Soil Sense


You’ve Gotta Be Composting!
By Terri Petersen

Terri Peterson and Gary Strehlow own Nueva Tierra de Osa and make their composts, Worm Gardens, and other organic products in the shade of their 17 hectares of rain forest in Los Pargos. They also offer school and community programs and on-site and remote compost consulting services. Tico Pet Veterinary offers some of their products in Puerto Jimenez. They can be reached at and welcome visitors to their small operation.



Home garden plants with compost-rich soils.

Home garden plants with compost-rich soils.

Well, to be more accurate, if you are not already, you should certainly be composting your organic waste!  The practice of composting is simply the management of the process of decomposition, to harness the ‘black gold’ we desire. It’s all about biology and certainly isn’t rocket science. A few basic good practices, the right materials in the right proportions, and a little attention as you go will give you great results that benefit your garden, flowers, pasture, fruit trees, and even/especially your favorite house plant. I hope this will be the first in a series of articles sharing the importance that having and creating good soils has in all our lives. I spent 12 years working in waste reduction in Oregon and witnessed an exponential growth in the public’s awareness in the value of composting.  It is an incredibly smart, efficient, and sustainable thing to do. Today, Gary and I are proud to have begun a venture dedicated to providing sustainable options to our Osa neighbors, centered on turning organic wastes into a few products that give life to soils. In this chapter I’ll explore why composting and embracing organic practices can be such a good thing for our food, our health, and our Osa.


Compost on the make

Each one of us creates waste, some some less than others. It is one thing every human being has in common. We can all relate to trash because it’s in our daily lives. How we choose to deal with it can vary, depending upon the many options available to us. We can Reduce it by buying intelligently, Reuse what we can, Recycle what’s possible, and in the case of organics, Compost it. I believe that after reducing waste, composting is the second most important strategy to minimizing waste. The mantra should be Three R’s and a C!

Waste analysis studies here in Costa Rica have recently measured the waste composition or ‘what’s in our trash?’ Yep, people actually do this, and it’s an important tool in designing waste reduction programs. It gives municipalities and states the information they need to put their limited funding to best use. In Costa Rica organic materials including yard waste, food waste, paper waste, and wood waste, account for 55% of the trash going into the San José landfills.  55% !!!  I suspect that percentage is even higher on the Osa, where, of course, we don’t have a proper landfill in which to dispose our waste. What we do have is space, agriculture, animals, a perfect climate, and energetic, creative Osapians who are part of the solution to put our organics to reuse.

A composting workshop at Bosque del Cabo Lodge

A composting workshop at Bosque del Cabo Lodge

On the Osa we are blessed not only with an incredible macro faunal diversity, but an invertebrate and microorganism diversity as yet unmeasured.  As anyone who has spent any time here knows, everything wants to rot; our rain forests, our clothes, our cars, our homes. The rain forest’s ‘job’ is to grow, die, decompose, and renew itself as quickly as possible. That is why only the top few inches of soil in the rainforest is nutrient-rich. It doesn’t have the time and luxury, or the need to develop rich deep soils. It is those important microscopic organisms that are doing this work. I can’t even begin to fathom the biomass working below the leaves to transform all that material.


Composting workshop hosted on our Mogos finca.

Of course productively growing food crops or any other managed cultivation requires a different soil structure from the rain forest system, one that needs to be helped along to ensure desired results. Many of our Osa neighbors are already involved in permaculture and other integrated sustainable practices that provide outstanding benefits.  The practice of composting creates good soils and uses the wastes we produce at home in the process.  Take YOUR wastes and transform them into compost that can be put back into your soil to enhance and revitalize it – organically.

I became a compost convert about 20 years ago. Up until that time Miracle Grow and Round-Up were my yard and garden’s best friends.  Que vergüenza!  It was amazing how they quickly brought growth and flowers or killed what I thought of as weeds. Too amazing! Then I met Dr. Elaine Ingham, a PhD. in Microbiology at Oregon State University, who is passionate about improving soils. Dr. Ingham laid out what she named the soil food web, a simple diagram of the various microorganisms in soil that work TOGETHER to produce healthy, nutrient rich soils. You can see Dr. Ingham’s work at


Bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, and other invertebrates are the builders of the same soil that supports our life. Though we often think of soil as just dirt, we couldn’t be more wrong. Soil is a living, breathing, dynamic structure; an invertebrate zoo where a single teaspoon of good soil or compost may contains as many as a million organisms in it. These organisms build the structure plant roots need in order to grow and find the necessary nutrients and water; they also provide essential nutrients directly to the roots and clean the roots and root hairs so the plant can function optimally.  Finally, organisms in soils support a rich diversity of insects that birds and other wildlife feast depend upon for food. These same organisms compete with disease organisms both above and below the ground surface, keeping our plant healthy. So what was I doing by applying pesticides and inorganic fertilizers? Killing this entire remarkable natural system! It was analogous to spraying Agent Orange over a rain forest except doing the damage underground. I had to go cold turkey – NO MORE chemicals – and work diligently to create healthy soils so I wouldn’t need to use those toxic products ever again. It wasn’t easy to stop my bad habits, but I knew I had to.

So what is necessary to rejuvenate soil? Good organic matter to support the Soil Food Web of organisms and let them do their work. Where to start? A good place to start is to learn to make good compost and lots of it! How to do just that will be the subject of the next article.


Yellow trumpet flower

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