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November 2, 2012: Compost Continues to Happen

I’ve been reading Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis’s Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web. This is an excellent book – it has contributed greatly to what, up until now, has been my rather surface knowledge of our property ecosystem.

I’ve always known that we do have an ecosystem here, this as opposed to a kennel-like set up. This is, in part, what distinguishes us from area boarding stables, which are places in which manure is at best set aside for outside gardeners. However, even my thinking about this matter (pun intended) was not very advanced. I found people who’d put our manure to use, and at the same time, put it to use myself, by turning it into compost.

The bees are also part of the ecosystem

I contented myself by saying that I was making soil. Now having read this book, I am seeing that my making compost is no trifling matter. By making compost, and encouraging others to do the same, I’m making a substantial contribution to what might be called the larger ecological picture. Okay. So I’m not too keen on the minutia of gardening – planting and weeding and watering. But I’ve always been keen on composting. And now, after reading this book, I’m even more so. It provides me with a solid rationale for what up until this point in time was merely an energetic exercise in keeping the place tidy.

My world view has suddenly expanded, for it’s been brought to my attention that manure, in its decomposed form, contains life. Bacteria and fungus, algae and slime molds, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods, earthworms, and gastropods all work together in what the writers call a food web. Their activities are a part of a complex, inter-related process.

I previously made compost in a near intuitive fashion, carefully combining organic material that I had on hand. I made sure that it was sufficiently moist, and turned it after it cooled. There’s so much more to the what, where, why, and when of compost. I’m now going to give more serious thought to the bigger picture.

There are many things that I did not previously know, for example, the role and the interrelationship of fungus and bacteria. For example, if you’re making compost for a vegetable garden, you want to aim for a biomass that has slightly more bacteria than Fungi. Carrots, lettuce, broccoli, and cole crops prefer a fungus to bacteria ratio of between 0.3:1 and 0.8:1. And tomatoes, corn, and wheat aim for a fungi to Bacteria ratio of 0.8:1 or 1.1. And if you’re making compost for trees, you want a higher fungus to bacteria ratio.

According to Lownefels and Lewis, gardeners divide available composting materials into two categories, brown and green. Aged, brown organic materials support fungi, while fresh, green organic materials support bacteria. Brown items, including autumn leaves, bark, wood chips, twigs, and branches—contain carbon: carbon provides members of the soil food with energy for metabolism. Green items—such as grass clippings, fresh-picked weeds, kitchen scraps—contain plenty of the easier-to-digest bacterial foods and are good nitrogen sources. The fresher the green item, the more nitrogen it will contribute to the pile. Nitrogen provides soil food web organisms with building blocks for proteins, among other things, to produce the digestive enzymes needed in the decay process.

The pair add that it’s possible to manipulate compost materials so that the end product is highly fugal or highly bacterial, or a balance of the two: simply increase brown materials (to increase the amount of fungi) or green materials (to increase bacterial counts.)

There’s much, much more information here. Suffice to say; now after reading this book, I’m even more invested in learning about, and making compost. There is, however, one statement that I take exception to. I agree with the first part, that human and pet feces should not be composted because of the possibility that disease organisms might survive even the high heat of the compost process. However, I disagree with the second part, that “for the same reason. . . we discourage the timeworn practice of using other manures in compost for as they contend using manure is risky due to the fact that most don’t know what kind of antibiotics and other drugs were used to feed the animals.”

This is of course a very complicated and controversial issue, too large for the scope of this dispatch. So I can only speak as a small-scale composter – I think it’s well and good to compost the manure of animals that are raised in a healthy ecosystem, this as opposed to the manure of animals that come from feedlots or large boarding facilities, where the use of drugs is commonplace.

The audience of this book IS gardeners. I would like to write a book on the same subject, the audience of my book being ecologically concerned livestock owners.

Next: 328. 11/3/12: Herd Dynamics