Stolen: The beauty of rotting stuff
Composted is a method of recycling nutrients back to the soil. A friend of mine was in the Peace Corp in the Ivory Coast and Madagascar. One of her jobs was to teach villagers to compost organic waste and then mix the compost into the soil when they planted their rice crops. She reported a 70 percent increase in yield.
Have you ever composted and noticed heat coming from compost piles? The alligator uses compost heat to hatch her eggs. A fascinating adaptation! The female builds a nest of mud and vegetation that is about 3 feet high and 6 feet in diameter and lays her eggs and buries them in the rotting vegetation. The composting material provides heat because of the decomposing vegetation. The alligator eggs respond to the temperature. If the temperature is in the low 80s F, the hatchlings will be female. If the temperature is in the low 90s F, they are male. For temperatures in between, the resulting hatchlings are mixture of males and females.
What or who is responsible for composting? Composting is a process that microbes have been doing for billions of years, long before we humans even began gathering leaves into piles. Forest floors are major composting centers in the fall when the leaves pile up. Some compost piles are hot, some cool, but it’s the hot compost piles that degrade material more quickly than cool piles. Compost piles heat up for the same reason you heat up when you exercise. Like your muscles heat up, the cells of bacteria in a compost heap are using lots of fuel (food scraps, grass, leaves, etc.). When they metabolize or break down food, heat is given off as a byproduct. This heat kills many bacteria, (just like too high a fever will kill you). However, some bacteria like the heat and these are common in compost piles and are called “thermophiles” (heat lovers). Capturing the heat from composting has been done by large-scale greenhouse growers. There are claims that heating 20 acres of greenhouses in lower New York State and similar climates is estimated to save about 1 million gallons of heating oil a year. They were able to get compost temperatures in the 150-160°F range,
Fungi are also important in the composting process. Fungi live on leaves and wood in the compost pile. Many fungi can break down the cellulose in leaves. They can also degrade wood. There are no microbes that can compost Styrofoam or most plastics, however.
Composting breaks down organic materials to the basic building blocks needed by plants to grow. It’s a way of recycling food waste such as fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, and coffee grounds back into the soil to grow better flowers or vegetables. Compost bins that allow earthworms in – or the addition of earthworms – helps the composting process, because the bacteria that break down the organic material need air, and the worms aerate the soil by forming tunnels. Earthworms derive their nutrition from fungi, bacteria, and possibly protozoa and nematodes, and they in turn promote the activity of these organisms. Earthworm excreta – or “casts” – is rich in nutrients for plants. So these lowly creatures – earthworms and microbes -± are essential to healthy soil environments, for the growth of plants and trees and essential to life on earth itself.
Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution.
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