Composting: It’s not as dull as it sounds

[This article was published in “The Recorder” on February 15, 2018, and Lexington’s The News-Gazette, February 21, 2018, to promote four upcoming composting workshops that will be presented at regional libraries.]

Joe Murray, Burnsville, Virginia
Contributing  Writer

“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”   Franklin D. Roosevelt

Compost happens. Just as compost has always happened. Composting started immediately after life came into existence on earth, whether with the decay of simple bacteria along the shores of a primordial ocean or the remains of an apple in the garden of Eden.

Just as there is an impulse in nature to build complex structures from simple compounds, there exists a corresponding impulse to disassemble those complex structures back into their original simple compounds. The art of composting works with the latter impulse, orchestrating the interaction between compostable materials and organisms responsible for the disassembling. A walk through the forest illustrates the perpetual balance between growth and decay; in spring and summer, you’re aware of the leaves, charged by the sun, fueling the growth of plants. A visit to the same patch of woods in the fall and winter directs your attention to the forest floor, where last season’s leaf drop begins its transformation into a rich humus material that enters the soil.

Many are drawn to composting because of the numerous benefits of compost’s primary ingredient, humus, the dark brown organic matter resulting from the decomposition of plant and animal materials by microorganisms. Composting helps improve the environment by decreasing landfill waste and by sequestering carbon into your garden’s soil. Biologically, humus serves as the primary food source for the soil food web. Physically, humus improves soil structure, porosity and water holding capacity, thus helping soils resist erosion. Chemically, humus expands the ability of the mineral components of soil (sand, silt and clay) to bind to nutrients.

Although admittedly more esoteric, composting connects us with the “other-half” of nature associated with dying, death, and decay. Often, gardeners focus solely on the germination, growth and harvest of plants and pay scant attention to the remainder of the greater cycle at play in their gardens. Actively becoming involved in composting not only helps achieve the benefits previously mentioned, but provides a sense of balance to the garden and gardener as well.

Composting has produced a history as rich as the humus material for which compost is valued. Humans probably recognized the benefits of composting over 10,000 years ago while transitioning from hunter-gatherers to an agrarian existence. It would be hard to escape noticing the difference in plants growing in the immediate vicinity of manure from a domesticated animal compared to plants not exposed to manure. Early farmers experimented with combinations of plant material and animal manure to create compost to improve soil fertility. One of the earliest known composting recipes was recorded on clay tablets around 2300 B.C.E in the Mesopotamian Valley. Throughout recorded history, composting recipes and procedures were included in publications as diverse as bureaucratic manuals and religious documents. Written accounts of composting are found in the works of William Shakespeare, Sir Francis Bacon, and Sir Walter Raleigh.

As early Native American civilizations in North America developed their own composting operations unique to their methods of growing food, many of those nations in the eastern region of North America shared their techniques with early European settlers. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were keenly aware of the importance of composting to agriculture and wrote often in their correspondence about the success of different techniques employed in composting and their use of compost.

In the middle of the 19th century when agricultural scientists discovered that plant roots absorb nutrients in an inorganic form, a shift occurred from composting to the application of synthetic soluble fertilizers to provide specific nutrients in a form in which they could be readily absorbed by plants. The research methodology at that time failed to detect that those nutrients were already present in sufficient quantities in the humus (organic matter), living organisms, and mineral components of healthy soil. We now know that the action of a healthy soil food web, with sufficient and diverse sources of organic matter, releases the necessary nutrients at the time and in the form appropriate for plant root uptake. In contrast, land grant agricultural institutions and government regulatory agencies (both largely coming into existence just after 1862) embraced the application of synthetic soluble fertilizers as the preferred way to provide nutrients to the root zones of crops, thus dismissing the use of compost as antiquated and inefficient. Period extension publications professed that regular use of synthetic fertilizers would allow for the growing of one crop (monoculture) across a large swath of land, year after year (monocropping). Soil was no longer viewed as a living organism, but as a substrate in which to grow plants with regular applications of synthetic fertilizers. This transition, marked by the rejection of composting in favor of widespread use of synthetic fertilizers, coincided with a larger movement in agriculture where land management centered on an economic or utilitarian-based ethic.

George Washington Carver, full-length portrait, standing in field, probably at Tuskegee, holding piece of soil. 1906. Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer.

Many organic farming pioneers emerged in the early 1900s including Rudolf Steiner, Sir Albert Howard, and J.I. Rodale. Celebrating Black History, I wish to draw attention to an unsung hero in the organic farming movement in the United States, George Washington Carver. I’ll leave it to the biographers to share the heart wrenching tragedies and incredible triumphs that punctuated Carver’s life and simply add that our nation is fortunate that young Carver overcame significant challenges in his youth to eventually attend Iowa Agricultural College in Ames, Iowa (now Iowa State University), and have the foresight to study agricultural sciences and the new field of ecology.

Before settling into what would appear to be a comfortable and productive career in education and research in Iowa, he was recruited by Booker T. Washington to start up an agricultural program at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Carver showed himself to be a free thinker and offered a unique view of the farm as a complex ecosystem possessing diverse and interconnected components working synergistically to improve the resiliency of the farm’s health, allowing it to produce a variety of products. Carver’s outspoken opinion on the limitations and potentially harmful effects of synthetic fertilizers on soil and plant health placed him at odds with most agricultural scientists in academia throughout the country and even at his own institution.  He believed that part of the solution for helping poor African American farmers become more self-sufficient involved decreasing their reliance on synthetic fertilizers.

George Washington Carver. Circa 1910, Source Tuskegee University Archives/Museum

In a viewpoint consistent with permaculture design principles of today, Carver encouraged farmers to view their farms not in terms of scarcity, but abundance. He worked tirelessly to demonstrate how materials viewed as waste and weeds can be used for composting to improve soil fertility. Carver, a deeply religious man, freely admitted that much of his insight was obtained from listening to plants which he deemed to be communing with God.

Carver was a pioneer in the American conservation and environmental movements; his call for farmers to move beyond a production mentality if it impaired soil health predated by 40 years what Aldo Leopold articulated in his essay, “The Land Ethic.” Carver’s warning of pesticides entering the food chain and human tissues would later be championed by Rachel Carson more than 50 years later in her book, “Silent Spring.” Although Carver was going against firmly entrenched dogma at the time, his message of improving soil health with organic matter today seems reasonable and self-evident.

Soon after World War II, the industrial agricultural mindset of controlling nature and forcing higher yields in agricultural fields transferred to American home landscapes. Like a chemical fog sweeping across a farmer’s field, a wave of compost-amnesia moved across North America. Homeowners abandoned old organic ways practiced by their grandparents and instead turned to the promise of synthetic fertilizers for lawn and garden needs, while waging war against perceived weeds and pests with the spraying of pesticides.

Today, many gardeners recognize the unintended environmental consequences and unsustainability of an over-dependence on synthetic fertilizers in agriculture and their home landscapes. To restore their garden’s soil health, homeowners are turning back to age old techniques, like composting, to grow plants without relying on synthetic fertilizers. This movement hasn’t escaped the entrepreneurs in the horticulture industry who have developed a plethora of composting “systems.” When homeowners compost simply, alternating grass and leaves in a pile on their property, they are demonstrating an act of reverence for the land shared by their great-great-grandparents.

To learn more about the history of compost, and to explore ways you can make your own compost; attend one of Murray’s composting presentations in your area: Highland County Public Library (2 pm), February 25; Glasgow Library (6 pm), February 27; Lexington Library (6 pm), March 8; and Warm Springs Library (6 pm), March 20.


4 thoughts on “Composting: It’s not as dull as it sounds”

  1. I attended your Lexington presentation and learned so much. Afterwards, I asked you about future composting presentations. You told me about the March 20 Warm Springs presentation and the last one in April or May. I can not remember the specifics about the last one except that it would be closer to me and my son. Would you refresh my memory please?

    Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge.

    1. Thank you, Sharon. Composting presentation scheduled for 20 March 2018, Bath County Public Library in Warm Springs has been rescheduled to 3 April 2018 due to snow.

  2. Not wanting to really leave a comment about this post, but wanting instead to ask for your opinions about cardboard .
    i have seen you several times recently and always get so caught up in what you have to say and the way your presentation goes, that i forget to ask my questions.
    i saw you this year both at the MAHSC in VA Beach (two or three sessions you did), and in March at the NN Master Gardeners conference, but as i said above, i was so caught up in the talks you gave – and wondering in VaBeach where you got the nice stool (hmmm?)- that i didn’t even think about this topic i am trying to understand better.

    SO, i want to ask you your thoughts about using cardboard & newspapers as part of sheet mulching .
    Friends of mine that are into permaculture and also friends who work for the local (U.MD.) Extension office (and Master Gardeners) recommend using thick layers of both cardboard and/or newspaper under mulch in ornamental beds to prevent weed growth. They also recommend doing this (layering a few inches of mulch over cardboard or newspaper) in areas of a lawn where you are trying to get rid of grass, or in a section of yard or garden that has become overgrown with weeds.

    i don’t know if you are familiar with the work of Dr. LInda Chalker-Scott on the west coast, but i have also seen her speak several times and (although she works for the Extension in Washington State) she is against using either of these substances (newspaper & cardboard) and says (repeatedly) that people should be using more (thicker layers of) “arborist” wood mulch/chips instead. She believes that cardboard especially can cause problems with the movement of water through the mulch layer. Instead of using a thick layer of newspapers, or a layer of newspaper and cardboard with a few inches on wood chips, she recommends using 10″ – 12″ of wood chips instead. This past December i saw a demonstration she did in Waynesboro, VA (at a TREES workshop that seemed to support the idea that water does not move well through cardboard, and especially once the cardboard is wet – BUT i am not a scientist, and i am not sure that what i saw really proved that, even though it looked like it did.
    FYI, she has written papers about this subject and seems to be a BIG believer in not cutting corners on how much mulch you use, actively composting and working to create good – healthy- soil.
    Since i am involved locally with a group that teaches kids recycling options, i do know that cardboard especially can be recycled, and in a well run community program is usually sold – for a good profit – to help pay for a significant part of the cost of a community recycling program. Because of this, i have always been reluctant to use cardboard on the ground, and it has seemed to me that the areas where i have tried using newspapers instead (with 1″-2″ of mulch on top) after 1 year, the soil underneath does not look as *active* as the soil under areas where i use all wood chips (at least 6″) or a combination of wood chips and either old straw (which i have a lot of) or grass clippings in the summer.
    We live on a farm and have an oak tree (fairly young) that we rescued from wild vines and it seems the happiest when, instead of letting grass grow under it, in the early spring i put down several inches of old straw – and then top that off with several inches of wood mulch i get from our local ‘tree guy’ who is often looking for places to dump the grindings he gets from tree and branch work he does.
    FYI, i have also noticed that in the yards of people where i know they are using cardboard or newspaper under their mulch there is more evidence of stormwater runoff – and movement of mulch.
    BUT again, i am not a scientist, and could be interpreting the ‘data’ incorrectly.
    Wondering what you think?
    Thanks in advance for taking the time to read all this, and for any ideas or thoughts you are willing to share.

    —linda 🙂

    1. You’ve really thought this through! I think you answered your own question. The ultimate reason why I do anything with my land is to mimic natural systems. Mulching mimics the forest floor. So, yes, I agree. Mulching with wood chips and shredded leaves is closer to the natural system than cardboard and newspapers. Then again, one has to work with materials that are available. Where I live, and in many other rural areas in the US, we do not have access to wood chips. Trees in our area are harvested, chipped and sent to local paper mills 🙁 So that’s why I a layer of newspaper (no more than 5 sheets) is placed over turf, with a layer of shredded leaves of mulch, to assist in the transition from lawn to mulched bed. One other suggestion, because of the increasing sizes of chippers, tree companies are chipping entire trees! These wood chips relatively nutrient poor compared to “ramial” chips (branches less than 1-2″ in diameter). It’s not a bad idea for neighbors to consider purchasing (and sharing) a chipper shredder to generate more mineral/nutrient rich chips.

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