I am constantly slaying horticultural snake oil dragons. There is so much misinformation on the web and even within University/Extension publications. In this blog I turn my attention to compost–a subject that is almost universally cherished by gardeners, gardening groups and horticulturists. Unfortunately there are a lot of misnomers about compost.
Plants are composed of cellulose and cellulose is a complicated polymer of glucose molecules. Compost is made from the decomposition of organic matter—usually plant debris. The composting process can be fast or slow depending on aeration, mixing and pile size. Composting requires a carbon source and enough nitrogen to allow microbial respiration of the sugars contained in the plant material being decomposed. Since the laws of thermodynamics indicate that no chemical reaction is 100% efficient, some of the energy of respiration is lost as heat. Billions of respiring microbes heat the pile creating a very hot environment where thermophilic organisms propagate quickly. As all the available sugars in leaves and other less woody components of the compost decompose the thermophilic organisms lose temperature and the readily available sugars necessary for growth. Other organisms begin to grow and attack the cellulose in the wood fibers, attacking the more recalcitrant carbon in the pile. Eventually most of the sugar bound in plant residues is attacked and only the difficult to decompose materials are left, these contain lignin and form the basis for humus. When the compost will no longer heat after turning it is beginning to mature. Once all the easily broken down carbon is utilized, the microbes die off or form spores and go into a resting phase. The compost is now screened to remove large undecomposed particles and is ready for use in the garden
It’s NOT NATURAL
I have often heard composting touted as a natural process. It is not.
Composting is a process that is “man made”. The alternative is litter fall and mulching which is a natural process that processes organic matter much more slowly. Composting is a process that requires a specific mass of feedstock, sufficient oxygen for respiration, reactions provided by air or by frequently turning the pile, moisture maintained by adding water if needed, and heat which is maintained within the pile itself. These are not natural conditions easily found in nature. They are carefully manipulated by those monitoring the compost process.
The fungi and bacteria on the initial feedstock are part of the ecosystem and are generally not directly manipulated in the process. Fungi and bacteria have the enzyme systems necessary to break the bonds that link the glucose molecules and then utilize the energy in glucose for their own growth.
Composting does not help the environment
As I have discussed, composting liberates carbon dioxide increasing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. On a large scale composting adds many tons of CO2 to the atmosphere as well as oxides of nitrogen which are also potent greenhouse gases. Composting can also release mineral salts into underlying soil and runoff from large composting operations, especially manure composting, can pollute waterways. There is nothing about composting that is helping the environment per se.
Compost is not full of life
Sometimes you hear that compost is “full of life”. Sort of true but not really. The biological processes that break down the compost happen in the pile. As compost matures microbes die, their growth is reduced and they form spores or other resting structures. Once compost is ready for use, it is not particularly biologically active because all the energy has been utilized to make heat and decompose the feedstock. When the energy (carbon, sugar, cellulose) is used up, the microbial activity declines.
What is it good for?
Since compost is a distillation of feedstock minerals it makes an excellent fertilizer. Since compost is mostly fine textured, it is suitable for use in soil as an amendment. The lignin molecules resident in compost help bind nutrients in organic matter and retain them for later uptake by plant roots. Compost can increase the fertility of a sandy soil which has low nutrient binding capacity. Compost is full of secondary metabolites left over from the microbial activity produced when the pile was hot. These compounds can confer disease protection when pathogens are present in soil. Since feedstocks are variable this can not be predicted. Finished composts with a carbon:nitrogen ratio (C:N) of less than 25:1 do not perturb the nitrogen dynamics of most soils and in many cases may be a source of nitrogen in the amended soil. Since compost is mostly broken down feedstock it does not deteriorate as fast when mixed in garden soil. It resides longer than other more labile amendments. Compost is also a great container medium if mixed with coarse materials to assure aeration. Because the compost feedstock is well decomposed, the material has a longer life as a growing medium.
Since composts get hot as the feedstock is broken down, they tend to sanitize the pile of pathogens. Composting kills food-borne pathogens and plant pathogens easily since most do not survive the high temperatures (>140F) found in an active compost pile for more than a day or so. For effective pathogen kill it is important to turn the pile frequently.
Some plants may survive high composting temperatures, e.g, tomatoes are a notorious compost weed. Yellow nutsedge and bermudagrass stolons can also resist the high temperatures found in compost piles.
It’s not a good mulch
One of the amazing things about mulch is undergoes the same processes that make compost and it does have a place in your garden. The microbial processes that decay arborist wood chips on the soil surface happen slowly over months of time. The chips are mineralized but more of the carbon enters the soil rather than the atmosphere because soil fungi, especially mycorrhizal fungi, transform the energetic carbon molecules (labile carbon) into a soil stabile polysaccharide called glomalin. This in turn binds soil particles which increases soil structure. Note: When these processes happen in a compost pile they can not happen again in your garden. The energy is gone.
Texturally fine compost will make greater hydraulic conductivity with the underlying soil and allow for greater moisture loss through evaporation. In some cases compost layers may impede infiltration of water and prevent newly planted root balls from being watered. Compost layers may also impede gas exchange to underlying soils. Depending on the feedstocks, composts may also contain viable weed seeds or other propagules that contaminate landscape soils. Composts make bad mulches.
Daugovish, O.,Downer, J., Faber, B. and M. McGiffin. 2006. Weed survival in yardwaste mulch. Weed Technology 21: 59-65.
Downer, A.J.,D. Crohn, B. Faber, O. Daugovish, J.O. Becker, J.A. Menge, and M. J. Mochizuki. 2008. Survival of plant pathogens in static piles of ground green waste. Phytopathology 98: 574-554.
Chalker-Scott, L. and A. J. Downer. 2022. Garden Myth-Busting for Extension Educators:The Science Behind the Use of Arborist Wood Chips as Landscape Mulches. Journal of the NACAA 15(2). https://www.nacaa.com/file.ashx?id=6c7d4542-7481-4f0a-9508-d8263a437348