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Improving Garden Soil with Compost

Compost is not only a soil amendment, it is the soil
amendment. Soil with a serious pH imbalance should be
treated with lime or sulfur or some other pH-specific
amendment, but for most garden soil problems the
amendment of choice is always compost. Assuming that
you've got average soil with average problems and you
can only add one thing. Compost would be the thing to
choose. Other amendments will solve particular problems
more quickly or completely, but compost is the best allaround soil conditioner available.
To stretch the conditioning metaphor to the breaking point, one could think of most soil
amendments as an exercise for one body part -- the biceps, or the hamstrings. But biceps curls are
not a conditioning program. No one would do biceps curls and only biceps curls and expect the
result to be a healthy mind in a healthy body.
Cross-country skiing, on the other hand, works just about everything -- arms, legs, glutes, abs -- all
of it. If you've got a serious weakness or injury in one part of the body, you may need to work or
cure it before setting out, but as a whole-body exercise that will benefit muscles, cardio-vascular
health, and so on, nothing beats it.
If you want the whole works, you need to work the whole. This is what compost does for a garden. It
improves soil physically, biologically and chemically. (These roles actually overlap, but it's helpful to
consider them separately.)
Compost has the unique ability to affect all these factors positively. In increasing organic material,
including humus, it raises the CEC index making nutrients less likely to leach away and stabilizing
soil pH (chemical affects). It also adds micro-organisms which perform complex functions (biological
affects) and it improves soil structure, reducing drainage problems in both clay and sandy soils
(physical affects).
Compost therefore provides the optimal environment for fighting plant diseases as well for making
nutrients available to plants.

Physical Effects: Soil Structure and Nutrients
Improves Soil Structure
Compost performs the seemingly contradictory functions of improving drainage in clay soils and
water retention in sandy soils because in both cases what it really improves is soil structure.
Good soil structure -- what used to be called "good tilth" -- is the basis for any good garden or farm.
In good soil, different molecules tend to glom onto each other, forming what are called aggregates:
small, irregularly shaped particles or clumps. This clumping of material opens up spaces or
channels between the aggregates, space which allows air to circulate and water to drain.
These channels also provide easy paths for plant roots to follow. Plants in loose, friable soil develop
deeper and more complex root systems than do those in heavy soils. Since some nutrients such as
phosphorus tend to stay where they are, roots must come to them. A large root system means that
the plant can access more of these key nutrients which might otherwise remain out of reach.
Soils heavy in either clay or sand have poor structure for two reasons: they tend to be low in
organic matter and their mineral particles have a fairly consistent size. Good soil, by contrast, is
diverse in both content and in the size of its constituent particles. The mineral particles should have

6. water simply floods between the large particles in sand. For instance. Adds (a few) Nutrients In spite of the insistence that compost is not a fertilizer. but compost also improves soil structure in ways that they cannot. However.a range of sizes and the earth should be a complex mix of many ingredients including rock particles. and a dense population of microbes. magnesium (Mg) and sulfur (S). however tiny. . play their own essential roles discussed below under Biological Effects: Beneficial Microbes and Others.an essential role since plants can only use nutrients when they are dissolved. play perhaps the most important roles. Nitrogen is especially vulnerable. however reluctantly.5% potassium. It is not a buzzword. it provides vital micronutrients such as iron. it is incumbent upon any responsible writer to admit. copper and zinc which are essential to plant health in minute quantities and which are often missing from synthetic fertilizers and are overlooked by gardeners. Drs. Soil with good structure will hold water better than sandy soils do and drain better than clay soils do. insects and invertebrates. A finished compost may contain small amounts of the primary nutrients. It's as though the compost heap shrinks around an unchanging core of nutrients. the microscopic ones. In clay. This is true of heaps made in composters with lids. a compost pile that's open to the weather will lose some of the more soluble nutrients to leaching. Biological Effects: Beneficial Microbes and Others Adds Beneficial Microbes Think of composting as the act of growing microorganisms. These physical effects have important ramifications. and it can be trapped by the tiny particles in clay. and the fact that compost contributes important levels of micronutrients. Soil structure is important for soil biology as well. Consider absorbency. It may also contain low levels of secondary nutrients: (calcium (Ca). The percentage of nutrients in compost is higher than that in the feedstocks it's made from.Compost Fundamentals. But its nutrient content remains constant. Neither clay nor sand absorbs water well. the micro-organisms in compost . Jill Clapperton and Megan Ryan point out that soil with good structure "makes a better soil habitat that attracts more soil animals. making them more available for root uptake. Compost in sandy soil ensures that the soil holds water long enough to dissolve nutrients -." These animals.and good structure is the key to everything.0. Despite this concentrating factor. and 0. organic material. More importantly. that compost does contain some nutrients. Organic material is one of the keys to good structure -. compost does not contain high enough levels of the primary nutrients to qualify as a fertilizer. compost allows dissolved nutrients to circulate. Beneficial microbes is a term that turns up again and again in compost literature. The tiniest of these creatures. Washington State University. manganese. In a wonderful paper on this topic. The fact that compost contains a host of living creatures and nurtures others sets it apart from most other soil amendments. discussed above in the section on soil structure. usually 1-2% nitrogen. Compost shares this property with other organic materials such as peat moss and coconut coir. 0.2-0. The organic material in soil absorbs water far more willingly than sand but releases it more readily than clay.9% phosphorus. This is because compost loses bulk as it decays.

animals and the soil biota themselves. Notice the last clause in that quotation: "Introduction of fresh plant materials stimulates breakdown activity. Pure nitrogen gas (N2) makes up over 70% or our atmosphere. plants provide the mycorrhizae with carbohydrates for energy. Energy for this process is obtained from carbon in the material being used. All extend or enhance the plant's ability to reach distant nutrients. Mycorrhizae are not one of the most important fungi populating compost in the bin.produce mucus which helps bring soil particles together. slender. . forming a close symbiotic relationship with roots. transporting nutrients from several meters below the plant not just to the root zone but directly to the roots themselves. external ectomycorrhizae. one of the three primary nutrients. Since peat moss and coconut coir are essentially sterile materials. which resemble roots. which form a dense web around tree roots. Nitrogen. But adding compost helps boost their populations in the soil. which actually penetrate the roots of most other plants. they do not provide this kind of boost to the soil. forming long. many of which are toxic to greater or lesser extents to humans. aiding in aggregation. In return. the long hyphae of some fungi and actinomycetes that flourish in organic soils also help in soil aggregation. which infect (that's the technical term) the roots of many plants. in other words." Compost. We tend to forget that penicillin is a mold. Some help to reduce plant diseases while others establish the mycorrhizal fungi that allow plant roots to access nutrients far below the reach of their roots. this is also important because it can in turn reduce the need for various fungicides and other chemicals. but most plants can only make use of it as ammonia (NH4) or nitrate (NO3). Reduces Plant Diseases Soil bacteria and fungi nourished by compost can also help reduce incidence of a wide range of plant diseases. This is particularly important in allowing plants to reach phosphorus and other immobile nutrients which are available only in the extremely small volume of soil immediately surrounding the roots -or in the fungi that extend those roots. While quite obviously good in itself. It is soil microbes that do the essential work of converting other forms of nitrogen into these usable ones. benefiting both partners. function like a second set of roots. One of the most important mycorrhizae for our purposes are arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AM). Also. AM fungi can penetrate much smaller spaces than can even the smallest root threads. branching systems of threads stretching from plant roots into the soil below.. Still other microbes play a major role in converting nutrients to forms available to plants. Micro-organisms improve soil-structure because they help soil to aggregate. And most of us probably never knew that many antibiotics were originally cultured from ." helps to clarify the importance of organic material (such as compost) in this conversion: Mineralization is the process of converting organic N to plant available inorganic forms. "Nitrogen Fertility. The word fungus doesn't have positive connotations in our culture. These systems. There are two main types. A paper by the Mississippi State University Extension Service. abounds in earth and air in numerous forms. Consisting frequently of one-cell-wide threads. It's a classic symbiotic system. But they also play a number of other roles. Mycorrhizal fungi make up 80-90% of plant systems. accessing nutrients that roots cannot. and internal endomycorrhizae.. It is a gradual breaking down of large molecules to smaller molecules by a succession of soil microorganisms. helps fuel the microbes that convert nitrogen into the soluble forms plants can use. so introduction of fresh plant materials stimulates breakdown activity.

Out-compete other organisms for nutrients. This is only one branch of many on-going investigations. Compost has been used to fight avocado root-rot both in California and in Brazil. it was not crazy. At the top of this list reside earthworms which themselves produce the best of composts. Chloramphenicol. or nightcrawler. Beneficial micro-organisms can: 1." In looking to soil for microbes that would cure diseases. 4.all produced by a particular class of soil biota. which means that they can be used to inoculate composts. being derived from a compost in Venezuela kept by an expatriate Basque until it was sent off to New Haven for analysis in 1944. 3. 2. Produce antibiotics. paints a picture of medical and pharmaceutical investigators in the 1940s and 50s madly collecting soil samples from around the world and testing them for antimicrobial agents. Penicillin. was a true world traveler. Nourishes Larger Soil Organisms There's a long list of insects. Waksman's lab had discovered a whole range of antibiotics -the actinomycetes -. Waksman had been following in the footsteps of pioneering microbiologist Rene Dubos.soil or compost. a wide-spectrum antibiotic still used today in many developing countries. this exhaustive if exhausting search was inspired by the success of Selman Waksman of Rutgers University. two of the most successful wide-spectrum antibiotics. but dozens of other species exist. These fungi occur naturally in most soils. Perhaps these reminders will make it easier for us to believe it when we read that soil biota produce antibiotics which fight soil-borne diseases. These creatures all help to aerate soil as they move through it and are part of the complex soil web that makes plant life possible. mulches and other media. named chlortetracycline. including the Giant Gippsland Earthworm which reaches lengths of 2-3 meters. Dubos' most telling discoveries had been too toxic for human ingestion. Parasitize pathogens. Perhaps the most important of these was streptomycin. made a much shorter journey: from a hay field in Missouri to Lederle Laboratories on the east coast in 1946. One branch of research has focused on a class of soil fungi called Trichoderma. But erythromycin. Activate disease-resistant genes in plants. discovered by Waksman's student Albert Schatz. As Bud tells it. But production of antibiotics is only one way that soil microbes fight disease. a recent book on the first antibiotic by Robert Bud. worms and other creatures that benefit from compost that in turn improve soil structure. Crazed as this search may have been. When they die. Australian farmers claim they can hear these worms moving through the earth. who is often credited with coining the term "antibiotic. but they are also easily cultured. Head of Information and Research at London's Science Museum. they also contribute their bodies to the organic matter in the soil. while its potential in fighting tomato diseases has been widely reported. derived from a soil sample collected in the Philippines. Most of us are familiar only with the common earthworm. A major British review of the literature identified four different mechanisms by which micro-organisms are currently believed to suppress soil-borne diseases. Spreading material inoculated with Trichoderma ensures that it will be present in the necessary numbers. as was the precursor of erythromycin. Particular species of Trichoderma can be especially effective in fighting certain diseases. the first effective treatment for tuberculosis. The first tetracycline. traveled half-way around the world. In the early 1940s. . were both derived from soil cultures. Chloramphenicol and tetracycline.

Some northern forests in both countries have remained worm-free until recently. In fact they arrived with European settlers." The worms have devastated the floors of some boreal forests. (PDF format) . One sober. eating through the leaf litter in which many seeds generate and mixing soil layers in ways that change nutrient chemistry and availability. leafy layer on the forest floor into smaller-volume castings soil. not only does the soil suffer. Worms also convert the loose. and lower levels of both carbon and nitrogen. but the understorey does as well: Forest floor without earthworms Forest floor with earthworms Source: Earthworms: Invasion by an Eco-System Engineer. fewer micro-organisms. Worminfested soil contains less organic matter. The results are almost the opposite of those that worms famously produce in gardens. As a result.'Nature's Plough' Not Every Worm is a Good Worm The nightcrawler and other earthworms are so common across the United States and southern Canada that it seems they must be native here.Source: Giant Gippsland Earthworm . Soil horizons without earthworms Soil horizons with earthworms Under such circumstances. the soil becomes more compacted. scientific paper refers to their introduction in Alberta as an "invasion.

the CEC measures the capacity of a soil to allow the movement (or exchange) of positively charged ions (cations) between soil particles and the soil solution. This genetic diversity indicates there have been multiple introductions. meaning that fertilizers can remain viable for long periods. a measure of how well a soil retains nutrients and therefore how available its nutrients are to plants. Cameron concludes that "reducing the number of roads being constructed.Similar effects are seen in Minnesota. CEC for loams range from 10 to 25. But it is an important confirmation. Human beings are repeatedly implicated. Many plant nutrients (potassium. A soil with a lot of organic matter in it may measure 50 to 100. Studies sampling worm populations at multiple sites indicate higher populations at boat launches and along roads. focuses on how the worms are being introduced into their new habitats. roughly put. A low CEC indicates that the soil has a low capacity for retaining nutrients. water that should be rich in dissolved minerals. a plant-available form of nitrogen) exist in soil as cations (pronounced cat-ions). A high CEC (over 50) indicates a greater capacity to retain nutrients. calcium. forming negatively charged particles called anions." (See "Road age and its importance in earthworm invasion of northern boreal forests. While the studies above document the damage. meaning that applied fertilizers quickly leach away. while clay loams may have a CEC as high as 40. Low here means 5 milliequivalents per 100 grams (meq/100g). where one paper published in 2003 reports that a layer of organic matter 10 centimeters thick completely disappeared over four years. Clays and organic matter. which is what's found in some sandy soils. These large anions attract and hold cations. The amount of clay and organic material in a soil gives a rough indication of its ability to hold positively charged nutrients. tend to accumulate extra electrons. magnesium and ammonium. rather than just a single event.") Chemical Effects: pH and CEC Boosts Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) The cation exchange capacity or CEC of soil is. which are positively charged ions -molecules that have lost one or more of their negatively charged electrons leaving the molecule with a net positive charge. This is why clays. Understanding this offers the key to slowing the invasion. this isn't really a surprise. it helps to understand some of the basic chemistry involved. How can enhancing mobility lead to greater stability? In order to understand how these things can be true. More technically. Pure organic matter may have a CEC of 150. the water around the particles. Erin Cameron (see photo). and reclaiming temporary roads will be critical to reduce the future extent of earthworm invasions. in general. Humus has a CEC of 200. It may seem counter-intuitive that facilitating cation exchange (including that of nutrients) would correlate with a soil's ability to hold onto or bind nutrients. Since worms are remarkably slow to migrate. preventing them from washing away with irrigation or rain water. restricting traffic. are more fertile than sandy soils: they are . Her work includes a genetic study (2007) that shows that the many worms she finds have not all descended from a few common ancestors. especially humus. a graduate student in Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta.

bumping. At least two factors discussed in this section. This can seem especially mind-boggling because. The "exchange" in the term Cation Exchange Capacity acknowledges this mobility. most plants can grow at anything near neutral (7). will hang around longer. Cation Exchange Capacity says nothing about the nutrient content of a soil.able to retain nutrients better than do sandy soils. But first. But their relative concentration in the area remains constant. prefer acidic soils. Soil pH affects whether nutrients present in the soil can actually be taken up by plant roots. Its ability to balance pH results directly from the fact that it boosts cation exchange capacity (CEC) of soil.) However. The negatively charged attachment sites on humus and clays don't simply latch onto a passing cation and hang on forever. also play a major role in making nutrients available -. Blueberries. In a soil with low CEC. Balances and Buffers pH If compost's first miracle is to improve both clay and sandy soils. providing greater benefit to plants. for example. molecules and electrons are actually in constant motion. (There are exceptions. and so on. to speak of clays and humus as binding nutrients gives a false picture to the extent that it implies immobility. pH and micro-organisms. No matter how much fertilizer you dump on low CEC soil. With low CEC the motion is primarily vertical and in only one direction: down. a quick review of pH itself. for the presence of many possible attachment sites in a small area keeps cations in the general region which means that they remain available to plant roots. That pull is always present.millions in one second. have very low CECs. Brussels sprouts. you will get only a brief nutrient boost after which many of the nutrients will simply wash out of the soil leaving your plants bereft and your local waters polluted. Atoms. being stripped away as a more attractive site becomes available. It only indicates how well the soil can retain the nutrients that are present. they might be better termed exchange sites. compost's pH is near neutral. Nor does CEC alone indicate whether or not nutrients in the soil are actually available to plants. potatoes. the cations have little or nothing to bind to so they tend to give in to the pull of gravity and leach away with water. The individual molecules are dashing about. attaching and reattaching to negative sites on clay or organic matter. strawberries. In a soil with a high CEC. a particular attachment site on a particular particle of clay or humus may entertain many tenants -. Indeed. On the pH scale that runs from 1 (highly acidic) to 14 (highly alkaline). dis-associating and re-attaching countless times in a second. . turnips and cabbages) prefer slightly alkaline soils. kale. broccoli. Fertilizer in high CEC soil. but it has less effect on a molecule in a crowded environment full of attractive sites. however. rhododendrons and azaleas. binding. A few clays. It moves in all directions. to make alkaline soils more acidic and acidic ones more alkaline. though their CECs do vary. its second must be its ability to balance pH.or not. But this seeming instability is deceptive. The cation in high CEC soil bounces back and forth and up and down. though many have their own preferences for lower or higher pH. as they are the points at which an unending chain of cations attach and detach. Brassicas (cauliflower. unlike most pH treatments. reattaching elsewhere. such as the kaolinite common in the Carolinas. attaching to one site.

it bonds with iron and aluminum. its pH should be around 6. Plants require seven micronutrients. Five of these -.which means that they have become positively charged ions.Nitrogen is most available at a neutral pH because the microbes that convert nitrogen into the usable forms of ammonia and nitrate operate best at near-neutral pH levels. and diverse compounds that provide both negatively-charged attachment points and numerous hydrogen atoms.become less available in alkaline (higher pH) soils. its many negatively charged attachment sites attract and bind the hydrogen. When enough hydrogen ions are taken out of solution.manganese. leaving their electrons behind them -. If a quick or drastic shift in pH is called for. Phosphorus. The extra attachment sites it provides as it raises CEC will help absorb any chemical addition -including that of amendments meant to change pH. the more acidic the solution and the lower the pH. The negatively charged sites on the compost molecules (the ones that used to be occupied by hydrogen atoms) are now available to bind other positively charged particles which includes various soil nutrients. Which of these comes into play depends on the pH of the soil in which the compost is placed. has a nearly neutral pH. and zinc and boron -. iron. In alkaline soil. The more hydrogen ions. while an alkaline one absorbs them. Other nutrients are also affected by soil pH. . copper. More precisely. However. elements essential to plant health but needed only in minute quantities. Balances Soil pH Compost. In alkaline soils (pH values above 7). Technically. When enough ions are released into the soil solution. When compost is added. Buffers Soil pH The statement that compost buffers pH means that it protects soil pH from sudden changes. the pH falls. The composting process itself produces various acids. what's actually being measured by a soil test kit is the pH of the soil solution because pH only has meaning in relation to water and to minerals in contact with it. Acidic soil suffers from an overabundance of positively-charged hydrogen ions. compost consists of large. by contrast. complex. compost's complex.5. Most pH treatments are themselves either quite alkaline or acidic. In acidic soils (pH values below 6) it bonds with calcium. becomes less available in acidic soils. they interact with other soil chemicals in ways that either release or attach hydrogen ions. It is most easily available at pH values between 6 and 7. But by the time it has cured. These soil amendments work more quickly than compost can. is another of the three primary nutrients necessary to all plants. They will only shift the pH in one direction. Loosely speaking. these are the way to go. an acidic amendment provides free hydrogen ions. Many get stripped away. the pH level of the soil rises. Though we speak freely of soil pH. Larger quantities of such amendments must therefore be used in compost-rich soil. forming chemicals which are insoluble and therefore unavailable to plants. on the other hand. pH measures the level of free hydrogen ions (positively charged ions) in a water solution. Molybdenum. Most soil amendments designed to adjust soil pH have very simple molecules. hydrogen-rich molecules provide a source for hydrogen ions. designated by the P in the NPK formulas that appear on most fertilizers.

interact in complex ways. Conclusions These factors -. biological and chemical -. as in all the others above. Compost provides the optimal environment for improving a soil's ability to retain nutrients and therefore to make them available to plants. That complexity creates the many attachment sites in compost and assures that it contains plenty of hydrogen atoms. But compost has the unique ability to affect all positively. it is compost's chemical complexity that makes it able to do what it does. compost can buffer soils against sudden changes in pH. including humus. Because of these particular chemical attributes. and it can render both acidic and alkaline soils more nearly neutral. .In this case. it raises the CEC index thus stabilizing pH. In increasing organic material.physical. It also adds micro-organisms and improves drainage problems in both clay and sandy soils.