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Legend has it that composting dates back to the early Roman Empire. Roman farmers put left over organic material in piles to sit over winter, and by the next season they had decayed into fertilizer to use in the soil. But no matter who “discovered” composting, we do know that thousands of years of successful agriculture preceded industrial, synthetic fertilizers. So how does decomposing stuff turn into fertilizer and why does it work?
With the right combination of carbonaceous material (think corn stalks and dead leaves), nitrogen rich ingredients (such as grass and manure), microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates will digest the materials into compost. Incorporating finished compost into your soil essentially builds the soil’s physical structure, as well as inoculates the soil ecology. The resulting humus retains more moisture and fertility. It also provides the structure to maintain an ecosystem of millions of microorganisms that do a very important job: decompose organic matter and turn it into plant available nutrients.
At Hidden Villa, soil building is the cornerstone of our farming practice. We make our own compost from the manure and bedding of our cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens, as well as vegetable scraps from the farm. Our other efforts in soil building include keeping worm bins and laying sheet mulch. Our worm bins contain colonies of red wigglers that digest manure and make rich, concentrated fertilizer. For sheet mulch, we spread wood chips and dead leaves at the base of our orchard trees and areas we want to build soil. As the mulch decomposes, it creates new soil and nutrients, while also suppressing weeds.
A great aspect of soil building is that you can do it with materials you already have, since basically all you are doing is facilitating decomposition of organic matter. Instead of buying garden soil or compost, try different soil building techniques yourself. Lay mulch (any carbonaceous material) in depleted garden areas or get into vermiculture.
As for compost, there is definitely an art and science to it, but there’s no better way to learn than to try it yourself. Keep in mind that the most efficient composting occurs with a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 30 to 1, and all organic material has a combination of both carbon and nitrogen. There endless resources online to guide you, but here are a few tips. Start a pile of food scraps and yard trimmings in a compost bin you make or buy. Cover the pile to avoid rodents and pests. Let the scraps sit or turn the pile every week or so. How fast it finishes depends on the season, how often you turn it, and what’s in the pile, but generally you’ll have finished compost within 4 to 6 months. Soon your soil will be teeming with microscopic life that will create a noticeable difference in your garden.