As we saw in chapter 2, the advantages of humus are twofold.First, when it is mixed with the soil, the resulting combination becomesa heterogeneous, loosely structured soil mixture allowing air and waterto penetrate to soil organisms and growing plants. Because of its loosetexture, humus-rich soil soaks up water in its pores so that less runoff occurs. Second, humus contains a number of chemical elements thatenrich the soil with which it is mixed, providing nutrients for growingplants.The major elements found in humus are nitrogen, phosphorus,potassium, sulfur, iron, and calcium, varying in amounts according tothe original composition of the raw organic matter thrown on the heap.Minor elements are also present, again in varying amounts dependingon the type of compost. The N-P-K percentages of finished compost arerelatively low, but their benefit lies in the release of nitrogen andphosphorus in the soil at a slow enough rate that plants can use themand they aren't lost through leaching.Soil mixed with humus becomes a rich, dark color that absorbs farmore heat than nonorganic soils, making it a more favorable environment in which to grow crops and ornamental plants.
How Compost Is Produced
The road from raw organic material to finished compost is acomplex one, because both chemical and microbial processes are responsible for the gradual change from one to the other.Decomposition of compost is accomplished by enzymatic digestion of plant and animal material by soil microorganisms. Simultaneously, the chemical processes of oxidation, reduction, and hydrolysis are going on in the pile, and their products at various stages are usedby microorganisms for further breakdown.Bacteria use these products for two purposes: (1) to provide energy to carry on their life processes and (2) to obtain the nutrients theyneed to grow and reproduce. The energy is obtained by oxidation of the products, especially the carbon fraction. The heat in a compost pileis the result of this biological "burning," or oxidation. Some materialscan be broken down and oxidized more rapidly than others. Thisexplains why a pile heats up fairly rapidly at the start. It is because thereadily decomposed material is being attacked and bacterial activity isat its peak. If all goes well, this material is soon used up, and sobacterial activity slows down—and the pile begins to cool. Of course,