The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas and potential for delicious flavors. With their natural display, they help us to interpret the history of the human use of plants.
Composting is a natural process that has been taking place on earth since life began. It is the biological reduction of organic waste to a stable material called humus. The dark-colored, crumbly, sweetly fragrant layer of material found just under the leaf litter in the woods is humus. Worm castings are humus. Loam, the best soil, is composed of humus, clay, silt and sand particles.  Intentional composting is the single, most important human activity that can be performed to improve and maintain healthy soil.
Humus is the almost completely broken down form of organic matter. It contains the chemical elements that were present in the plant and animal tissues before they were digested by bacteria, fungi, yeasts and other creatures that live on organic matter.
Plants growing in soil are aided in their processes of photosynthesis by humus and humic acids. Humus works chemically in soil so that plants can assimilate nutrients. In photosynthesis, humic acids are enzymes that play an important role in manufacturing plant sugars and are an important source of carbon dioxide used in this complex process.
Soils that are high in humus are friable and are easy to plant and to weed. These soils have a crumbly texture. Such soils retain nutrients, water and air which are all qualities that produce healthy plants. Humus helps to control erosion. Humus does all of this by helping individual particles of sand, silt and humus to clump together into granules. This promotes water drainage and small air pockets in the soil. Water can percolate deeply into crumbly soils, rather than bouncing off the surface and running off. The humus acts as a sort of sponge, helping to retain the moisture in the soil; according to The Rodale Guide to Composting, 100 pounds of humus holds 195 pounds of water! Plant roots can penetrate this crumb structure and absorb more nutrient-rich water.
If you are just getting started, this is how we make and use compost at the Ozark Folk Center State Park. Compost piles are layered with ideal proportions (approximately 70-30) of carbon (leaves, sawdust, and dried weeds) and protein (green plant material, grass clippings, manure, animal fur, hair, soybean meal, blood meal, cotton seed meal etc.). Paper without brightly colored ink is ok.  Animal flesh and fat should not be added to the heap. Wax, cigarette butts and plastic will not break down.
Oxygen must be introduced to the piles by turning, forking or inserting pipe with holes drilled in. The piles must be kept evenly moist but not soggy. During dry spells it is helpful to water the piles. When these elements are provided the compost will heat up to 120° to 150° F very quickly during the spring, summer and fall. 140° F is adequate to pasteurize the heaps.
It is important to finish feeding a pile, turn it and then start a fresh one so that you produce compost that is ready to use. Right now there are five compost piles going at the OFC. The raw pile is composed of weeds and leaves that are used to cover pile #1 so that it does not smell badly as it begins to work. Pile #1 gets the daily feeding of restaurant refuse and last autumn’s tree leaves. When this first pile is turned, it will be layered with fresh donkey manure and extra tree leaves to balance the high nitrogen content and control odor.
Next to pile #1 there are two piles that are farther along in decomposition. These two do not smell bad right now but will release a little methane on the day that they are turned over. Finally there is a large, finished pile of compost. It smells rich and earthy. Our finished compost is used in potted plants and in every garden.
Soybean, feather and/or alfalfa meal is chopped into the piles every time they are turned. The protein in the meals, which contains nitrogen, combines with carbon and reheats the piles. Several turns of the piles insures even composting. Part of the nitrogen that is in the meal protein will become a gas and escape into the atmosphere. Part of it will remain and help to feed plants when the finished compost is used.
Ground minerals such as soft rock phosphate, green sand and azomite are layered into the compost heaps when they are turned. The carbonic and humic acid produced by the compost helps to make the minerals water soluble and available to plants for nutrition.
When preparing an established garden bed for planting, finished compost is loaded into a wheelbarrow and then mixed with alfalfa meal, ground chicken feathers, kelp and dried fish. The amounts are measured into the compost with a quart-size plastic container, about 1-quart per amendment. Alfalfa meal contains all three macro nutrients which are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium plus trace elements. Alfalfa also contains a plant hormone that encourages the growth of young plants. Feathers are very high in nitrogen. Kelp is high in potassium. Fish contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
This compost and fertilizer is then shoveled on to the bed even before it is weeded. As the soil is cultivated to remove unwanted plants and to plant new ones, the compost filters down into top layer. Then the bed is planted and mulched. Mulch keeps the living organisms in the compost and topsoil cool and moist. It helps to suppress weeds. This no-till gardening method keeps the integrity of the soil structure.
Making compost and using compost processes tons of solid waste on site, feeds the soil, controls erosion, retains soil moisture and produces healthy plants. If I don’t see you in the future—I’ll see you in the pasture!