Dear Ronald Nigh and the rest,
It is great to see your very well laid out post and thoughts about
alternatives to "sacred" composting. The crux of the issue as to in situ
decomposition vs. compost pile decomposition lays in the benefits and pitfalls
of the decompositional activity and where you want it to take place.
Everything must be put into perspective(not that I will accomplish that job
tonight, but I'll start it).
For farmers with field crops, especially tough ones like corn, in-situ decomp.
has many benefits for improving soil structure. One of the best things about
decomp. is that during the process, the bacteria involved release all sorts of
gums and gels which help to "glue" together soil aggregates, one of our prime
organic directives. This happens when the bacteria chew their way through all
of the fresh carbos we give them in the incorporated or mulched OM. This
feeding also creates a flush of microbial growth which tends to "burn" up
toxins in the soil, such as the by-products of anaerobic breakdown, and to
liberate locked-up phosphates and micro-nutrients. So in-situ decomp does
alot for our soil, but composting has an extremely important role as well.
"For improvement of physical properties of soil, actual decomposition
> in the soil, rather than composting, is best because polysacharides
> are produced from carbon compounds that would otherwise be lost in
> composting. These natural water-soluble polymers do much to create
> and stabilize the soil aggregates to give good physical properties to
>"Although there are good reasons for composting, the idea can be
>wrong much of the time. Since 75 percent, more or less, of the
>organic carbon is lost in composting, little remains for real
>improvement of the soil structure. When possible, direct application
>avoids this problem. The value of organics for soil improvement
>comes mainly from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are mostly lost in
>composting. Some users assume that the composting process results in
>the production of biostimulants; uncomposted materials applied to
>soil can result in the same."
Quotes like this are most often from field farmers. Carbohydrates are lost
whether decomposed in the field or in the pile, the difference is the effect
of the process on the plants and the soil health. Carbs are what bacteria and
fungus feed on for energy, nitrogen is for the proteins they use to reproduce
structure. Composting is a process of stabilizing a more active or soluble
compound into a more stable state which will later be broken down into a
simpler plant soluble nutrient state. One of the main reasons to compost is
to humify(put into a less soluble complex with various carbon chains) soluble
nitrogen so that it will not be leached out with the first rain and can be
slowly released(mineralised) to the plants over time. This also feeds the
soil bacteria, but the big flush of growth place in the pile. There are many
growth stimulating and disease inhibiting effects of a mature, well-aged
compost, as well as the "nutrient-banking" effects it provides.
Hopefully, by now, you will be thinking, "Oh, I can see reasons to use both in
the proper amounts for their respective effects."
As you can probably imagine, composting lends more to vegetable production and
in-situ decomp to field farming. Alan Chadwick specifically forbade use of
mulches(let alone direct incorporation of residues) on his French-Instensive
beds because he believed, justifiably, that the realm of decomposition brought
by the decomposing mulch negatively affected the health of the plant. It has
been proven that in-situ decomp. of plant residue increases the incident of
plant diseases like funguses(decompositional diseases). On the other hand,
research from as far back as the 1950's shows that the best aggregation comes
from in-situ decomp. of winter wheat or rye - due to the homogeneous mixing of
the fibrous root system(high in gluw-like lignin) with the soil particles.
No-till limits the amount of oxygen which the bacteria can use to "burn" up
the organic matter, and thus results in more carbon being turned into one of
the various states of carbo decomposition called as a group "humus". When I
worked at Rodale Institute I sampled Steve Groff's farm soil. It had very
high humus content, but was packed hard as a rock - driving tractors over a
soil and never physically braking it up limits the productivity of increased
humus as far as I could tell.
The point is to see the whole picture of all of the tools we are given for the
work, and use them in the proportions necessary for accomplishing the goal.
Chris "Even my father says everything breaks down near me" Shade
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