Joys V, Compost biochemistry

Chemistry and biology, in the easiest forms.  As promised, this will be suitable for high school dropouts, or even early mornings with the first cup of coffee. 

Carbon is life.  If a substance includes carbon it is called “organic.”  If there is no carbon, the substance is inorganic.  Organic involves organisms or the products of their life processes.  Carbon dioxide, CO2, is a product of life processes.  It is what most living things breath out.

Plants and animals release carbon as CO2, but we don’t call it breathing when a plant does it because they don’t have lungs.  Every bacterium, dog, fish, tree, pansy and bird releases lots of CO2 into the atmosphere. 

Trees and plants also release O2 into the air.  Two separate processes.  For living, they “breath out” CO2, but for growing, they take carbon from the air and release O2.  As a young tree grows it provides oxygen.  When it matures the balance means no net CO2 or O2.  When it gets old, and ultimately dies, all of the carbon it stored goes back to the air it came from as it rots.  It’s a cycle.

ROT is a misleading term, left over from a few hundred years ago. Rotting sounds like something a dead tree does, or a fallen hero, but dead trees do nothing.  They don’t even fall down without help.  What happens to trees is that they get eaten, reused, recycled.  Everything organic gets eaten.  Always, always, something out there wants the carbon and the nitrogen stored in something else.  That process of being eaten results in what we call “rot.”  That ugly name is the muscle and backbone of all life on earth.  It is composting, and God and the Bible spoke of these things long before Leeuwenhoek discovered “animalcules” in his mouth.

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection.”  Composting is the very natural process of restoring life on earth.  As corrupt and fallible as it is, we are all part of the never-ending cycle.

With that understanding, it’s time to move on to some dangers and challenges of agriculture.  It never needs to be a crisis.

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Joys of, IV – Ratios

Compost needs a few things.  Nature provides all of them: carbon and nitrogen, moisture, oxygen, warmth, and microorganisms.  Compost also enjoys movement, like being stirred or tossed periodically.

Articles and books focus heavily on the C/N ratio, or carbon to nitrogen.  Yes, ideally you start with 20 – 40 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen, but while that ratio speeds up the process, composting takes place even in a stack of damp cardboard at 500:1.  It just may take a few years. Mix in some coffee grounds, vegetable trimmings, or grass to that cardboard and speed things up.

To get close to the ideal, just mix up stuff from trees (bark, leaves, wood chips, sawdust, cardboard and paper, twigs, etc.) and stuff from plants (vegetables, grass, flowers, fruit remains and peels, stalks, vines, weeds) and mostly vegetarian animal poop (horses, rabbits, cows, sheep, chickens, turkeys, etc.; birds eat lots of rodents, small fish, insects, voles and moles, but process food differently so its okay for composting.)  If you get close to 1/2 and 1/2, great.

Too much nitrogen is rare, but if it does happen you will smell ammonia.  The cure is to add more carbon.

In fact, smell is a great tool for the composter.  If it smells like rotten eggs or poop, the compost is too wet and packed down.  It lacks air.  It needs “fluff.”  Go easy on the water for a while, and add straw or twigs, wood chips, bark, or cardboard.

The only real “compost don’t” is meat, or meat-eater poop.  Bad bacteria is the main reason.  Unwanted animals is the other.  E coli and other nasties come with the gut stuff.  It simply is not worth the risk.  Period.  Don’t do it.

Unless you are in a big hurry, composting what you have works just fine, because no matter what your ratios are, the end product has close to 10:1 carbon to nitrogen.  That’s exactly what your garden wants!  How can that be?  The result of the compost is the result of biology and chemistry  Even if you failed chemistry and biology with honors, the next lesson will make sense.  I promise.

 

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Joys of, Part II

Now we get to meet the residents of our soils.  You might be shocked to learn there can be billions of them in a handful of good garden loam.  The residents include the worms and bugs you can see, plus more worms and bugs you cannot see with the naked eye.  There are very few of those, however, numbering in the tens of thousands in your little garden.  Next come the fungi, bacteria, and viruses.  Thousands of different kinds, millions each of most, billions of some.

Some work against each other, but the level of cooperation at the microscopic level amazes the people who get to watch on electron microscopes.  All sorts of invisible critters feed one another, trade water and minerals for sugars and other foods.  They provide transportation, purification, waste disposal, and negotiate contracts between grouchy neighbors.  They work together to keep enemies in check, or even to make friends of the enemies.  Or eat them.  And they also tend to the plants in the garden.

So many little critters live in the soil it can be overwhelming to try and sort them out. . . especially since we can’t see them.  But we don’t need to see or hear them to know they’re doing their jobs and staying in balance.  Figuring out the microbes is as simple as watching the garden.

In fact, plants are nearly helpless, even somewhat pathetic without the various microbes that feed and water them, allow them to breath, moderate the nutrients and nurse them along.  I might even suggest that tending to the microbes is the most critical critical aspect of gardening — especially over a long time and many seasons.

Like a pet, soil needs good food and water, adequate shelter, exercise, some sunshine, interaction with others, and plenty of fresh air.

This series may get deeper and more involved, but the next article simply considers the easiest and most effective ways to keep your microbes and worms happy so you can enjoy great soil, a beautiful garden, and good food for your table.  It will also address the differences between plants and trees, and ways to improve your soil for either one.

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Joys of, Part I

To learn about soil required me to forget almost everything I learned about dirt.  Most dictionaries define dirt as “a substance that soils a person or thing.”   That’s not nice, because “soil” is another word for dirt!  Such abuse.  “She treats him like dirt.”  “He soiled her reputation.”  “There was dog dirt in the yard.”   “Politicians collect the dirt on everyone.”

Both words come with shady backgrounds, too.  Dirt is from drit, meaning poop.  Soil comes from soiller, a wild boar’s wallow.

Forget all that.  Although not entirely correct, think of dirt as crushed rocks (silt, sand, gravel, and clay) and soil as crushed rocks with living and formerly living things  in it.  The third (and least used) word for our study  is loam.  Loam is soil with good character and history.  It has lots of humus.  Humus adds stability, efficiency, and the sort of food, housing and entertainment that attracts a diverse neighborhood.

In lousy dirt (such as the natural stuff in Camp Verde) there is little besides the crushed rock.  It usually looks gray, but may be reddish from iron oxide (rust) or even slightly yellow, blue, brown, or green from other excess minerals like sulfur, copper, manganese, etc.  The important thing to remember for gardening or farming, though, is that you want black dirt.  Very black.  Light absorbing, non-reflective, unwavering black.  Black soil results from organic stuff — things that have lots of carbon.  (To visualize great soil, think of totally burnt toast.)

Farmers and gardeners have tried many ways to get this burnt toast into their dirt, and when the black of the soil wears off, they try to paint it back on with various chemicals, generally ammonium something, or something nitrate.  Ammonium and nitrate are the plus and minus ions that contain nitrogen in the most usable form.  You don’t need to know about ions, though.  Just realize that plants use the black in the soil to make the green and the leaves on plants.  When the soil turns gray, plants turn yellow.

It might sound strange, but the gorgeous, rich blackness in soil comes from death and decay.  Part of God’s (nature’s, if you can’t accept a Supreme Being with intelligence) bizarre gift is that things must die to sustain life.  As death happens, life happens.  Think of it as “the never ending cycle of life,” just like in the Lion King.  Death is the primary instrument of life.  You can see it in the garden store, too.  Blood meal, fish meal, bone meal, and various forms of poop all represent dead things for your garden’s health.  That’s all it takes, sort of.

In spite of the simplicity of this, you will not necessarily get good soil by killing things, pets, or neighbors in your back yard.  The next point to confirm is that the death needs coordination, balance, and some heat to do its thing.  If you watch crime and forensics shows, you might think of it as cold blooded murder won’t properly rot.  And that is also an unbalanced way to look at it.

Of course I must continue this.  All we have so far is rocks and dead stuff.  The next part, rotting and mixing, gets really exciting because this is where we introduce the stars of the story, who do most of their work while living!

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