Many of us approach composting as a way to control household waste. And while minimizing waste is one significant benefit of composting, gardeners can delight in scores of other perks by utilizing nutrient-rich compost to improve soil composition. Read on to learn about the many ways compost can help you create a flourishing garden and healthier soil in the long-term.
1. Improve soil structure
According to the University of Illinois Extension, soil structure refers to the way inorganic particles, such as sand, silt and clay, combine with decayed organic particles, like humus and compost. Soil with a healthy structure is crumbly to the touch, allowing plenty of room for air, water and energy to move freely.
So, why does all of this matter? If you’ve had trouble getting certain fruits, vegetables or decorative plants to grow in your garden, poor soil structure may be to blame. Think of it this way: If the soil in your garden is hard and clay-like, young roots have to struggle to get through and obtain the nutrients they need for healthy growth. If the soil is sandy, it may be lacking nutrients plants need to thrive.
When used in sufficient quantities, adding compost has both immediate and long-term positive impacts on soil structure by adding humus proteins, according to the U.S. Composting Council. These proteins bind soil particles together, allowing the soil to resist compaction and increasing its ability to hold moisture and nutrients.
2. Increase nutrient content
When organic material is broken down in a compost pile, the decomposition process produces the best fertilizer you’ll ever find, the soil food web.
So, what is the soil food web? To put it simply: It’s a community of organisms that live their lives in the soil, from microorganisms like bacteria and fungi to macroorganisms like earthworms and beetles. While creepy critters crawling around in your garden may not sound too appealing, all of these organisms are essential to healthy soil and will only improve crop yields.
In addition to a thriving soil food web, the organic matter found in compost introduces vital nutrients to your garden, including macronutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium and micronutrients such as manganese, copper, iron and zinc.
3. Use less water
Improving soil structure and boosting nutrient content is about more than producing healthier crops. Fertile soil also has far greater moisture retention, allowing you to use less water in your garden.
With the introduction of organic matter, heavy soils are better equipped to hold water and resist compaction – reducing erosion and runoff. Recent research also suggests that adding compost to sandy soils can increase moisture dispersion by allowing water to move laterally from its point of application.
All in all, EPA data shows that soil can retain 16,000 more gallons of water per acre for every 1 percent of organic material. When Earth911 toured Singh Farms in Scottsdale, Ariz. last summer and spoke with owner, operator and composting pro Ken Singh, he told us that healthy soil should contain about 5 percent organics – meaning a given acre can hold 80,000 more gallons of water after the addition of compost.
4. Ward off plant diseases
“Research is showing us that soil treated with compost tends to produce plants with fewer pest problems,” the University of Illinois Extension says in its Composting for the Homeowner guide. “Compost helps to control diseases and insects that might otherwise overrun a more sterile soil lacking natural checks against their spread.”
The macro- and microscopic critters that call the soil food web home also decompose organic compounds, such as manure, plant residue and pesticides, preventing them from entering water and becoming pollutants – meaning the addition of compost is beneficial for both your garden and the surrounding environment.
For more information on how to start your own compost pile, check out Earth911′s composting cheat sheet or our guide to choosing the right composting system for you. If you already have a system up and running, use these resources to troubleshoot common problems and figure out what materials to toss on your pile.