Organic refuse contains stored solar energy. Every apple core or potato peel holds a tiny amount of heat and light, just like a piece of firewood. Perhaps S. Sides of the Mother Earth News states it more succinctly: "Plants convert solar energy into food for animals (ourselves included). Then the [refuse] from these animals along with dead plant and animal bodies, 'lie down in the dung heap,' are composted, and 'rise again in the corn.' This cycle of light is the central reason why composting is such an important link in organic food production. It returns solar energy to the soil. In this context such common compost ingredients as onion skins, hair trimmings, eggshells, vegetable parings, and even burnt toast are no longer seen as garbage, but as sunlight on the move from one form to another." 5
The organic material used to make compost could be considered anything on the Earth's surface that had been alive, or from a living thing, such as manure, plants, leaves, sawdust, peat, straw, grass clippings, food scraps and urine. A rule of thumb is that anything that will rot will compost, including such things as cotton clothing, wool rugs, rags, paper, animal carcasses, junk mail and cardboard.
To compost means to convert organic material ultimately into soil or, more accurately, humus. Humus is a brown or black substance resulting from the decay of organic animal or vegetable refuse. It is a stable material that does not attract insects or nuisance animals. It can be handled and stored with no problem, and it is beneficial to the growth of plants. Humus holds moisture, and therefore increases the soil's capacity to absorb and hold water. Compost is said to hold nine times its weight in water (900%), as compared to sand which only holds 2%, and clay 20%.6
Compost also adds slow-release nutrients essential for plant growth, creates air spaces in soil, helps balance the soil pH, darkens the soil (thereby helping it absorb heat), and supports microbial populations that add life to the soil. Nutrients such as nitrogen in com post are slowly released throughout the growing season, making them less susceptible to loss by leaching than the more soluble chemical fertilizers.7 Organic matter from compost enables the soil to immobilize and degrade pesticides, nitrates, phosphorous and other chemicals that can become pollutants. Compost binds pollutants in soil systems, reducing their leachability and absorption by plants.8
The building of topsoil by Mother Nature is a centuries long process. Adding compost to soil will help to quickly restore fertility that might otherwise take nature hundreds of years to replace. We humans deplete our soils in relatively short periods of time. By composting our organic refuse and returning it to the land, we can restore that fertility also in relatively short periods of time.
Fertile soil yields better food, thereby promoting good health. The Hunzas of northern India have been studied to a great extent. Sir Albert Howard reported, "When the health and physique of the various northern Indian races were studied in detail, the best were those of the Hunzas, a hardy, agile, and vigorous people living in one of the high mountain valleys of the Gilgit Agency . . . There is little or no difference between the kinds of food eaten by these hillmen and by the rest of northern India. There is, however, a great difference in the way these foods are grown . . . [T]he very greatest care is taken to return to the soil all human, animal and vegetable [refuse] after being first composted together. Land is limited: upon the way it is looked after, life depends." 9
There are several reasons for piling composting material. A pile keeps the material from drying out or cooling down prematurely. A high level of moisture (50-60%) is necessary for the microorganisms to work happily.10 A pile prevents leaching and waterlogging, and holds heat. Vertical walls around a pile, especially if they're made of wood or bales of straw, keep the wind off and will prevent one side of the pile (the windward side) from cooling down prematurely.
A neat, contained pile looks better. It looks like you know what you're doing when making compost, instead of looking like a garbage dump. A constructed compost bin also helps to keep out nuisance animals such as dogs.
A pile makes it easier to layer or cover the compost. When a smelly deposit is added to the top of the pile, it's essential to cover it with clean organic material to eliminate unpleasant odors and to help trap necessary oxygen in the pile. Therefore, if you're going to make compost, don't just fling it out in your yard in a heap. Construct a nice bin and do it right. That bin doesn't have to cost money; it can be made from recycled wood or cement blocks. Wood may be preferable as it will insulate the pile and prevent heat loss and frost penetration. Avoid woods that have been soaked in toxic chemicals.
A backyard composting system doesn't have to be complicated in any way. It doesn't require electricity, technology, gimmicks or doodads. You don't need shredders, choppers, grinders or any machines whatsoever.
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