let me tell you, the unspoken benefit of composting is that it feels good. It feels good to turn food scraps would be typically called waste into a resource. To give back to the soil with something that can make the world beautiful and healthy. To see that with your compost, you can grow more nutrient-rich plants that fuel your body, mind, and spirit. It develops a sense of mindfulness and shifts our perspective from thinking “this is garbage” to “this is a gesture of love towards myself, the planet, and others.”

Something to grow on

On this week’s something to grow on, I encourage the beginner’s listening to try to find a composting method that works for you. If you’re already composting, maybe you reach out to someone you love and see if you can help them create their process, or reach out to a neighbor and see if they would be willing to give you their scraps to add to your compost pile.

Every little bit helps.

And since I love quotes, I’ll leave you with this one from the poet Rumi.

“The ground’s generosity takes in our compost and grows beauty. Look at this. Try to be more like the ground. Give back.”

To find out what book we’re reading this month in the Hello, Neighbor! Bookclub join the Facebook Group!

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