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Composting Defined

If a tree falls in the woods but no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

This is the riddle that comes to mind as I contemplate the definition of composting. If a heap of leaves rots in the woods but no one is there to turn it, does it really compost?

Some people seem to equate the term composting with any sort of decomposition of (solid) organic wastes – regardless of whether or not there is any human facilitation. Others insist that the human element is in fact what makes composting composting!

I personally tend to lean towards the latter. As such, here is how I would define it:

Composting is the aerobic bio-degradation of organic materials under controlled conditions, resulting in a rich humus-like material.

Let’s now talk about the key parts of that definition. Firstly, composting involves ‘aerobic’ processes, which means simply that it requires oxygen to proceed properly. While ‘anaerobic’ (without oxygen) regions can (and will) develop in a compost pile/bin, our aim is to keep the system as aerated as possible.

‘Bio-degradation’ simply means the breakdown of materials by living organisms (primarily microbes). ‘Organic materials’ are all those materials that were once living themselves (eg leaves, grass clippings etc) or are the waste products of living organisms (eg manure). ‘Controlled conditions’ simply means that it doesn’t happen by accident.
There needs to be some human intention and assistance involved. Finally, ‘humus’ (not to be confused with hummus – haha) is a dark, stabilized organic material that is essentially at, or at least near, the end of the road as far as decomposition goes. It plays a very important role in overall soil fertility (rich, healthy soils tend to have a higher proportion of humus).

Of course, even with clear definitions there can still be plenty of gray area!

Thermophilic Composting

When a farmer dumps a big pile of manure out behind his barn without the specific intention of composting it, yet it still heats up and stabilizes over time, is that composting?

Speaking of ‘heating up’, I should also mention that some people (such as composting professionals) would likely insist that even my definition of composting is incomplete since I made no mention of a heating phase.

The term ‘composting’ is in fact frequently used as a synonym for ‘hot composting’ (a.k.a ‘thermophilic composting’), but for our purposes here I’m going to give the term a broader scope. This way we can include worm composting (a.k.a vermicomposting’) and small-scale (wormless) backyard composting, both of which are much cooler processes.

However you define it, one thing is for sure – composting is an fantastic way to convert ‘wastes’ into a highly valuable resource!

[tags]compost, composting, humus, soil, waste, organic, compost bin, vermicomposting[/tags]

Written by Compost Guy on September 24th, 2007 with 2 comments.
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Get your own gravatar by visiting Emma Stahl-Wert
#1. January 28th, 2013, at 10:14 PM.

Compost Guy,

I would like to quote your compost definition on a sign that will be marking/explaining the compost piles at my work. Do you have a particular way you would like me to cite you?

Emma Stahl-Wert
Garden Coordinator
The Primavera Foundation

Get your own gravatar by visiting Compost Guy
#2. February 6th, 2013, at 3:44 AM.

Hi Emma,
Something like this would work:

Bentley “Compost Guy” Christie

Thanks for asking!


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