There’s a lot to say about decomposition, and the importance of breakdown into soil. Why is soil health so important? The chemical makeup of the soil determines what can grow there and how much productivity the land hosts. Though in these times of insanity, not many developers are thinking about fertile soil, so much as dollars and cents. The grave consequences of ignoring the soil comes in the form of ecological collapse. Desertification continues across the planet, and unprotected soil left barren in winter fields of industrial agricultural is only part of the holistic problem. Wind and water events, climate, is revving up, becoming more exaggerated and frequent. Erosion across the world grows exponentially with these natural disasters, far out-competing the limited profit margin of outdated natural resource extraction. Think of farming as a kind of mining, only you’re pulling the mineral and water content form the gold instead of gold or uranium. Then we pour poisons on what’s left, along with other synthetic chemicals which will rip out the last productivity within the living ground before killing it completely. These same chemicals which stop life in the soil, greatly impact human health as well.
At EEC Forest Stewardship, we lock fertility within the soil using simple, small scale organic methods like composting. This method of keeping soil healthy plays out in nature constantly in mycological decomposition, insect action, and many other forms of organic chemical breakdown. Thriving forest do not need chemical additives to be productive, but they do need living soil. With all the food scraps, brown paper recycling, and fruit tree prunings, our small holding produces an endless supply of great soil building material- it just needs a helping hand, that’s part of the original instructions of human kind, in my humble opinion. Our monkey brains are great at understanding soil biodiversity, and encouraging a thriving biome in soil using the abundant organic material “waste” nature offers all around. Often, heavily landscaped terrain involves removing the great compost that naturally occurs in a thriving ecosystem. Leaves, branches, twigs, and fallen logs are crucial soil amendments to keep the earth alive. But manicured lawns demand that all these wonderful inputs be blown into bags using hot air and fossil fuels, then insult is added to injury when synthetic chemical lawn care products are sprayed on to enhance the grass green illusion. Aesthetics are costing the environment its very substance.
Mushrooms are a hidden superpower in the quest for healthy soil and abundant fertility. Though our typical reaction to fungi is one of hesitancy and fear, the mushrooms are there to help, and when and where they choose to fruit tells us so much about soil, chemical composition of the environment, and what needs to happen in the organic breakdown process. Even if you’re not into harvesting wild mushrooms, their place in the food web is crucial to soil productivity, though tilling and chemical treatments destroy the living material within the soil, rendering it sterile. Without a thick layer of organic material breaking down on the surface of the ground, hard earned topsoil erodes away, along with any agricultural productivity or profit. It’s incredible that this concept is still not fully recognize in the agricultural community. Some conventional farmers say without chemical inputs, their farms would fail, yet they fail anyway because the soil is completely depleted of any living material, which is crucial to any production at all.
This process can be turned into an obsessive fixation, and perhaps some close observation is important, but remember, as a lazy farmer, I’m all about hands off approaches that have long term payoff. When designing a system, it’s important to look at scale. EEC Forest Stewardship uses several different methods of composting, depending on a system’s needs. Kitchen scraps are the most continuously prolific compost we’re producing at EEC, but animal compost is the largest by volume. Our kitchen organic materials go into a small bin which rotates around small gardens near the house for easy distribution. The largest composting system by volume is the manure and straw bedding from our barn. This system breaks down in place using a deep bedding method. Seasonally, we spread the muck on pastures, consolidate it into planting beds, and enrich hugaculture berms throughout the landscape.
Understanding what’s in your compost is another important detail for successful composting into fertile soil. Kitchen scraps are high in nitrates, so you need to add plenty of brown carbon inputs to balance the chemical mix. No PHD required, but a basic understanding of PH is, so know your chemistry. Animal manure alone would be harmful in concentration on the ground. Obviously the sheep poop as they move around the land at will, but the fencing and rotational timing of animals on pasture prevent erosion and over nitration of the soil. Again, you don’t need higher education to get rotational grazing, but you do need to be on site reading the landscape and your animals to best serve in ecological restoration. Overtaxed land is self evident, but the balance of PH within soil and vegetation does take some lab work- so soil samples should be taken every few years to affirm soil improvement.
Back in the kitchen garden, I’ve just opened a bin of compost which has sat all summer breaking down. I closed this bin in April, juts the Spring insect populations were starting to hatch out. Active kitchen waste compost will attract bugs- you want this, however, the summer cycle should be furthest from the house, where as the winter bin can be close to the door because it’s cold and the bugs won’t be out. Bin size should not exceed what you wish to lift by hand- mine are large totes which, once full of compost, end up breaking down to about half full by the end of a couple of seasons, rendering it easy to dump. They all have good fitting lids. If left uncovered, kitchen scraps attract rodents, insects, and pets. Since it’s close to the house, it needs to be sealed. Holes in the bottom of the bin to allow worms in and out are encouraged. If worms can’t get back down into the ground freely, they will cook in summer and freeze in winter. You’ll know if you’ve got things in harmony when, after two seasons of sitting without any additional scraps added, you tip the contents onto the ground right there in the garden where you will use it and you see black gold soil writhing in worm activity.
The fresh compost is still in breakdown, and I plan on mixing this rich layer of fertility into already active growing soil, which has spent years adjusting computationally to climate change- from UV rays to hydrological leeching. The fresh compost will replace drained nutrients and bring more living organic matter to the upper layers of sun baked soil. The fresh compost is still a bit nitrogen heavy, so it’s important not to direct seed right into it and expect good results. Folding this hot material into already worked soil is best, and a bin’s worth inoculates a little over a cubic yard of existing garden cultivation. Other than flipping the bin every few seasons and folding it into the existing soil between plantings, I don’t turn my compost, but could if I needed to speed up the breakdown time. When I have to rush a process that would otherwise make its self in its own time, I’m working against the existing natural process, and creating additional work for myself.
There’s one other in between method of composting at EEC which I’d also like to share. Our renter kitchen compost goes into a less active, larger scale system. Using pallets, we create larger compost bins along key-line on a slope behind a building. We’re building up the land by building the pallet bins back to back in a wall of compost. Our manure system could fold into this design as needed. The pallets break down over a few decades, along with the compost. We’ll start planting into it in a few years and the wall will become a nice berm over a lifetime. This terra-forming enhances water retention and soil fertility on a grand scale. Our current berm building is also giving added support to a structure by expanding the ground layer near its foundations. By implementing key-line berms, we catch any rainwater being shed down the hill over open ground, and create great planting beds for new under-story species. We don’t try to plant trees this close to the structures, keeping a good fire brake where we can.
Manure compost is a dance of transitional timing. When I can, I like to let things break down in place, but winter barn muck has to be moved out of the shelter during the Summer months- which is also a good time to put nitrogen on the soil. Barn manure is mixed with a large quantity of straw. If there is no bedding in the manure, you’re working with a very hot nitrogen source, which is never good for direct field application. My chickens help regulate the temperature of our barn manure compost. When I put out some muck, if the hens avoid it, the poop is too nitrogen rich, preventing living matter from surviving. Sterile material is not appetizing to our feathered compost turners, but when the worms are about the scratching comes out, and the chickens spread fertility across the field for us. Because I’m hauling muck with a wheelbarrow, it’s helpful to dump piles once, then let the birds do the spreading out and gleaning. They pick out pest bugs that might otherwise predate on the sheep and our crops. Eventually, we’ll phase out sheep and have far less manure to spread, then we’ll plant forest to replace fields with temperate rain forest canopy.
For anyone seeking soil fertility, organic compost is the closed cycle for any production system. However, when there is more input than demand for output, you can run into a backlog of nitrogen rich material without a home. This is happening in many municipal systems where urban decay holds too much pollution for the soil. Micro plastics, industrial chemicals, and human sewage plague urban environments where pollutants concentrate. These kinds of inputs will not make clean, healthy soil for growing food. Sadly, green washing has put a gold star on urban compost without acknowledging the health risks associated with chemical buildup. Urban compost is then trucked into rural agricultural places as new biomass for depleted industrial agricultural spaces where the urban pollutants can mix right in with industrial agricultural synthetic chemicals to form a terrifying toxic cauldron of calamity. This is where scale fails. Composting works best in a closed system with minimal outside inputs. We put organic food waste, brown carbon like cardboard and yard waste, along with pasture and organic grain fed animal waste in our compost. That’s what cycles through our soil here at EEC, and the results are self evident- we have doubled our livestock production numbers on the land in less than a decade by improving our pastures fertility and ecological diversity. Our kitchen gardens only receive compost from kitchen and yard waste and continue to produce healthy happy veggies for home use. We’ve begun also banking this fertility into surrounding garden beds, expanding our planting space for future gardens, and banking fertility directly into the soil with little physical effort. This is a successful composting system.