The Many Benefits of Compost

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Tompkins Weekly 4-20-15

By Elizabeth Burns

Composting turns food scraps, grass clippings, and dead leaves into a garden resource. By reusing all the nutrients in organic matter, the compost process diverts refuse from the landfill and creates a reusable byproduct in the process, beneficial to your garden and the planet. Much of the waste we produce every day can be turned into a useful soil amendment for your lawn or next year’s tomatoes. The compost process breaks down all the elements present in organic (plant/food) waste and with the help of water, oxygen and an array of microorganisms converts them into a rich brown matter that can be returned back to the earth and not the landfill.

The sustainable benefits of compost extend far beyond the garden. Composting helps prevent water pollution by preventing pollutants from entering runoff or seeping into groundwater. A layer of compost over the soil stops erosion and prevents contaminants such as pesticides and herbicides from spreading. Microorganisms in compost piles help break down pollutants –inorganic residues from fertilizers, pesticides, or chemical preservatives. These contaminants would normally enter the soil and be used as part of the plant/food cycle or eventually be absorbed into groundwater or runoff. Using compost can help supply cleaner water for everyone!

Composting also improves soil DigingInTheCompostquality. Nutrients fixed in the compost are retained in the soil and not washed away. They remain in the soil for a longer period of time, allowing plants to absorb them when they need them. Using compost can also stop plants from absorbing heavy metals present in the soil.

The heat generated from compost provides another sustainable resource. The decomposition of organic matter and the activity of microorganisms yields heat as a byproduct. One of the ways that energy can be used is to heat water in homes and on farms. The internal temperature of a compost pile can reach as high as 160 degrees! Pipes are run through the compost pile and the water is heated as it runs through the pipes. The pipes can loop back through the compost pile, re-circulating the water until it heats to the appropriate temperature. This system can replace conventional hot water heaters, saving energy costs by not using fossil fuel heating sources.

Heating a greenhouse with compost is another sustainable application. A compost pile set inside the greenhouse generates the heat, water, and carbon dioxide necessary for plant growth. When the temperature of the compost heats up, the water present in the compost turns to vapor and heat energy is retained in the greenhouse. Pipes are run under the soil bedding, the water vapor condenses and heat is released into the soil to warm seedlings and plant roots. Compost also releases gasses like carbon dioxide, which can be transferred to the plants through the soil. Certain composts generate ammonia, a potentially harmful gas. However when ammonia is transferred to the soil, it is broken down into ammonium and nitrate.
There are more benefits of composting than soil health and energy. Compost can help create a thriving, sustainable community in neighborhoods and other group settings. Planning, organizing, and maintaining a compost site fosters ecological responsibility and participants contribute to a more socially just food production system. Neighborhoods can downsize the amount of garbage they generate and then use the results to beautify flower beds or amend soil in their neighborhood gardens. At the Ithaca Community Gardens, the compost generated from garden waste is used to sustain crop growth. Volunteers work to maintain the compost piles, monitoring their size and checking them for adequate temperature. Compost produced at the site is used by the gardeners on their plots, so the only organic matter that leaves the garden is the harvested vegetables!

You can learn more about composting at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County’s (CCETC) annual Compost Fair on Sunday, April 26 from 12-4 pm. There will be games, bin builds, prizes, live music, kid’s activities and compost giveaways. It will be held in conjunction with the 4H Duck Race – an event that runs thousands of rubber ducks down Cascadilla Creek. More information and photos can be found online at . Come down to CCETC and learn about composting and see the ducks!

Elizabeth Burns is a Master Composter from the class of 2015, and a gardener at the Ithaca Community Gardens.

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