Humus is a special and very important type of decomposed organic matter. Although scientists have been intently studying humus for a century or more, they still do not know its chemical formula.
It is certain that humus does not have a single chemical structure, but is a very complex mixture of similar substances that vary according to the types of organic matter that decayed, and the environmental conditions and specific organisms that made the humus.
Whatever its varied chemistry, all humus is brown or black, has a fine, crumbly texture, is very light-weight when dry, and smells like fresh earth. It is sponge-like, holding several times its weight in water. Like clay, humus attracts plant nutrients like a magnet so they aren’t so easily washed away by rain or irrigation. Then humus feeds nutrients back to plants. In the words of soil science, this functioning like a storage battery for minerals is called cation exchange capacity. More about that later.
Most important, humus is the last stage in the decomposition of organic matter. Once organic matter has become humus it resists further decomposition. Humus rots slowly. When humus does get broken down by soil microbes it stops being organic matter and changes back to simple inorganic substances. This ultimate destruction of organic matter is often called nitrification because one of the main substances released is nitrate—that vital fertilizer that makes plants grow green and fast.
Probably without realizing it, many non-gardeners have already scuffed up that thin layer of nearly pure humus forming naturally on the forest floor where leaves and needles contact the soil. Most Americans would be repelled by many of the substances that decompose into humus. But, fastidious as we tend to be, most would not be offended to barehandedly cradle a scoop of humus, raise it to the nose, and take an enjoyable sniff. There seems to be something built into the most primary nature of humans that likes humus.
In nature, the formation of humus is a slow and constant process that does not occur in a single step. Plants grow, die and finally fall to earth where soil-dwelling organisms consume them and each other until eventually there remains no recognizable trace of the original plant. Only a small amount of humus is left, located close to the soil’s surface or carried to the depths by burrowing earthworms.
Alternately, the growing plants are eaten by animals that do not live in the soil, whose manure falls to the ground where it comes into contact with soil-dwelling organisms that eat it and each other until there remains no recognizable trace of the original material. A small amount of humus is left. Or the animal itself eventually dies and falls to the earth where ....
Composting artificially accelerates the decomposition of crude organic matter and its recombination into humus. What in nature might take years we can make happen in weeks or months. But compost that seems ready to work into soil may not have quite yet become humus. Though brown and crumbly and good-smelling and well decomposed, it may only have partially rotted.