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How to make topsoil

When you order topsoil, do you really know what you’re getting?  

In some developed areas,  most of the topsoil has been scraped away or eroded.  What passes as topsoil is really subsoil – nearly dead dirt.  It will not function like good soil.

The good news?  You can make your own, be assured of its quality, and likely pay less than having topsoil trucked in.  Here’s how:

FOR EXCAVATED SOIL:  Mix the native soil with compost at a ratio of about 1 bucket or shovelful of compost to every 2 of soil.  A 30 percent compost content is recommended for raised beds and containers.  

FOR IN-SITU SOIL:  Work 2-3 inches of compost into the top 6-8 inches of native soil.

Compost is a very “forgiving” material.  It’s hard to use too much  (though you shouldn’t use it instead of topsoil),  and as little as 1/8 inch can be enough to give your soil a boost.

Whatever the amount, be sure to blend well so the compost is evenly distributed.

How can you tell if a soil is good or bad?  

The ideal soil for growing things will be a mix of sand, clay, and organic matter.   If having your soil tested, be sure the report will include these parameters.

Forging ahead without the soil test? The first part of this article describes various soil types and provides simple methods of identification.  

If you need to add sand or clay in addition to compost, ask your landscape supply yard for a custom blend.

According to this article,  most soil scientists agree that 50% pore space, 45% mineral matter (sand, silt, clay), and 5% organic matter make up an ideal ratio.  A typical compost is 50%-60% organic matter (dry weight). 

Is it really a good idea to make compostable waste go away and never come back? 

Each year, taxpayers collectively spend millions of dollars to burn or bury compostables.  Much like a tribe of ubiquitous Gollums, they just want garbage — the biodegradable and putrefying fraction of the municipal solid waste stream – to go away and never come back. 

The desire to make disagreeable discards disappear into fiery furnaces or burial mounds is understandable.  But is it wise?  Is it fiscally responsible?  Is it really a good idea to make organic waste go away and never come back? 

Nature recycles everything 

Rocks weather and erode, creating sediment. With heat, pressure, and time, that sediment becomes rock again.  Plants and animals feed and drink from the earth, die, and decompose to replenish the soil that will sustain future generations of flora and fauna.  Water drops from the sky as rain, filters down to aquifers, upwells and evaporates back to the clouds to fall once more. 

In a fantasy land, it may be possible to keep using resources without a thought to replenishment.  But in the real world, organic waste – the decaying residuals of once-living things – must be recycled back to the soil to maintain life-critical soil functions.   

Some seem to think the destruction of organics to make energy is more important than rebuilding soil.  But pushing an organic-waste-to-energy agenda by sacrificing the soil makes no sense. Humans managed to survive for millennia without electricity and centralized energy systems.  Without soil’s life-essential contribution to food and clean water, people face extinction in weeks.  

So, which is more important, energy or soil? 

Make energy and rebuild soil?   

Organic waste from developed societies includes all types of vegetation, food, manures … even compostable plastics.  When turned into a quality compost, these once-lost resources can be used by anyone anywhere to replenish depleted soil.   

Happily, making energy and building healthy soil does not have to be an either/or proposition.  It is possible to extract energy from organic waste without destroying the beneficial properties that make it valuable to soil.   The organic waste streams from these processes can then be used as feedstocks in the manufacture of compost products. 

Unhappily, energy production from biomass is one of the most expensive ways to make energy.  Even solar and wind power can be more cost-effective. 

Furthermore, bioenergy technologies based on anaerobic digestion of organics are still too pricey to be practical in many places.  Where they do exist, the waste stream (digestate) is not always put to highest and best use (i.e. composted).  Instead, residuals may be landfilled or relegated to low-dollar-value reuse. 

But one day, as more communities opt to restore natural soil replenishment cycles and energy generation technologies become more efficient, extracting energy from biomass, followed by composting and compost use, can become the system of choice for organic waste management. 

In the meantime … 

The importance of healthy soil 

Where humans live, topsoil has been scraped away or eroded.  Nutrients are used up.  Compaction has destroyed the pore spaces essential to the transport of air, water, and microbes.  Without a regular infusion of new organic matter to correct these deficiencies, soil dies.   

There are lots of processes for generating energy, but there’s only one way to replenish disturbed soils in developed areas – feed them a good, wholesome diet derived from organic waste converted into compost.   

From farms to lawns to sports fields, soils require periodic applications of compost.  There’s no other way to easily and economically provide soil with everything it requires to retain water, nurture vegetation, and create the type of environment soil microbes need to support nutrient uptake, contribute to disease resistance, and degrade pollutants. 

The best news? In many metropolitan areas, efficient, high-rate composting – the type needed to successfully manage big, urban waste streams – costs no more than landfilling or incineration.  Often, recycling at a modern, industrial composting operation can be more affordable than traditional disposal.   

Composting makes organic wastes go away, but they come back as enriching soil amendments.  Biodegradables need to keep recycling, just like they have since the beginning of time. 

Breaking the natural soil cycle by incinerating or burying compostable waste is a bad idea that should go away and never come back.

VIEW THE SLIDESHARE:  Addicted to convenience

Compost is soil’s superhero

Sure, compost adds nutrients. But that might be this soil amendment’s least important function. 

Quite often, articles will mention compost as a replacement for some or all of the nutrients that might be provided to plants through applications of synthetic (man-made) fertilizers.   

That’s certainly true.  Compost delivers the macronutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK), plus a slew of plant-essential micronutrients that are missing from most synthesized fertilizer products.  Compost provides plants with a wholesome, well-rounded meal, not the nutritional equivalent of junk food. 

But what these fertilizer-focused articles rarely mention is the fact that the real value in compost use is not related to feeding plants, but to feeding soil … and soil does require a wholesome diet to function as a true soil and not a dead substrate. 

Compost feeds soil

Providing plant nutrients is just one of many soil functions.  Worms and other creatures that live in healthy soils help to physically break down food sources, then microbes take over to convert that food into plant-available form. 

Both physical and microbial conversion depend on a soil environment that can support those lifeforms.  If the soil is chronically too wet, too dry, too compacted  yada, yada  then it can’t support a healthy soil ecosystem.  That plot of ground may not be soil at all, but lifeless dirt. 

To countermand the impacts of human activity, disturbed soils require regular program of replenishment that includes organic matter and microbes.  Compost provides both.  Compost feeds soil.

Then, when it rains, soil retains that water, reducing runoff.  When runoff is reduced, so is erosion, sedimentation, and water pollution.  Because soil microbial activity also degrades pollutants, any stormwater that does run off is cleaner.  

That same microbial activity can help neutralize some soil-borne diseases, too. 

Improving plant nutrition, aiding in disease control, reducing water pollution, and retaining water are all important soil functions. 

But wait, there’s more. 

Compost as a carbon sink 

The build-up of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere is cause for concern.  As more greenhouse gases flood the atmosphere, temperatures increase. 

This rise in global temperatures influences many things, erratic and extreme weather being one of the most visible.  Subsequent climate shifts can impact people, crops, and livestock for hundreds of years. 

When used to amend soils, compost sequesters carbon.  This means the soil will act as a carbon “sink,” capturing and holding carbon in stasis – but only as long as the soil remains undisturbed.  When the soil is tilled, that carbon is released. 

Extensive use of compost for perennial crops and other long-term application(grasslands, tree farms, utility easements, etc.) can positively impact atmospheric conditions by reducing greenhouse gases.   

At the same time, the addition of compost rebuilds a topsoil layer that has been eroded or scraped away by farming, development, and other human activity.  Since topsoil loss has been identified as a significant threat to planetary health, second only to population growthits restoration is a global priority.   

At a time when nearly a third of the world’s arable land has become unproductive in just a few decades, compost really can be that superhero swooping in to save topsoil, save water, save the atmosphere, and save the planet. 

Comparing costs per gallon retained 

Soil amendment is one of the least expensive ways to collect and manage stormwater 

Manage water where it falls.” 

This sound advice is the foundation of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s Regional Green Infrastructure Plana program that identified soil amendment as one of the least expensive ways to manage stormwater.  At 28 cents per gallon, improving soil is second only to native plantings in lowest cost per gallon retained. 

Green roofs?  $4.72 per gallon.  Those fancy-schmancy deep storage tunnels?  $2.42 per gallon.  At $1.59 per gallon, even pretty little rain gardens cost more than five times that of simple soil amendment. 

Milwaukee is not alone in promoting soil amendment as a first line of defense for stormwater management  For example: 

  • Denver and GreenleyColorado, require compost use for new landscaping, as does Leander, Texas. 
  • Some state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) now routinely specify compost.  A few years ago, the Texas DOT said it was the largest single market for compost in the U.S. 

In an urban environment, opportunities for soil amendment abound.  City parks, athletic fields, planters, urban lawns, highway medians and easements, foundation backfill – anywhere there’s soil, there’s opportunity for inexpensive water retention. 

Every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter (SOM) content adds an additional 16,000 gallons of water-holding capacity per acre foot.  A site managed to maintain soil organic matter at only 2 percent can hold all the water of a typical rain event (1 inch or less), which is 27,154 gallons per acre.     

In fact, at 5 percent SOM, the soil can retain the water equivalent of nearly 3-inches of rainfall.  In some regions, this equal95 percent of all storm events. 

Soil amendment may not solve all rainfall issues, especially in downtown areas.  But managing water where it falls can be the most sensible, efficient, environmentally- and economically-prudent strategy for “first line of defense” stormwater management.   

Can organic waste help green the Sahara for carbon storage?

It has been suggested devoting 5 percent of the earth’s land mass to plants bred for carbon storage could capture about half of global CO2 emissions.

That’s an area about the size of Egypt, a country that has already embarked on a program to reclaim some of the Sahara.  Project drivers are linked to food production, not climate change.  But the Land of the Pharaohs has not had an easy time of it, and some question the plan’s chances for long-term success.

Yet, as agricultural acreage declines worldwide and so many global minds focus on ways to feed a growing earth population, the Egyptian effort does beg the question:

Can reclaimed deserts store carbon and grow food?  More to the point, could composted organic waste help green up deserts like the Sahara or the Kalahari or the Sonoran?

Search the web for successful desert reclamation projects.  The use of compost is integral to all and has been referred to as “fertility priming.”

Capturing and composting organics would be the easy part. Unfortunately, there are major hurdles between barren sand and arable acres:

  • Tilling releases carbon. Unless the crops planted are perennial, some of that applied carbon will be lost.  In Egypt’s case, the goal is more annual grains like wheat and corn, perennials.  However, it should be noted, soil sampling at two of Egypt’s desert farms suggest carbon supplied from organic soil amendments will accumulate, even in oft-tilled fields.
  • While compost holds water, that water has to come from somewhere — if not rain, then rivers and aquifers or, as a last resort, desalination. But river water can be diverted by projects upstream.  Fossil aquifers, like those under northern Africa, are not replenished and will, eventually, dry up.  Desalination is still considered an expensive solution.  This means water availability will continue as the most critical factor to project success.
  • Desert soils tend to be salty, too, which creates unfavorable growing conditions. Fortunately, one permaculture specialist has reported a de-salting effect from building a living soil in the desert.

There seems to be a wealth of anecdotal material out there on desert reclamation, but not much peer-reviewed, scientific research.  Some “research” is based on calculations, not long-term field testing/studies.

In addition, the reclamation farms tend to be smaller “niche” operations — organic, biodynamic, permaculture, etc. — and not large, conventionally managed acreage.

That said, by simply looking at photos and videos, it’s obvious that desert reclamation is possible.  Whether or not it can also be profitable on a large scale remains to be seen.

But if these issues could be resolved, resulting in a clear path for resurrecting vast expanses of sandy soil, how much compost would it take to green a desert?

Most desert soils contain less than 1 percent organic matter.  To make the calculation easy, assume that number to be zero and add enough compost to boost organic matter content (OM) to the recommended 5 percent.

Based on this example,  a 1 inch application requires 135 cubic yards or 54 tons of compost per acre.  This assumes a 60 percent organic matter content, a bulk density of 800 lbs./cubic yard, and 30 percent moisture.

The author of this article about raising soil organic matter (SOM) levels says bumping SOM 1 percent “requires an additional 20,000 lbs. (10 tons) of soil organic matter or 11,600 lbs. (5.8 tons) of carbon, as soil organic matter is roughly 58 percent of carbon.”

The article further calculates stover and root mass from a no-till wheat cover crop system can only be expected to add about 0.1 percent of organic matter to soil.  Obviously, though that percentage might fluctuate a bit depending on the crop and cropping system, one of the fastest ways to build soil organic matter content is not through plants, but through compost use.

At 3.6 million square miles or about 2.3 billion acres, the Sahara is roughly the size of the United States.  It would take billions of tons to make those acres productive.

But balancing out CO2 emissions only requires a couple of plots the size of Egypt.  That’s about 500 million acres.  It sounds like a daunting task until considering there are nearly twice that many farm acres — more than 900 million as of the 2017 agricultural census — in the U.S. alone.

This is doable.  And the best news?  Nary an ounce of waste or compost needs to be hauled to Egypt.  Those 500 million acres can be divvied up and spread across the globe.  From tenders of 10,000-acre ranches to diggers of 100 sq. ft. gardens, anyone can contribute to carbon sequestration.

Of course, playing with numbers is just that — play.   A tremendous amount of effort, plus a megadose of dollars, would be required to convert all world organics to compost.  But rough numbers and real-world economics suggest sequestering carbon through compost use is possible.  (View the SlideShare title: Compost to the Rescue)

And as the World Bank expects the global waste stream to grow by 70 percent by 2050, it sounds like there will be plenty of organics available to get the job done.

Bottom line:  We have the know-how.  We have the technology.  We have the organics.  Costs to produce compost are competitive with landfilling and WTE/incineration.  And whether existing farmland, greenspace, or desert, whether Africa, Asia, or the Americas, we have the acreage needed to clear the air.  The only thing missing? The will to do so.

Brandon Grissom, turf manager at Innovative Turf Application and Consulting (ITAC), says  the company has found success through its use of compost in sports field management.  According to Grissom, compost positively impacts soil structure and that, in turn, improves moisture retention — something that both he and his customers quickly picked up on. “We saw how big of a difference it (compost) made versus a synthetic product,” he said.

How are you using compost to manage sports fields?

ITAC is a Virginia-based turf field construction and maintenance company, providing services to schools like the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William and Mary.