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What’s The Diff? Compost/Mulch

Recently I had been on the phone with someone asking, "Well what's the difference between compost and mulch?" Up until that phone call, I had no idea that question had even existed. Sometimes I get a little too involved and automatically assume everyone knows what I'm talking about. You've been there too, right?

Well anyway, there is a difference between compost and mulch to be sure.

Mulch mainly consists of your 'browns' so to speak. Like leaves after they have fallen to the ground. Like chopped up twigs and small branches. Wood chips, and bark. Sawdust too.

These things are recognizable to your eye as you can tell what the small pieces are. They have not been broken down and consumed by microbes and other soil organisms.

Compost, on the other hand, has gone through some serious metabolic activity that creates enough heat at the right time to create an environment that hosts a number of organisms that you or I cannot possibly comprehend.

Compost is not dirt, nor soil. It is an organic matter that starts off with what you put into it. Keeping in mind here, if you put 'garbage in' you will get 'garbage out'. But in the end, you will not be able to tell what it was. Let's explain a little more below.

Oh, Compost!

Oh, @#$%! Not so fast grasshopper. Many times in a conversation with whomever, it seems as though most folk's conception of good compost is from manure of some sort or another. While manure certainly is part of the recipe for great compost, it mostly hovers below 50% of the actual mixture. The best examples in the world are right near most of us. The forest floor.

So what is the compost then if less than half of it is manure? Compost consists of more woody materials than anything else. This is where the mulch comes in. We will talk about that more in a minute.

Compost will also have in its mix, certain plant materials. Now, most are good, but there are some 'really' good plant materials like comfrey. Another good component of compost is soil that has not been corrupted by means of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and whatnot. This is only an introduction mind you for what a GREAT compost really is.

Mulch, The 'Major' In Compost

A woodsy mulch is generally going to be the major component in your compost far as your orchard trees and bushes are concerned. Our favorite is not just one type or kind though. We like to use what is most available to us in high quantities.

One of the mulches we like to use is the brushy tops of trees that are harvested during the dormant season. Not evergreens mind you, but the brushy tops of maples, poplars, birch, and yes fruit trees. These brushy tops will get ran through the wood chipper to make pieces typically six inches or less. My orchard pruning's get dropped right where they are too, I cut them so they are laying flat as possible on the ground below the dripline of the fruit tree I'm pruning in.

The other woodsy mulch I like is shredded bark mulch. Availability comes much easier here with this type. This will get all tied together soon, Kemosabe…

Together, Combining The Components Of A Great Compost

Composting your way, my way, or even haphazardly will get you on the right track going in the right direction. But, it's what you learn when you know it all, that's what's going to make the real difference here. Wouldn't you agree?

In the perfect world, I would have many composting piles, unlimited space, and certainly unlimited time to go along with that. In these piles I would start off with some larger pieces of sticks, to hold the pile-up off the ground to help with a little airflow. Next, I would be putting on some straw, or some long pasture grass that has been dried for a bit. This will help establish a floor so to speak for the rest of the pile. Next would come the manure that has been rotted down or mellowed if you will. Then there will be some green grass clippings, not too much, just a little.

After all that, you might have a pile that is about a foot to a foot and a half tall. Start it over again. Keep going till you are a meter high at least. You can even throw in small roadkill in the mix believe it or not. Use your imagination here ok.

To start the pile off I should mention that you will have to have room for at least a 6-foot by 6-foot pile to be able to support the entirety of it. It would more than likely need to be hosed down a bit to add moisture, to the point that if you reach in and grab a handful of straw or long pasture grass and squeeze it really hard, you will make it drip.

Now putting this pile inside a walled-up bin or some sort, you may or may not get enough airflow circulating around this pile. This pile should be at least the size I mentioned above simply because you need enough heat to complete the process.

Right now it is the first part of November with snow on the ground and snowing at the moment actually. Sometime this winter I will be putting together a dedicated compost mini-book that will cover the many dynamics of making compost.

Remember when I said above that in an ideal world? Scratch that, I said perfect world. This is not, so I will give a more practical approach that most of us can handle. Not that I won't recommend doing the above, but the above requires a few more steps that I have yet to mention. Let's see what goes on in the real world, shall we…

Now those of you who know me, know that I've been organically or naturally growing fruit type crops for some time now. That all began by allowing an old pasture/field turn organic for umpteen years. The soil had come back to life by allowing native plants to come back to life, allowing pasture animals to go over it a few times, and allowing it to sit.

The soil has, in my eyes fully recovered from being farmed for many years. So I have this soil that has come back to life, micro-organisms, no shortage in that department. So I also grow my own trees too. We graft so many apple trees each year that with my great organizational skills, can be hard to keep track of.

So here we are with lively soil and apple trees. We grow many other types of fruits, but apple is definitely the primary. Remember when I mentioned that part of the recipe for a great compost was soil? Well, it is. Adding some of that soil life to your compost will inoculate the compost and help make it bio-available to the plant roots to uptake. But this is the real world and sometimes you just can't be perfect all the time. Or can you? You see what I'm about to explain to you is that I most often will add the components of a great compost under the trees before they are actually composted. Say what?!...

Ok, your tree is in the ground, by that I mean planted. Maybe planted for a couple of years now. You have good soil and if you added anything at all you've made sure it's an organic product at the least. So you are keeping the grass in check so as to not out-compete the tree. You add some well-rotted manure, (composted manure?). Remember manure is not the majority here, but fairly important still. Next, you cover that up with that woodsy mulch I was telling you about earlier.

Here is where it gets really good now so pay attention…

This is where it really comes together. This is where your money is right here. After you've done what I've just got done writing about, you plant some supporting plants below these trees. There are dynamic accumulating plants, and mulching plants. There are other components to this as well, but that is a different dinner. Need to stick to the compost right now. It's these plants that when they have completed their cycle, which means they have died back and the tops have broken down, they will be incorporated into the woodsy mulch, which has been incorporated into the composted manure, which has been incorporated into the lively soil. Man, now that is some compost right there eh?

All these different things get mixed up together with help from critters like worms, arthropods, time, anything really. See how all this is coming together here?

In the forest you see, there is no perfect mixture added to the trees. The mixture is added, sure, but bit by bit. It's time that helps complete this cycle. Or is it even complete? I think not. It is a continuous cycle of events that occur over time again and again. Leaves fall in Autumn, trees fall or branches come down and make that woodsy mulch that I like talking about so much. Animals too, end up recycled into plant material, which sometimes can end up being recycled by getting eaten up by animals again. I'm telling you that this can go down a rabbit hole and then we'll never get done here, hahaha!

Remember when I mentioned this is the real world? Turns out, it really is the perfect world.

What’s The Diff? Compost/Mulch