You probably already know about composting; after all, composting has been a popular practice for many homes and businesses for decades, and many cities and towns offer local composting services. However, if this is your first time hearing the term organic compost, you might be a little confused: isn’t compost just scraps? How can it be organic? In this guide, we will cover everything you need to know about organic compost, what it is, and how to use it.
What Does It Mean To Be “Organic”?
Most people have a rough idea of what the word “organic” means, but drilling down on an exact definition can be a little more difficult. “Organic” is typically associated with sustainability, being free of chemicals, health consciousness, and environmental awareness, but none of these words actually describe what organic means. Unfortunately, there isn’t one easy answer, but there are a few key definitions that will help you better understand what it means to be organic.
To be defined as chemically organic, the item must simply contain carbon. Carbon is the building block of life. That's why human beings and all other living things are known as "carbon-based life forms". So, when someone remarks that healthy, black soil is “rich in organics”, they are referring to its abundance of living organisms and carbon.
The term “organic” began to be used in reference to produce (i.e. fruits and vegetables) and livestock raised without the use of man-made chemicals in the 1940s. This may more accurately be referred to as being “agriculturally organic,” but nevertheless has become the commonplace definition for anything labeled “organic” in a grocery store. Organic plants and produce are grown without the use of artificial pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or fertilizers. Organic livestock for meat, eggs, and dairy are raised on only organic feed free from hormones, steroids, and antibiotics.
As the use of pesticides and antibiotics became more popular in commercial food production and factory farming in the last few decades of the 20th century, the demand for organic products began to grow, eventually leading to the passing of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act eventually creating the National Organic Program. The National Organic Program now oversees and enforces the federal regulatory framework for the production of organic food.
The NOP is tasked with providing the guidelines under which foods grown without pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics may become “certified organic”. At the grocery store, an item labeled with the “certified organic” sticker or icon is one that has gone through the strenuous qualification process, paid all fees, and been certified by the NOP.
These guidelines are pretty strict, and the process of becoming certified can take years. When you see the “USDA Organic” label on foods at the supermarket, then, you know that it’s more than window-dressing - it’s an indication that food was grown in adherence to stringent organic practices.
Organic Without the Label
Occasionally, you may come across a product that is not labeled or “certified organic” but is nevertheless organic. Many small producers may cater exclusively to local grocery stores or farmer’s markets, and oftentimes don’t go through the time consuming and expensive process of getting USDA certified. Don’t be fooled: non-certified growers are just as capable of adhering to organic practices, you just have to be willing to take their word for it.
What Is Compost?
Now that we have a solid definition of what it means to be “organic”, let’s move on to the term “compost”. The simple dictionary definition of compost is as follows: a mixture that consists largely of decayed organic matter and is used for fertilizing and conditioning land. Compost consists largely of decayed carbon-based matter like fruits, vegetables, manure, grasses, dead leaves, and woody debris.
To become compost, these materials must go through an appropriate phase of decay. In well-aged compost, the various fungal and microbial agents contained therein are given time to work their decompositional magic, breaking down (chemically) organic compounds down to their most essential nutrients.
How Compost Makes Nutrients Available to Plants
Finished compost contains nitrogen, a vital nutrient for both plants and animals that can be found in proteins, enzymes, DNA, and many other types of cellular or living structures. During the process of decomposition, bacteria and fungi break down nitrogen-based compounds to generate ammonium. Microbes present in the soil take the ammonium and turn it into nitrite, which then goes through yet another phase of metamorphosis to be turned to nitrate. In the final phase of composting, nitrates turn to usable nitrogen, signalling that the compost is ready for use.
Poorly managed or under-aged compost does not make it through these four phases, instead producing an excess of ammonium without enough microbes to continue the process of nitrification. The accumulation of unconverted ammonium can mean imbalanced, non-useful compost that often features a foul odor.
Compost’s Soil-Enhancing Effects
When properly managed, well-made compost can add both structural and biological diversity to the soil. If the worms, mites, insects, and microbes have done their job, healthy compost should be crumbly and full of lots of tiny pockets. These empty spaces can hold an abundance of water, making well-made compost especially optimal for retaining moisture. This quality also helps to make soil stick together, making it more resistant to erosion. Properly aerated compost also plays host to a rich array of microfauna to add to the biological diversity of your soil.
Different species of bacteria and fungi have different niches - some perform the first steps of decomposition, others work to transform nutrients into forms usable by plants, while others may prey on microbes, helping keep their population in check. Diversity is the name of the game when it comes to compost, so the more diverse your compost is, the better your results will be. Compost is a whole lot more than “plant food”; compost works to make the soil itself healthier and more productive.
Compost vs. Fertilizer
If compost provides nutrients to soil and plants, what makes it different from fertilizer? Both compost and fertilizer make nutrients available to plants, but they do so in different ways. Fertilizer is just straight-up nutrients, and doesn’t come with the same complex structure as compost does. Fertilizer is also often more potent than compost, providing a flood of nutrients to soil and plants rather than a slow, steady trickle.
On a bag of fertilizer, you will typically see three numbers referring to the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium within the formula. Unlike compost, fertilizer is precisely regulated, and exact nutrient concentrations matter a whole lot more. Because of this, fertilizer can be used less liberally than compost, and nutrient levels must be considered before applying it to soil or plants.
Do I Need Fertilizer if I Already Use Compost?
Fertilizer typically contains higher nutrient concentrations than compost, but depending on the plants you are growing and the preexisting condition of your soil, the use of compost may be enough to negate the need for fertilizer. Reducing your need for fertilizer, especially artificial varieties, can help you create a more environmentally friendly garden environment, and help you avoid generating harmful runoff.
Making Your Own Organic Compost
Don’t worry, you aren’t going to need to be USDA certified to create your own organic compost, but it will require you to pay close attention to the items you add in order to keep it free from artificial chemicals. No, we aren’t expecting you to go out to your garden and apply chemicals straight to your compost heap, but plenty of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers find their way into your compost heap on their own.
Issues with Non-Organic Compost
Non-organic produce and food scraps, lawn clippings, manure, and other products that you may incorporate into your compost could be bringing artificial chemicals with them. This can be detrimental to the health of your compost and eventual health of your soil and produce, but can be avoided by making sure to purchase only organic produce and foods and avoid tossing grass clippings and other yard waste into your compost.
Threats to Soil Health
The presence of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and hormones in your compost can adversely affect soil biota. Microbes, fungi, worms, and insects all add tremendous value to the quality of your soil by making nutrients more available for plants, diversifying soil structure, and improving the soil’s ability to retain water and oxygen. Synthetic compounds in your compost can cause harm to these important critters, killing or disabling them and preventing the healthy decomposition of your compost.
Threats to Environmental Health
Beyond your backyard compost heap, synthetic chemicals and fertilizers can have detrimental, long-term, large-scale impacts on the environment. The overuse of fertilizers can cause soil quality degradation, be harmful to local wildlife like bees, birds, and butterflies, and even leach into water supplies where marine life and water quality may be affected. Similarly, the pesticide and fertilizer manufacturing process produce greenhouse gasses and pollutant emissions that are readily absorbed into the atmosphere and by surrounding natural ecosystems.
Sourcing or producing your own organic items and materials can help reduce wildlife exposure to artificial treatments, meaning fewer chemicals end up in our soil, water, and atmosphere.
Buying Organic Compost
If you’ve got a sizable garden or if you’ve just recently started composting, you may decide to supplement your homemade compost with some store-bought compost. Organic compost is available at most gardening supply centers, but picking out the right product can require a bit of research.
Organic composts are not regulated to the same degree as organic foods are. You won’t find any “USDA Organic” stickers on compost bags, though you will find plenty of producers claiming their product is “organic” and proudly emblazoning their bags with the word. Frequently these misleading labels refer merely to the chemical organicness of a compost, meaning it is simply carbon-based and does not actually adhere to agricultural organic standards.
How to Shop for High-Quality Organic Compost
Before you grab the first bag of “organic” compost you see, be sure to pick it up and take a look at its listed ingredients. If you see words like “biosolids” or “inert ingredients”, you’ll want to stay clear of the product. These catch-all terms encompass biological waste materials of all kinds (i.e. sewage) that you probably don’t want in your garden.
If you are able, seeing, feeling, and smelling the compost may give you more insight into its quality. Good compost should feel like rich, crumbly soil, should be dark in color, and should have a deep earthy smell. If the compost smells strongly like ammonia or rotting refuse, something is wrong - it either hasn’t been composted long enough, hasn’t been aerated, or is filled with low-quality ingredients and waste materials.
Big chunky pieces and/or lots of wood whether it is wood chips, shavings, or sawdust can also be a sign of poor compost. While some carbon-rich “brown” materials are essential, they should always be properly balanced with “green”, nitrogen-rich materials.
Benefits of Using Organic Compost
The benefits of creating and making organic compost are virtually endless, and we didn’t cover all of them here. Hopefully, you now have a better idea of what it means for something to be organic (whether that’s chemically organic or agriculturally organic) and have a better sense of what compost is, what it does for the soil, and how it differs from fertilizer.
Now that you’ve got a solid background, and have plenty of resources on creating your own organic compost, you can start to plan your compost set up come spring. With an abundance of home-made organic compost, you’ll be able to grow your own organic produce, create beautiful and colorful flower gardens, and attract and protect local wildlife. Happy gardening!
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