Beauty of Composting and the Soil Nutrient Cycle

You watch your favorite TV show. The characters discuss a conflict over the dinner table and by the time the argument resolves or exasperates the characters retire to the kitchen. They shovel the left overs of the meal into the trash bin.

Perfectly good food. It had the potential to be tomorrow’s lunch. Even the inedible scraps hypothetically tossed before the cast sat at the dining table or living room couch could have been a scrumptious feast for the neighborhood scavengers or decomposers. In a society where we have nutrient-deficient soil—and thus comparatively nutrient-deficient produce, so on and so down the food chain—we watch the glorified reflections of our lives do what many of us do: trap those vital ingredients in the land fill instead of recycling them via compost.

compost heap

While there are ways to optimize compost with fancy bins for different stages of decomposition, or adding red crawlers, and other suggestions abound, even just tossing all of your kitchen scraps and yard waste into a pile returns organic material to the soil and keeps the helpful biota happy.

University of North Carolina’s TV studio produced an enlightening video on YouTube profiling a company that offers compost bins and pick up, and sells what would otherwise be a nuisance cause of methane and anthropogenic mountains to a farm. This “farm,” as I’m calling it, manages an industrial amount of kitchen scraps until it is wholesome, dark, organic topsoil. To complete the soil cycle within this six minute clip, the crew visits a community garden that has terrible, acidic and nutrient-poor soil. The volunteers regularly add the compost soil atop the land’s existing clay. Thanks to this method, the soil pH and nutrient levels gradually increase. Now they can grow healthy crops that they donate to local food drives.

Compost Pictograph

A lovely vernacular and illustrated formula for the cycle of life–the non-biological reproduction version a.k.a. the nutrient cycle version. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mechanoid Dolly.)

When I lived in Guelph, Ontario, the city had a compost program—though not the University, much to my roommate’s chagrin. Especially considering the school hosted sustainability expos on a regular basis, I would like to think that by now someone started a compost program. In my family we have always tossed anything and everything biodegradable into the backyard garden. In Colorado we possessed two gigantic compost beds—maybe 8 ft by 12 ft, but I was little back then and my visual memory might be distorted. Now we pick a spot, call it a compost pile, and till it with next year’s garden site. If it’s edible to the raccoons or opossums (but beyond human consumption) we share. They do not like soft tomatoes but rejoice at meat scraps tethered to the bone.

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Ash is a prime ingredient for healthy soil and soil biota, and thus a robust garden. So if you tend to burn your yard litter, you can still use it instead of wasting it. Another alternative is to keep some of the litter and mulch it to safeguard the next year’s garden’s exposed soil.

You can abandon perfectly good food and scraps to your resident junk mountain to become true waste, or you can proactively live an ecological manner and provide better soil, and thus better food, for future meals. I love it when my own decision is all the power I need to make a positive change.

A little tidbit: egg shells are great for compost. They take longer to break down and often by the time the compost is ready to be added to a garden the shells are still visible fragments. This means that they’re like a dual layer pharmaceutical tablet in that they’ll continue to dissolve and add to the soil after plants start harvesting other nutrients from the same compost pile.

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