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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Deatcher keeps a small, decorative container in his kitchen to collect usable scraps. When that’s full, he dumps it into a larger container on his deck. And when that’s full, he adds it to his composting bin.
You can buy composting bins at Home Depot, Lowe’s, or your neighborhood gardening center. They can run anywhere from $25 to hundreds of dollars. Or you can be “thrifty,” like Deatcher, and simply wrap chicken wire around four wooden stakes. The optimum size of your bin is 27 cubic feet — three feet wide by three feet deep by three feet high. “Any bigger or shallower doesn’t work as well,” he says.
He recommends employing a three-bin system, with each bin holding the compost at different stages of its decomposition. Fill up the first bin, give it three or four months to break down, and then move it to bin two. Refill bin one, wait another three or four months, move both of them up, and refill bin one. That way, you have a constant stream of properly decomposed composting material.
The only thing you need to do is keep the piles moist and aerated. During the dry months, water the piles every week or two, and fluff them up with a pitchfork to work more air in. “You can tell if it’s working if you feel heat coming from the piles,” Deatcher says. “That also keeps weeds from growing on the pile.”
In about a year, your garbage will be black gold. Now, what do you actually do with it?
For the answer to that question, we turn to another retired IBM engineer. Frank Almquist, 73, of Kingston, is also a Master Gardener. He often lectures with Deatcher, but focuses on the chemical components of soil. “As an engineer, I am curious about the technical aspects of fertilizers, how the whole plant comes together, because half the plant is below ground,” he says.
Almquist is a dedicated composter. “In the forest, organic matter naturally falls onto the soil and breaks down, but in the garden it doesn’t,” he says. “You have to add it yourself.” Every fall he digs a six-foot trench in his garden, fills it with garden debris, and pulls the soil over it. “My wife asks me if I am digging a grave,” he laughs. “It’s surprising how many leaves you can bury. Come spring, I plant right over that trench.”
He is quick to point out, however, that compost is not the same thing as fertilizer. “Compost is the organic material that holds the plant, captures moisture, and keeps the soil loose and aerated,” he says. Fertilizer, on the other hand, adds specific nutrients to the ground to nourish your plants. So along with maintaining a topcoat of compost throughout the year, he also applies some standard 10-10-10 fertilizer to his garden.
His system has proven successful in fighting a pesky garden problem. “Leaf rot is very common in the Hudson Valley. I’ll typically place two inches of compost into the ground, and till that into the soil. I had a lot of compost this year, so I put shovelfuls around each tomato plant, about six inches worth. I actually had very little leaf rot after that. It also kept the weeds out, and I got good quality tomatoes. I’m not sure if it was the compost, but I’m going to try it again this year with other plants.”
Want to learn more?
On April 25, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County hosts a Garden Day at Ulster County Community College, during which John Deatcher will discuss composting. While you’re at the college, check out the demonstration garden, which features Deatcher’s three-bin composting system.
For more information, visit http://counties.cce.cornell.edu/ulster, or call Cornell Cooperative Extension at 845-340-3990.