Compost maturity effects on nitrogen and carbon mineralization and plant growth

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

Improved predictive relationships between compost maturity and nitrogen (N) availability are needed. A total of 13 compost samples were collected from a single windrow over a 91 d period. Compost stability and maturity were assessed using both standard chemical analyses (total C and N, mineral N, total volatile solids) and other methods (CO2 evolution, commercial maturity kits, and neutral detergent fiber, and lignin). Compost N and carbon (C) were evaluated during a 130 d aerobic incubation in a sandy loam soil after each compost was applied at 200 mg total kg-1 soil. The effect of compost maturity on plant growth was evaluated by growing two ryegrass (Lolium perenne L.) crops and one barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) crop in succession in compost-amended soil under greenhouse conditions. Potential phytotoxicity from compost was assessed by growing tomato (Lypersicum esculentum L.) seedlings in compost-amended soil.

Regression and correlation analyses were used to evaluate the relationship between compost maturity parameters, the rate and extent of net N and C mineralization, plant yield and N uptake, and phytotoxicity. Commonly used maturity parameters like total C, total N, and C:N ratio were poorly correlated with the rate and extent of mineralization, and with plant growth parameters. The N mineralization rate during the first 48 d of aerobic incubation was strongly correlated (r= -0.82 to -0.86) to compost fiber and lignin concentration, and to the Maturity Index (r=0.85). Trends in C mineralization were similar. There were few differences in C mineralization between composts after 48 d of aerobic incubation in soil. Ryegrass harvested 35 and 70 d after compost application was not strongly affected by compost maturity, and relatively immature composts were phytotoxic to tomato seedlings. Methods of characterizing compost maturity and stability that more realistically reflect the composting process are better predictors of N release and potential plant inhibition after incorporation into soil.

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