If you’re thinking of starting a garden this year — and let’s face it, this free-falling economy has lots of us contemplating growing our own food for the first time — you should start composting, too.
You can use this “gardener’s gold” from your new compost pile to feed your new plants and as a repository for leaves, dead plant matter and leftover food scraps.
In this era of hyper-awareness of environmental sustainability, fuel costs and the ecological implications of how we eat, it’s hard to imagine an easier way to change your carbon footprint than composting your yard waste and food scraps instead of adding them to the ever-growing garbage stream.
Because of the high cost of real estate and a lack of open space, Westchester County exports more than 178,000 tons of leaves, grass clippings and other organic yard waste to states as far away as New Hampshire for composting, at a cost of $40 a ton.
Just imagine if we put all those bags of leaves and clippings to work in backyard compost piles or bins.
The science of composting is fairly simple. Basically, you’re allowing bacteria, fungi and bugs to break down organic matter and turn it into super-rich soil.
If you want to learn more about composting, there are a few classes in the area in coming weeks. On Thursday, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland will hold the second of three free workshops on backyard composting for county residents. The final class will be held on March 24.
On March 28, Hilltop Hanover Farm will host a free workshop on composting with worms, which can even be done in city apartments.
Finished compost has lots of beneficial uses in your yard. It works as mulch to suppress weeds and as a soil conditioner, adding chemical-free nutrients, organic matter and fertilizer to improve the air circulation and water retention of your soil.
You can put it in all your garden beds as well as around shrubs and trees. Mix it with potting soil to improve container gardens.
One of the best ways to improve your grass, without using chemical fertilizers, is to top-dress it with compost. Fill a wheelbarrow with compost and strew shovelfuls around the lawn. It will work its way in and disappear within a week or two.
Creating a composting operation can be as simple as starting a pile in a corner of the back yard or as high-tech as a three-part series of barrels with hand cranks to turn the material and speed up its decay. You can make a 5-by-5-foot bin with a few stakes and snow fencing, or use two-by-fours to make something more attractive and long lasting.
(I have three simple piles in a woodsy area of my property: a working pile that gets all the new stuff, a done pile that’s aging and a third pile that’s shovel-ready for harvesting.)
The compost pile should stay moist, like a wrung-out sponge, so shade is probably better than sun. It also needs air, so don’t create a completely closed system.
Many people prefer to buy ready-to-go plastic compost bins that eliminate any worry about drawing rodents. (A good compost pile with no meat or dairy products should not draw critters.)
The decay process from fresh greens and leaves to finished soil takes anywhere from six months to two years, depending on your method, how much material you add and whether you want to bother turning the pile to speed things up.
Kit Meenan, who teaches composting classes for new master gardener trainees in Rockland, recommends stirring the compost with a handheld aerator or pitch fork every month or so. “That allows air to get in and the microorganisms get stirred up,” she says. Her compost is usually ready after one year.
How do you know when your compost is ready? It should feel and look like rich, loamy soil. Check the temperature — a good compost pile will generate heat as part of the decay process. It’s ready when it cools back down.
Smell it — the compost should have an earthy smell. If you get a whiff of ammonia, it’s not ready.
What’s in, what’s out
Everything organic has a ratio of carbon to nitrogen in its tissue, ranging from 500 to 1 for sawdust to 15 to 1 for table scraps, according to the Cornell Waste Management Institute. A carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30 to 1 is best for a compost pile.
You can achieve this by mixing two parts “brown” items that are high in carbon with one part “green” items that are higher in nitrogen. But don’t make yourself crazy — it’s just a compost pile.
Brown items include leaves, wood chips, sawdust, shredded newspaper, straw, pine needles, bark and old potting soil.
Green items include grass clippings, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, weeds, garden cuttings and animal manure.
Ideally, you want to add the green and brown items in layers. Some people like to keep a pile of leaves next to their bin to add with the green items.
“Always put food scraps in the center, away from the edges so you don’t get critters,” says Kit Meenan, who teaches compost classes in Rockland. “Then top it off with leaves so you can’t see the scraps.”
Compost piles in good working order should not have any bad smells. If it begins to smell like ammonia or rotten eggs, it’s probably too wet and too green; add brown material.
Keep these out of your
Meat and dairy products; oily food
Cat or dog manure
Weeds with seed heads
Invasive plants such as garlic mustard or Japanese knot weed
Anything treated with herbicides or pesticides
Thursday and March 24
Stony Point: Backyard Composting. Learn how to make garden compost by recycling kitchen scraps and yard and garden waste. Registration required. Free. 9:30 a.m.Thursday, 10 a.m. March 24. There is a limited number of free “Earth Machine” composting bins available for Rockland residents attending the class. Cornell Cooperative Extension, 10 Patriot Hills Drive. Caryn Singer at 845-429-7085, Ext. 117.
Yorktown Heights: Composting with Worms. Learn how to build a worm bin and set your worms up in a comfortable environment. Registration. Free. 10 a.m.-noon Hilltop Hanover Farm and Environmental Center, 1275 Hanover St. 914-962-2368.
Pocantico Hills: Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture will celebrate Compost Awareness Week with programming led by the farm staff. 630 Bedford Road. 914-366-6200.
Scarsdale: Composting seminar led by Pamela Davis, a master gardener and sales associate. Free. 10:30 a.m. Smith & Hawken, 696 White Plains Road. 914-722-0690.
June 13, 20 and 27
Pocantico Hills: Backyard Composting for Homeowners, a three-part series. Teacher: Gregg Twehues. Registration. $75. Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, 630 Bedford Road. 914-366-6200, Ext. 151.
For more info …
Call your local Cornell Cooperative Extension (Westchester: 914-285-4620; Putnam: 845-278-6738; Rockland: 845-429-7085).
cwmi.css.cornell.edu/composting.htm — Cornell Waste Management Institute
cityfarmer.org — Canada’s Office of Urban Agriculture
compostingcouncil.org — U.S. Composting Council