By observing nature we realize nothing in the natural world is wasted. Dead and rotting materials on the forest floor are providing nutrients, beneficial organisms, and humus to the next generation of forest. When we build a compost pile we are concentrating and accelerating this natural process in order to benefit our less than natural garden plots.
Benefits of compost
There are many benefits of adding compost to the soil: organic matter improves the physical properties of the soil, increasing root penetration and moisture-holding capacity. Compost holds 200 percent of its dry weight in water versus only 20 percent for soil. Compost also helps aerate the soil by forming aggregates that create space within the soil for air and water.
As compost breaks down in the soil, it releases nutrients plants need to be healthy: nitrogen, sulfur, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. These and other nutrients invigorate the soil’s food web, attracting a wide range of beneficial life forms –- soil builders such as fungi, bacteria, earthworms, sowbugs, and many other micro- and macro-organisms –- that continue to improve the soil’s properties. Plants growing in this soil have an enhanced resistance to pests and disease and are more resilient to health challenges including weather extremes.
The landfill dilemma
These are reasons enough to create a compost pile, but there is another reason that is becoming more critical as time passes: reducing organic waste in our landfills. Our landfills are running out of space and emit methane into the atmosphere.
Problems with landfills are a long-standing concern. They were identified more than twenty years ago by Stu Campbell in Let it Rot! The Gardeners Guide to Composting. At that time, landfills were already running out of space. Contributing factors were:
- Seventy-five percent of household waste is organic.
- Each household produces 230 pounds of yard waste and 100 pounds of food waste per person per year.
- About 30 percent of waste sent to landfills is compostable organic material—yard and food waste.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in a 2011 report, methane—one of the worst greenhouse gases, is a landfill problem. Landfill management compresses organic waste, squeezing out the air; organic matter still decomposes, but it does so anaerobically (without oxygen). An aerated compost pile produces carbon dioxide, not methane—methane traps up to 20 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
The same factors and concerns continue to exist, over two decades later. Home composting could reduce residential waste significantly, which in turn would free up space for waste that can only be handled in the landfill.
Composting is for everyone.
Anyone can compost, from a worm bin in a high-rise apartment to a windrow of cow manure out behind the barn. One of the best ways to learn about backyard composting is to visit The Learning Garden at the Buncombe County Cooperative Extension Office (post COVID-19 restrictions). There you will find a large compost area and Extension Master Gardener volunteers eager to talk about the art and science of composting.
The Learning Garden volunteers are doing traditional backyard composting, but on a larger scale using 6 bins 48 x 48 inches, constructed from wooden pallets, and 2 fence-wire bins. Their goal is to compost all plant material waste that the property produces. Recently they expanded their goal to include culled fruit and vegetables from a local food bank. Less organic material in the landfill means reduced methane and more nutrient-rich compost for The Learning Garden. It’s a formula for success no matter how big or small your garden grows.
Article written by Dave Bush, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer.
For more information:
NCSU Composting Portal
NC Extension Gardener Handbook – Composting
EPA Report: Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Recycling and Composting
Campbell, Stu. Let it Rot! The Gardener’s Guide to Composting. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 1998.
Pleasant, Barbara and Deborah L. Martin. The Complete Compost Gardening Guide. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2008.