For many people, composting is just an alternative way of dealing with rubbish. It prevents the garbage bin from getting full and smelly. Its also a way of disposing of grass clippings and leaves, which saves many trips to the garbage depot. Whilst these things are valid, they are not giving compost the full credibility it deserves. Compost can be very valuable when used in the right way.
I have a completely different way of looking at compost. To me, composting is a way of building valuable nutrients that will, one day, feed me and my family. I only use compost on my vegetable gardens. The way I manage my vegetable gardens means that composting is an integral part of the whole food production system. I create compost as a way of collecting nutrients in one form (waste), and turning them into another form (food).
The average person buys food from a shop, consumes it and then sends the waste away. This is simply buying nutrients, taking what you need for that precise moment, and disregarding the remainder. Its a nutrient flow that only flows in one direction, like a fancy car roaring down the road. You admire the car for a moment, but after a second or two, its gone.
My goal is to slow down the car and then get it to do a U-turn. I want to keep the nutrients within my property where I can capitalize on them. By doing this, I am able to use the nutrients again, so I dont have to buy them for a second time. Surely, thats going to save me money. It may seem strange to think of nutrients in this way when we cant even physically see them. However, all organic materials contain nutrients. My goal is to get those nutrients out of the form they are in and into a form that is useful to me and my family.
To put it in a different way; composting is a vehicle in which we are able to create a nutrient cycle within our property. We are part of that cycle because we consume the nutrients when they are, for a brief time, in a useful form. Then they return to the compost and slowly make their way into another useful form where we consume them again. This cycle can go on and on indefinitely. Of course, there will be many lost nutrients that you will never see again, but with a little diligence, you will be surprised at how much compost you can create, and hence, how many valuable nutrients you can recycle.
My composting system is large because I have a few large vegetable gardens. I believe that the size of your vegetable garden should be determined by how much compost you can create, and not merely by the amount of space you have in your backyard. To run a rich, high yielding vegetable garden you need to have some sort of soil conditioning plan, and the best thing for your soil is a generous layer of good compost on the surface a few times per year.
If you can create your own compost from the organic waste that you generate in your everyday life, then you can have a vegetable garden that is self-sustainable. Once it is set up, it will never need nutrients in the form of store-bought fertilizers. You will have established a flow of nutrients, and your nutrient-store will grow bigger and bigger, year after year. Applying compost to your garden will have a very positive effect on your soil structure and fertility. With good soil structure and plenty of organic material, you will be able to release nutrients that have been locked up and unavailable to your plants. You will be speeding up the flow of nutrients, thus increasing your yield significantly. Your soil will become alive and healthy with micro-organisms and soil bacteria that are beneficial to creating the conditions for proper plant growth. Your vegetables will contain all the essential nutrients in the correct proportions, giving your body the vitamins and minerals it needs to function at its best.
Composting is very easy once you make it part of your everyday life. A small container on your kitchen bench to collect scraps and a daily trip to the compost bin is all it takes. Its a small effort for huge rewards. The golden rule in making compost is never to have large clumps of a single type of material. Thin layers of hot and cold materials work best. Cold materials include leaves, shredded newspaper and dried grass clippings. Hot materials include fresh grass clippings, manures, weeds, discarded soft plants and kitchen scraps.
If you make composting part of you daily routine, along with an effective method of growing food, you can literally save thousands of dollars per year. This is possible simply because you wont have to keep buying nutrients over and over. You will buy them once, hold onto them and then convert them into useful forms again and again. Its that simple!
By Jonathan White, environmental scientist
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