How Microbes Break Down Compost


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Most folks love the fun process of composting in their home or backyard and even understand the science behind it all. But for the rest of us, composting is like another skill that we have to learn before we can even think about taking it head-on. If you're thinking about taking on the challenge of composting, congratulations! Not only will you be reducing waste and cost by sending scraps to landfills, you'll be giving back to the earth.

Generally, composting is an aerobic, or oxygen filled process that combines air, heat and moisture to break down matter, which is why you need to turn your compost heap every few days to maintain a good temperature. Composting is an effort shared by both you and by the many microbes, organisms and bacteria that are going to spring up in your compost pile. After you've added all the essential ingredients for composting (food scraps, vegetable stalks, fruit rinds, yard wastes free of diseases and seeds) into your compost bin, the billions of little microbes will take care of the rest. These little guys are responsible for the decomposition and temperature of your compost, which results in rich, ready to use compost. Temperature especially is vital to the composting process.

Here's how it works and why:

Starting at 55 degrees Fahrenheit little to no breakdown happens; even for humans that's pretty cold. Once it hits about 70 degrees Fahrenheit things start to heat up. This warm change in temperature is caused by cool temperature bacteria called Psychrophiles; they burn the carbon found in your compost heap, thus releasing heat and goodies in the form of amino acids.

As the temperature increases to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, another set of hard working microbes called Mesophiles eat through EVERYTHING, which can raise the heat to 100 degrees. This then sets the stage for the Thermophiles that can live in the sauna of your compost heap in up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit! These hot guys live for up to a five day period working extra hard to make sure that any diseases or unwanted germs are annihilated. In addition, they generate what's called humic acid, which is like ambrosia for your plants.

After a few days the temperature in your compost heap will decrease gradually and you'll be able to sift through the compost and add it to your garden or house plants.

*Special thanks to C. Forrest McDowell, PhD and Tricia Clark-McDowell for their compost guide Home Composting Made Easy, available on Cortesia Press.

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