How Compost Could Save The World
Oh, And Your Backyard Too
Bad news first: atmospheric carbon levels are rising again after being fairly stable for the past few years. Lacking sufficient incentives (since apparently the destruction of our atmosphere seems inconsequential to industrialists), destructive agricultural and industrial practices and the extraction and use of fossil fuel are increasing carbon emissions once again. Thanks to the infamous greenhouse effect, excess carbon dioxide is pushing worldwide temperatures over safe levels. If our precious atmosphere leans ever deeper into the CO2 (it’s now 40% higher than in 1750), people, critters, and plants alike will begin to suffer significant respiratory and central nervous system issues. Of course, that only affects anything that breathes; rocks will probably be ok.
Ready for some good news? I sure am, so here it is: compost may be the our best tool for rebalancing the air we breathe. Sound a little simplistic? As scientists rather frantically seek to better understand the delicate balance that fosters life on our planet, a stream of studies show that healthy soil may be our best hope. Undisturbed, humus-rich soils can capture and store enormous amounts of carbon. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the European Commission cite soil carbon sequestration as an important way to offset greenhouse gasses. Even more good news: it doesn’t take a boatload of compost to begin the healing process. In some cases, as little as half an inch spread on carbon-stripped soil can re-start the sequestering process almost immediately.
Spread It Far And Wide
More good news: our next best tool is planting plants. Lots of plants. Different plants, natives and garden glories and/or edibles. Plants absorb carbon from the air and through photosynthesis, and plant respiration returns oxygen to the atmosphere, helping to restore the tilting balance. When plants take up carbon, they funnel any they don’t use to soil dwellers such as bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoa. As plant matter decays, its stored carbon turns into soil organic matter (SOM), a blend of carbon compounds, soil biota and carbon-storing minerals. That SOM combo is the subject of intense research these days, since SOM can lock up carbon for thousands-or millions-of years or release it in a moment to the blade of a tiller or tractor. That’s why undisturbed soils are more helpful than agricultural soils that are endlessly disturbed and depleted of humus. That’s also why overgrazing and forest clear-cutting are especially damaging.
Even more good news! Replenishing that healthy soil can take many forms; perhaps surprisingly, carefully managed grazing and forest thinning can help restore the carbon storage capacity of damaged soils. For gardeners and homeowners, the best news is that we can do some meaningful carbon farming right in our own backyards. Carbon farming on any scale involves improving and maintaining soil humus levels so that powerful SOM can lock down excess carbon. We can also, of course, support legislature that curbs reckless carbon release through fossil fuel extraction and overuse.
Clearly, the bigger our property, the better we can help build soil humus levels and improve carbon storage, but even landless apartment dwellers can help. All of us can get involved with local and regional projects where knowledge about soil sequestering may be missing. Community gardens, local farms, land trust use, public land use, school districts and local and regional parks can all benefit the earth through better soil stewardship. Most will need encouragement to do the needful, and that’s where you and I come in.
Many conventional farming techniques harm soil and release more carbon than the damaged soil can recapture. Still more good news; farmers and ranchers are getting the word and beneficial change is coming. Organic growers especially are turning to no-till methods and know the value of adding crop residues, digested manures, and compost to crop soils. To keep or make our home lands helpful, we can convert lawns from sterile monocultures to rich environments that support plants and wildlife. We can switch from annual bed digging to permanent beds with little disturbance. Here’s how:
Lower Maintenance And Improve Carbon Capture
Bottom line? Mulching cuts way down on weeds and makes removal much easier. Instead of digging in amendments, simply spread them over the beds and borders as well as the lawn. For lawns, an inch or so of compost each autumn and early spring will heal soggy soils and reduce or eliminate red thread and other fungal disorders. Even better, transform lawn to low maintenance mixed plantings of shrubs, perennials, grasses and bulbs. Let wide (5-6 feet) paths mulched with wood chips wander between the beds and allow plants to relax forward, softening the path edge.
The result can be both visually pleasing and restorative for soil, air and water quality as well as benefiting wildlife. Once folks realize how much healthier and more resilient such gardens are, their thirsty, needy, useless and harmful lawns shrink fast. Every square yard of improved soil can contribute to carbon capture. Every time destructive soil practices are replaced with healing one, money is saved as chemical use and maintenance needs diminish. Every bit of undisturbed soil becomes a place of hope and healing. Onward!
How compost helps:
More on Soil Storage: