When plants grow, they consume nutrients from the earth just like people consume food. These nutrients must be replenished in order for a garden or field to continue to yield healthy plants and crops. People often use expensive fertilizers in aiding this process, but with a little bit of work and some time they can instead turn to the process of composting to create a nutrient-rich soil additive known as compost.
Carolyn Dodd, the Secretary of the Delaware Organic Food and Farming Association, runs The Farm in Georgetown and has been using compost for years to keep her garden green.
“Composting itself is just a breaking down of a material through a method of using natural bacteria.” Dodd explained. “Bacteria lives in everything. Our whole eco-system is run on bacteria. You’re taking carbon elements and nitrogen elements and putting them together so they break themselves down.”
“Our compost is based on everything that’s on our farm,” she noted. “We don’t use anything outside. We use horse and chicken manure as nitrogen sources, and we use alfalfa hay and dry leaves as carbon sources. We’re using all-natural ingredients to make a natural ingredient. We’re using feed; the feed turns into manure; the manure is then composted with grass and other elements and put back in the soil.”
Dodd describes the process of composting simply.
“We layer everything, and keep it nice and moist. When the bacteria start to do their thing, they start getting hot. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there, but the compost has to reach between 131 and 170 degrees and stay there for three days,” she emphasized. “It gets so hot that a chicken can be broken down in just a few days.”
The compost is then turned, or mixed up, and the process is repeated six times, reaching the desired temperature each time. This ensures not only full break-down of the compost material into finished compost but also that any weed seeds present in the material will not germinate. It takes about a year to complete the process.
When the process is finished, the pile of compost has broken itself down from manure and dead plants into a fine, dark soil, rich in nitrogen and carbon, and perfect for growing.
“Plants grown with compost are bigger, produce more vegetables and fruit, and are much greener,” Dodd said. The compost also meets the specifics of the NOP, or National Organic Program, making it safe for use on vegetable gardens. If compost does not meet NOP standards, farmers cannot use it within 120 days of harvesting a food product from the garden, due to bacterial risks.
For a garden about 100 feet square in size, gardeners can easily save a few hundred dollars in fertilizer expense by using compost instead.
“People can just dig a hole and compost in their own back yard,” Dodd said. “It’s really simple to put a container somewhere and just let it do its thing. In a backyard system, green grass clippings can serve as your nitrogen source.” Dead leaves or wood chips serve as a good source of carbon.
Another process Dodd uses on The Farm is green manure.
“Green manure is when you plant a field of cover crops and let them die off,” she explained. “Then they decompose and turn into organic matter and build your soil. The reason people put so much compost and manure down is because of the lack of nitrogen. These cover crops draw nitrogen out of the air into the soil. It’s really cool.”
Those new to composting may wonder why it’s worth all the effort to make compost when they can just buy fertilizer and save themselves time and effort. Dodd explained her perspective: “When we bought this land it was grossly out of balance. There were no frogs or toads; there was an overabundance of mosquitoes; and we thought, ‘Can we live here?’ As time went on and we put in proper drainage and treated the land with respect, we could see the balance return. We got new animals, and the entire eco-system changed.”
It’s amazing the effect that a few small changes can make.
Information on composting and organics can be found online at www.delawareorganics.com.