GARDENING: The beauty of decaying compostFloyd is a horticulturist with Texas AgriLife Extension Service. He can be reached at 498-4071 in Ector County or 686-4700 in Midland County or by email at Jeff.Floyd@ag.tamu.edu

Given enough time and the right conditions, almost any carbon-containing material will decay to a crumbly brown soil amendment.
It takes about three weeks for a human body to decay to the bones. Styrofoam takes five-hundred or more years to degrade to its base components. Iron molecules from my old Chrysler Newport, scrapped some thirty years ago, slowly drop into the soil beneath its frame. The beer bottle in the floorboard may take another million years to decay. Eventually, all of these things can break down into a highly valuable substance for plants.
Plants take advantage of decayed material. How does this happen? Fungi, bacteria, and other microscopic creatures hidden in the soil chomp away at compounds that leach into their surroundings. These tiny animals increase in numbers as organic matter increases. Beetles, springtails, and mites move in and consume the smaller critters, eventually liberating their basic elements into the soil building a stable form of compost called humus.
Chemically, humus is negatively charged. It binds to nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous and other elements. Plants absorb the minerals, which are then added to the transpiring stream of water making its way from the roots to the leaves. Along the way, the minerals combine with carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and other elements to create plant building blocks.
Few West Texas soils contain enough of this rich organic matter. Ideally, a soil should contain about five percent. The average soil sample in the Permian Basin reveals less than one percent organic matter.
By using practices which increase soil organic matter, you can improve your gardening success. Try mulching grass, rather than bagging it; you’ll increase soil organic matter and keep it out of landfills. Alternatively, place the clippings in a composting bin along with kitchen scraps where they will all break down over time.