Saturday, February 14, 2009


Natural materials are inherently unpredictable. In engineering we find ways to improve them to make them more consistent. We call these engineered materials. Compost is the premier BIOneered material. Human-guided natural processes are used on natural materials to produce a product that is used to improve the health and vigor of natural systems. And what an improvement it is!

Compost may well be the most important tool in the bioneering toolbox. It improves soil structure. If the pH is too high, it lowers it. If the pH is too low, compost raises it. It adds nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, as well as loads of trace elements. It increases water absorption of the soil and reduces water loss from evaporation. If your soil is too sandy, compost will add nutrients and help the soil retain moisture. If your soil is too clayey, compost will improve the drainage of the soil. It reduces disease and increases the health of plants. In other words, no matter what is wrong with your garden, compost is likely the cure.

Compost achieves all this and more primarily through the action of a wide variety of extremely beneficial bacteria, fungus and other micro-organisms that thrive on the rotting vegetation. All of these organisms form a number of mutually beneficial relationships, thereby improving the health of the soil. Healthy soil makes the plants growing in it healthy, increasing their vigor and disease resistance.

Civil engineers have even begun using compost for erosion control. A number of micro-organisms common in compost produce a sort of extra-cellular glue that helps hold the soil together, reducing erosion. In the meantime, the compost also helps seeds germinate and grow rapidly, providing long term erosion protection. Also, the organisms feeding off of the compost are in a mad rush to get the available nutrients. So if you flow polluted water through it (in civil engineering, "stormwater pollution" includes everything but the water itself, including silt, nutrients, oils, etc.), the porosity of the compost increases surface area for absorption of pollutants and acts like a filter for the larger particles, making for a very effective filter. There is a company in my area that uses locally produced wood chip compost for a variety of products. They have compost logs that are used to filter sediment-laden water before it exits the site. They also mix seeds with compost and blow them onto disturbed land to improve reseeding speed and erosion control during germination.

Another benefit of compost is that you can actually concentrate it and get it directly on plants, with dramatic effects, through the use of compost tea. By making an aerated brew of compost and room temperature water that is allowed to steep for 24 hours or so, you can create a liquid concentrate of nutrients and those magical beneficial microorganisms that you spray directly on plant leaves and on the soil. People who use it regularly claim that the plants get much bigger, have few to no diseases, and food produced has a higher sugar content, making for tastier veggies and fruit.

In my next post I will cover some different methods for making compost.

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