By Larraine Roulston:
International Compost Awareness Week (ICAW), celebrated annually the first week of May, is a perfect time to reflect on our respect for the soil. As we work in our gardens this spring, we are nurturing life itself. Healthy soil is chock-full of worms as well as other organisms. A single handful may contain more living creatures than there are people in the world. With an average of several billions of bacteria per square yard, we are reminded that soil is very much alive.
In nature, decomposition happens continually when the once-living materials die and decay. Eventually their remains are absorbed into the soil and the nutrients are used by living roots. To make just one inch of humus-rich soil will take nature 1,000 years. In just a few months, you can create the same by composting. The compost heap, a mix of yard trimmings, food scraps and other organic materials such as hair, is an intentional replication — a symbol of continuing life.
Hawaii’s Mindy Jaffe, a resource recovery specialist and educator in composting and vermicomposting, teaches that within any composting environment, billions of organisms are busy making their living. The microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and protozoa start the breakdown of organic matter — the decomposition process. As organic material is softened, invertebrates including insects, isopods, millipedes, earwigs and worms will shred, chew, scrape, suck, spit and excrete their castings. Through their actions, all organic matter is reduced to a dark, crumbly compost, or humus. This material, rich in nutrients and other substances, can be readily absorbed by plants. She also notes, “A vermicomposter’s red wiggler’s casting are considered ‘The Cadillac of Compost.’ These worms will not adapt if just placed on the grass, but will survive, depending on geographic locations, in backyard compost heaps. The familiar garden worms of lawn are also important contributors to soil health. As they tunnel their way through the soil ingesting bits of decaying organic matter, they aerate and loosen the soil so air can penetrate and moisture be retained. They ‘turn’ the soil, excavating minerals from below and leaving their piles of castings on the surface. Some deep-burrowing species will even drag leaves into their burrows, adding organic content.”
U.S. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison valued the soil and were aware of its fertility. When not engaged in state affairs, they often corresponded about mutual farming observations. Since that time, as Mary Appelof wrote in Worms Eat My Garbage, “Some modern agricultural practices have not only reduced soil earthworm and microbial populations, but also the amounts of organic matter present in the soil. Plowing destroys worm burrows, reducing the capacity of the soil to hold water and increasing the possibility of flooding during the torrential rains.”
Sustainable farming depends on the soil’s health. Compost not only improves its texture but also helps control erosion, protects against drought, supports essential bacteria, regulates weeds, and acts as a buffer against toxins. Its naturally occurring nutrients are released slowly to benefit plants in a way that they can use them for better growth. The Rodale Book of Composting puts it bluntly when it states “Every gardener knows that compost is valuable — but, until we
understand more fully all the benefits of compost, we can never understand why it must be the single most important part of gardening and farming.”
As our ancestors respected the soil, it is up to us to “Return to Our Roots” — the theme of one of the Compost Council of Canada’s awarding winning ICAW posters.
The Rodale Book of Composting
The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms by Amy Stewart
Tending the Earth: A Gardener’s Manifesto by Lorraine Johnson
Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof
Larraine authors a children’s adventure series on composting at www.castlecompost.com