On Monday, I made my vegetable garden beds. That night, nature tucked them in under a blanket of snow.
The term “garden beds” seems apt at the moment for they are filled with dreams. I imagine climbing pea vines laden with sweet snaps and other vines burdened with succulent tomatoes. I long for pickles, peppers, beans, beets and squash. Soon, soon this fruitless winter season will end.
As I shoveled the dark manure woven with the remnants of decomposed hay, I thought about the beauty of compost. This refuse sat for a year at a farm slowly deteriorating. When first created, manure was too nice of a description. Cow dung, sheep poop, and stinkin’ pies were more apt descriptions.
Then a miracle occurs — what else could it be? Bacteria, fungus and grubs and all sorts of equally gross things nibble away at the disgusting blobs and transform it. The bulk of the work is accomplished by bacteria working in oxygen-deprived conditions.
This differs from bacteria in a compost pile filled with kitchen scraps. Compost bacteria need oxygen and lots of it. Turning the compost pile exposes the bacteria to air and allows them to work vigorously. I should really turn my compost pile. Perhaps I will after this post.
Compost bacteria combine oxygen with carbon and release carbon dioxide, which consists of one carbon molecule and two oxygen molecules. Manure bacteria do not have any oxygen molecules to combine with their carbon, and thus combine one carbon molecule with four hydrogen to release the repulsive and distinctive gas, methane.
A compost pile further differs from a manure pile in the heat it produces. The process of turning carbon material, such as banana peels and lettuce leaves, is hot! The inside of a compost pile can exceed 160 degree F. The high heat pasteurizes most harmful bacteria and prevents the growth of fungus. — Yet another reason why I should turn that pile.
The manure pile never achieves the same high temperatures as a compost pile, but most harmful organisms die after a year. Over time the good bacteria out compete the harmful ones and they die for lack of food and oxygen. Then, the decomposing bacteria also run out of food and begin to die off. The methane smell changes into an earthy, warm scent. What was once considered trash now holds the potential for life. Uncultured manure matures into sophisticated humus.
Humus and compost both replenish the carbon and nitrogen stores in the soil, giving the plants the nutrients they need to thrive. Plants — especially tomatoes — use and expel nitrogen and other chemicals. Fertilizer will provide missing nutrients to the soil, but it’s a little like taking a vitamin pill rather than eating leafy greens. You might get some of the chemicals your body needs but you’ll miss out on many other nutrients.
Humus provides a nearly perfect ratio of carbon to nitrogen. Compost’s ratio is also good, but not quite as perfect as humus’s. Both hold moisture, which reduces the plants need for watering during the dog days of summer. Both contain worms that help aerate the soil.
For more information on composting look here.
The process of making humus and compost is so efficient. Bacteria turned poop into dirt, and plants will make food from dirt. Amazing.
Now, I must turn that compost pile.