Society for
Organic Urban
Land Care

What About Compost?

11 Jun 2018 8:00 AM | Anonymous

“… in indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being:  mind, body, emotion, and spirit.” (Kimmerer, 2013, p. 47).

Simply put, compost happens, so I can now finish this short exploration into compost, decomposition and transmutation (“Black Gold”) – truly alchemy if ever there was.  Because we, the readers have been cultured, schooled and involved in “Working With Nature”, my assumption is that the activity and process of composting is familiar to all of you. 

Its been my good fortune to be involved in composting for a long time -both here in B.C. and in the Yukon, where I experienced the best and worst of compost (that is another article on compost bins going rogue and the story of flies!). My initial experience with compost revealed an increase to the nutrients that supported growth of plants.  As I explored the world of micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes and micro-arthropods) and macro-organisms (earthworms, arthropods), I began to understand how organisms drive the decomposition process.  Furthermore, in mature compost the microorganisms continue to digest organic material, providing an ongoing supply of nutrients to plants through the “Soil Food Web” distribution system. Composts built with a diversity of materials, with attention to the Carbon/Nitrogen ratios, determination of whether to use a hot or cold composting process, aeration and increased moisture produces well broken down compost. When one composts, it is good to replicate a natural process.

The composting process is improved through the utilization of technology (e.g. bin structures) mechanization (e.g. aeration and irrigation) or a combination of both.  Exploration of ways to enhance the compost include: addition of Effective or Indigenous Micro-organisms, use of a fermentation process called Bokhasi composting, addition of Biochar to increase the speed of decomposition, reduction of GHG emissions and to “charge” the Biochar, and use of composting methods from other geographies (e.g. utilizing Hugelkultur composting). However, current literature supports what has been known; aerobic composting uses a hot process whereas a cold process is slower. Good compost making will produce good compost.

The wisdom introduced by botanist and Potawatomi Indigenous knowledge keeper Robin Kimmerer says, we understand something when we know it through our mind, body, emotion and spirit. This reflects something I/we have always known, but now science backs up this knowledge. The microscopic world (microbiology), to my mind, may be where the developments in composting are heading. Two recent pieces of research point in this direction. I know good compost by smelling it, although tests will reveal what precisely is in it.

A pleasant earthy smell means good compost. This smell is called geosmin; it is the Actinobacter (a filamentous fungi like bacteria previously called Actinomycetes), and its presence denotes good compost. (Paul, 2017).  Furthermore, I feel good when I am working with good finished compost, although I feel great anytime I am in the garden!  Although the smell is pleasant, there is also something else promoting my good feelings.  Research has found that the soil bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae is at play here.  This bacteria when inhaled or enters the body elsewhere, it appears to activate neurons in the brain that release serotonin which positively affects one’s mood. (Schlanger, Z., 2007). Dirt has been labelled as the new prosac, now referred to as an antidepressant. 

Compost is good for the soil, good for plants and now we find it is good for us!  As has been said, we start with the soil and everything will follow!

“Nothing ever grows from the heavens downwards; everything grows from the earth upwards to the heavens.  We are all part of nature …” (Stiene, 2015, p. 23).


Kimmerer, R. W. (2013).  Braiding Sweetgrass:  Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.  Milkweed Editions: Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Paul, John (posted October 13, 2017). Helping us Pass the Sniff Test for Composting – the Amazing Actinobacter.  Retrieved from the internet on May 9, 2018. 

Schlanger, Z. (May 30, 2017). Dirt has a microbiome, and it may double as an antidepressant.  Online Magazine Quartz.  Retrieved May 10, 2018.

Stiene, F. (2015). The Inner Heart of Reiki:  Rediscovering Your True Self.  John Hurt Publishing Ltd.: Alresford, Hants, UK.

David Greig - MEd, HTR, CP, Cert. Soil Steward, Master Composter

David wrote this article from his home on the unceded and occupied Coast Salish territories, specifically, the ancestral lands of the Lekwungen speaking peoples, the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, the lands of the W̱SÁNEĆ First Nation and the T'Souke First Nation.


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