From Garbage to Gold
Composting keeps your kitchen scraps and yard waste out of the landfill and puts it to good use in your garden. And it’s surprisingly easy to do
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One man’s kitchen scraps are another man’s gold. Especially if that man is John Deatcher. Now that gardening season has (almost) arrived here in the Hudson Valley, Deatcher is a good man to listen to. He can teach you how to turn your used coffee grounds, egg shells, orange rinds, and other organic material into compost — or black gold, as it’s known in the gardening world.
Deatcher, 71, of Woodstock, is a retired IBM field engineer. Engineers can’t just do something; they have to understand how that something works. While studying to become a certified Master Gardener (which he achieved in 2000), Deatcher took courses at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook. Part of the coursework included composting. He took a special interest in recycling organic waste and keeping it out of the landfill — but he also liked the fact that he could save money by making his own. “I’m Scottish,” he says with a still-evident burr, “and I tell people I am not cheap, just thrifty.”
After a few years of continuing education and applied theory in his own garden, he became expert enough to offer courses of his own, often through the Cornell Cooperative Extension. For those who missed his lectures this winter, Deatcher agreed to offer a pared-down version for these pages.
There are four components necessary for successful composting: carbon-based organic material, nitrogen-based organic material, water, and air. Mix those four things together in the proper ratio, and let nature do the rest. “It’s pretty simple,” Deatcher says. “If you follow the basic rules it’s not too hard.”
Carbon-based waste includes the woody stuff in your yard, such as twigs and leaves. It can also include newsprint, old phone books, and coffee filters. (But not coated, glossy paper, such as what you are holding now.)
Nitrogen-based waste is other plant material, such as grass clippings and dead-headed flowers, along with the stuff you’d normally send down the kitchen disposal: potato peels, carrot stalks, apple cores, and coffee grounds. It does not, however, include animal products such as chicken bones or hamburger grease, and no dog or cat poops. Although these elements would decompose, they also would draw critters looking for lunch.
For composting, the preferred ratio of these two waste groups is about 25 percent carbon-to-nitrogen. A different ratio will affect how long the process takes, Deatcher says. “You put it all in a pile, add moisture and air, and then you basically wait.”