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Quality Compost Production and Recycling

Quality Compost Production and Recycling

Gary L. Kline

Clean Black Lake Alliance (CBLA) is a citizen’s group seeking an ecosystem management approach to restoring the health of Thurston County’s largest lake and its associated watershed and wetlands.

Among the 5 major goals of CBLA is a call for mechanical harvesting of excessive aquatic plant growth in lieu of using synthetic herbicides and algaecides as stop-gap measures and making compost using the harvested plant materials.  Simply killing aquatic vegetation and allowing it to sink reduces dissolved oxygen and does nothing to restore lake health.

Specifically, that CBLA goal states, “Utilize intercepted nutrients and extracted aquatic vegetation to make a high grade compost for beneficial use on land.”

We face the stark and frightening prospect of an eventual “peak phosphorus” point when our agricultural soils and farms run out of one of the most essential fertilizing materials to grow crop plants.  At the same time, we have many lakes in the county (and beyond) that have too much soluble phosphorus in them and nutrients going into them as a consequence of ever increasing urbanized development.  Creative thinking and solutions are needed here.

In this article I want to emphasize the high value and potential of large quantities of freshly harvested aquatic plants taken out of lakes to remove them from interfering with various activities in the lake, but also to take advantage of the considerable potential use of that vegetation (that contains substantial quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus) of high value in the making of super compost especially needed in the fertilization and enhancement of both landscape and food growing lands.  The County should invest in aquatic harvesting equipment to be used on a rotating basis at all troubled lakes.  Also staging sites for making the compost need to be made available.

When this bonus of removing aquatic vegetation and converting it to a positive, beneficial use on land is recognized and appreciated, there is a new incentive to engage in harvest and removal of the plant overgrowth and growth-stimulating nutrient problems besetting several county lakes.  This becomes a major part of restoration actions to take in reversing plant overgrowth and algal blooms that are accelerating and causing deterioration of lake water quality and enjoyment by shoreline owners and the general public.  These lake problems will not be remedied until the excessive nutrient inflows are halted and nutrients within the lake are removed insofar as practical.

So, what I’m saying is that what has long been seen as a problem now becomes an opportunity and an asset to be seized.  However, employing the aquatic plants as a major green component in composting now opens up a wider, practical recycling bonanza, making use of lots of locally available materials and disposal solutions.  I am including a list of possible locally available compostables that can go into the making of super compost.  That compost could be used in landscaping projects, in public gardens and even sold to gardeners with the funds going back into lake management and reducing the costs of mechanical harvesting and the composting operation.

Super compost is no ordinary nutrient-poor substance.  Instead, it is nutrient-rich.  I won’t go into the specific procedure.  However, I will go into the role of charcoal, a.k.a. biochar, in removing or intercepting nutrient inflows and making use of the saturated biochar in super compost making.  Biochar is known to soak-up and capture phosphorus, nitrogen, pathogenic organisms and various pollutants.  Furthermore, if there was a crash program to make biochar on a massive scale and incorporate biochar in our soils we could postpone that “peak phosphorus” problem for several centuries.  (But that’s making too much sense.)

It may seem like there would be little phosphorus in aquatic vegetation but it doesn’t take much to meet plant growth needs.  There also could be a concern about captured pollutants and pathogens winding up in the finished compost.  That would need to be scientifically examined and the product either being ruled safe for all potential uses or restricted to non-food growing applications.  If there is one thing that can decompose or counter toxicants it is the microbes in a carefully made compost.  Certain composts have been shown to totally decompose a whole horse (except for hooves and teeth) in just a day or two.  Yet the compost comes out having a pleasant odor.  It’s a small miracle.

Backyard composting has as its objective the turning of compostables into humus.  That is not an automatic consequence of just throwing a bunch of yard trimmings and kitchen scraps into a pile and walking away.  Two essential ingredients are dirt (soil) and a small amount of clay.  I have written a leaflet on backyard composting using the SPAM Sandwich method of layering Soil, Plant matter, Animal matter and Minerals, i.e., S.P.A.M. Frequent turning is not needed.

But I want to shift gears and talk about the need to dispose (or recycle) large dead farm animals with an eye to making use of the fertilizing value they have instead of just getting rid of them, i.e., out of sight and smell.

Anytime an animal is taken off the farm or its milk or eggs are sold (and its mineral nutrients not replaced) the nutrients in that animal, its carcass, etc. leaves with it and the farm or ranchland is diminished in fertility to that extent.  Eventually, that can add up to serious nutrient depletion.  In this regard, a 1929 paper titled Minerals in Pastures by j.B. Orr is most enlightening — if you can find it.  When a farmer butchers an animal, what to do with the hide or feathers and what to do with the animal’s innards?  The answer is to use them and return them to the land via composting.

But what to include in proper composting materials?  The farmer or rancher being in a remote location may not have easy access to the ancillary materials with which to properly build a compost heap that will lead to a quality compost product.  A possible solution to that is centralized composting material sites where aquatic vegetation, shredded wood/bark, spoiled hay, fish carcasses, road kills, etc. may be brought and possibly be made there into a super compost.  Several such facilities could be sited around the county or at established trash transfer sites.  The point is to make feasible the recycling of various “waste” materials in making high quality compost to go back on the land.

Super Compost Materials

  • Aquatic vegetation
  • Ground up wood and bark
  • Animal carcasses, offal, bones
  • Road killed animals (deer, opossums, birds, etc.)
  • Fish carcasses (from hatcheries and fisheries)
  • Ground oyster shells and mussel shells
  • Fall leaves (shredded)
  • Grass clippings (preferably no pesticides)
  • Shredded brush trimmings
  • Crushed rock fines (from quarries)
  • Topsoil (with clay content)
  • Kitchen scraps, restaurant and store culls (properly sorted)
  • Coffee grounds (from espresso stands)
  • Animal manures (cow, horse, rabbit, chicken, etc.)
  • Stable and coop litter
  • Peat moss
  • Biochar, fresh and/or nutrient-saturated
  • Complete, mineralized organic fertilizer blend

Note:  To make super compost on a large scale would require special loading equipment and operators.

Gary Kline is the President of the Clean Black Lake Alliance and owner of Blossom Consulting Services

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