The Exciting World of Humus

Often confused with the tasty staple of Mediterranean dishes (that would be hummus, with two m’s), ‘hew-mes’ is the soil’s layer of partially decomposed plant matter – and is essential for vigorous plant growth. Mankind’s relationship with this source of fertility took an interesting turn when, at the end of WWII, scientists derived a means to convert excess chemical stock from our munitions plants into pelletized fertilizer for our crop plants.

While producing improved yields in the short term, problems of water pollution from excess application can be seen in our own Chesapeake Bay. In that chemical fertilizer can also harm the long-term productivity of the soil, people have started to take note of the wide variety of store-bought organic soil treatments on the market… and with such appetizing names as blood meal and worm poo, who could resist? Your wallet, for one, as these things aren’t cheap.

Composter Collage

In the end, you may find that the most effective, economical and sustainable choice is to start composting your food scraps and yard trimmings. This can be done in something as simple as a makeshift heap in the corner of your backyard – piling on layers “waste” materials as they become available – or as elaborate as rotating polyethylene barrels matched with enzyme solutions that speed up the process considerably. Earthworms can also be invited to the party, but are inherently more difficult to wrangle and keep happy… Bryna can share some ‘humorous’ stories about this for those with a soft-spot for invertebrates.

Whatever method you choose, composting is one of the truest forms of recycling: converting what we have mislabeled as “waste” into future harvests, thereby closing the loop on the nutrient cycle. Because compost also improves soil structure, drainage and water retention, your soil can become like a day spa for your plants – rather than a battlefield.

To get started, check into the aptly named for more information than you ever thought possible on turning dead plant matter into black gold. For those interested in the broader philosophical issues undergirding American landscape care, Michael Pollan’s new book “Second Nature” comes highly recommended. Good luck and happy decomposition!


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