"Can we just spread the materials under trees and around gardens without
making and working compost heaps first?"
Its important to compost in separate areas for a number of reasons.
It must be piled about three feet high or more to develop and retain heat
to destroy harmful bacteria and to generate fungus and good bacteria.
The key is developing enough heat, approx. 180oF for days, to convert microbes.
Another important process is the very rapid growth of fungus, which produce antibiotics that
destroy most harmful bacteria and break down the plant structures rapidly. Then the good soil
bacteria and microorganisms begin to thrive and take over as the heap cools.
A recent E. coli bacteria outbreak here was traced to manure placed
beneath apple trees. The apples fell onto manure contaminated soils,
were picked up, juiced and bottled without pasteurization.
This is not composting but "mulching". Mulches are important to maintaining the soil surface
micro-environment, especially temperature and evaporation rate. They also provide cover and
food for soil organisms and earthworms. Organic mulches eventually break down and release
their nutrients. Remember, plant materials don't release their nutrients until well composted, and
manures are dangerous and fast leaching nitrogen sources. Straight manures are "too hot" and
will burn many plants.
Inorganic mulches are usually decorative gravels. They help keep soils cooler, decrease weeds
and look clean, don't provide organic nutrients, but provide minerals. Some, such as crushed
limestone can raise soil ph and add calcium. Granites and basalts can add potassium and trace
minerals slowly. Perlite and vermiculite are usually mixed into topsoils to add moisture retention,
tilth, potassium and trace minerals. Crushed phosphate rock breaks down slowly and adds
calcium and phosphorus, a very vital nutrient, often deficient in soils. Gypsum can decrease soil
ph and add calcium and sulphate.
Remember, plants need Nitrogen (N) from protein rich or nitrogen fixing plants, composts and
manures, Phosphate (P) from rock phosphate or bone meal (Superphosphate fertilizer is very
soluble and fast acting. It is a quick fix to get started, but leaches into ground water and has to be
reapplied regularly) and Potassium (K) or potash from granites, felspars, greensands, clays etc.
Fertilizers are rated on the N-P-K percentages.
The compost should be done separately along fence rows or back areas
away from water sources also. A firm hard surface facilitates scooping up
and prevents leaching. Diking of compost heaps is sometimes necessary also.
Special containers are popular for small urban sites, but unnecessary on farms
Rubber boots should be worn at site and left at site. (Also gloves) Careful washing, especially of
broken skin, is vital. Use alcohol or Lysol spray cans if available. Dust masks are also good idea.
A good pitchfork and a fine spray nozzle with presurized water are the most important tools. A long soil thermometer is helpful. Baskets, wheelbarrows, carts all help a lot. A large bucket-cable system can quickly move manures from barns to pile areas. Shredders, tillers etc. can break up and mix materials quickly and on larger scale. Loaders and wagons can move materials and composts on large scale.
It really takes two people, one to pitch materials and one to spray with water just until wet, not
soggy. Then repeat when turning piles. Piles should be turned at least twice for best results.
This greatly speeds process and the compost should have a sweet earthy soil smell very quickly.
When heaps cool off they are usually done and ready for spreading. Hot heaps are dangerous to
plants, animals, people and earthworms. They sometimes have to be covered to keep out flies,
pests, excess rain etc. I cover mine with mineral rich sands or soils, and I sow the cover soil with
grass on heaps of coarser materials that are to be left a season.
"What about Leachates?"
Lechates from fresh piles are too rich in bad bacteria and can be dangerous. Keep from water.
But old composts are much safer. Some people make a leachate from old finished compost to
water soils around seedlings and greenhouse plants.
Earthworms are vital to life. First recognized by Darwin as the greatest soil worker and soil
creator, the cultivation of earthworms is increasing rapidly. Earthworms don't like fresh compost
heaps, way too hot. They like cool finished compost mixed into topsoil. They also don't like
soggy soils. They love a sprinkling of corn meal on the surface, where they come up and feed at
night. This extra feeding causes them to reproduce very rapidly. The casings are the best
fertilizer and soil conditioner. Their turning of the topsoil is very important work and it really adds
up to a tremendous amount of tilling over time. Worms can be collected by placing a cone of soil on a wet burlap. As the cone dries in the sun, rake away soil, the worms wiggle down to the burlap where they can be easily gathered. Another trick is to put soil into a 1/4 inch wire cloth sifting box with a 1/2 inch trim around the bottom. Place soil in box and wet burlap under box. Worms will quickly wiggle down through wire to burlap when box is placed in the sun.
A prize winning orange grower here in S. CA simply rakes the leaves in a ring at the drip line
around the orange trees. (Not near the trunk where fungus etc. can develop). This mulch shades
this soil area, retains moisture, and plus some added compost, raises lots of earthworms right
where the tree needs them most. It also keeps weeds out of this vital root area. He uses only a
few simple tools and also spends time doing some pruning and weeding (His neighbors don't do
this and their weeds blow onto his orchard. They also don't win at the fair!).
As you can see, this simple process requires much collecting, shreading, mixing and pitching,
but is actually one of the most important farm chores, very good exercise and well worth all the
effort. It is the most important and vital recycling that man can do. Making soil a thousand times
faster than nature and rebuilding vast acreage is really possible, even basket by basket.
Composts not only provide nutrients, but also improve soil texture. Sandy soils retain much more
water longer, clay soils have better drainage and tilth. Plowing is replaced by easy tilling of soft
soil as deep texture improves. Erosion is greatly reduced. Terraced lands and depleated lands
can really benefit greatly from compost and have less erosion. They can become as fertile as
fine bottom lands. Spread of disease is greatly reduced, water supplies protected, and increased
productivity on rich deep soils leads to long term prosperity.