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Archive for August, 2011

Get the Dirt on Composting

GET THE DIRT ON COMPOSTING

What is compost?

Compost is simply new soil made from decomposed organic material such as leaves, grass clippings, vegetable scraps, fruit cores or peels, coffee grounds, and more. Composting transforms these unwanted yard and kitchen scraps into a fertile medium for growing and nourishing plants, and saves resources and landfill space in the process. Composting in your yard or a local community garden can help you replenish your soil with the fresh nutrients necessary to create vital backyard, windowsill, or container gardens.

How to compost

Composting is remarkably simple, takes up little space and energy, and can be done in a variety of ways. The basic ingredients for successful compost are a good mix of kitchen and yard scraps, a source of air, and enough moisture to keep your compost as wet as a wrung-out sponge. For many, these conditions will lead to a very hot compost pile that quickly decomposes waste. Even if the pile does not become hot, rest assured that it will still compost, just less quickly. It is possible that your compost will go dormant in the winter because of below-freezing temperatures, but in the spring it will return to the work of making fresh soil. Here are two good strategies for backyard composting in Brooklyn:

Leaf pile. If you are just composting leaves and yard waste that won’t interest hungry rats and raccoons, the easiest thing may be to just make a leaf pile in the corner. “Leave” it alone and it will shrink in size over time, slowly composting without any help. You will have quicker results if you:
* mix in fresh, green grass clippings thoroughly with the leaves.
* turn/fluff the leaf pile often to let it breathe.
* wet the leaf pile until moist when turning/fluffing (if the pile is dry inside).

Container composting. If you’re composting anything from the kitchen, it is best to use a container, or “bin,” to discourage rodents. A variety of containers/bins are available on the market that are suitable for even the smallest of Brooklyn gardens. For example, Brooklyn Compost Project (info below) sells the black, rectangular “Garden Gourmet” compost bin, with a 2′ x 2′ footprint, for $60. The compact “Envirocycle” circular tumbling bin is available from various online retailers for around $130. Community gardens often use custom-built wood frames that take up more space but handle greater volume. Whichever container you choose, it should:
* keep rodents out. It may be necessary to reinforce/line the bottom and edges with 1/4” steel cloth.
* let air in from the sides and bottom. You may want to place your container on a wooden pallet or similar structure to let air in from below.
* be easy to access with shovels and other tools for mixing/turning.

Tips for composting success

* Mix in more dry “browns” than wet “greens.” For every bucket of kitchen scraps or green grass clippings, you should aim for two buckets of dry leaves, organic sawdust, straw/hay, or other high-carbon material.
* Smaller pieces compost faster. Prepare kitchen scraps for the compost pile by putting them into a big bucket and chopping them thoroughly with a flat-bottomed shovel.
* Mix/turn/fluff the pile often. The “compost crank” is a great tool for this and is available at a discounted rate through the NYC Compost Project (see below).
* Is your compost stinky? Add more dry browns, fluff it up, and shelter your pile from the rain.
* Is your pile dry and not decomposing? Add water or more wet kitchen scraps until it is moist and fluff it up.

What not to compost

When creating and maintaining a compost pile, there are several things you will want to avoid adding because they are toxic, can spread diseases to people and plants, can attract pests, or can cause weed troubles for you. Here are some guidelines:

* No chemically treated wood. While wood chips and sawdust can be great for compost, make sure they do not come from chemically treated wood products such as pressure-treated wood, which can contain arsenic, chromium, or copper.
* No human/animal poop. While gardeners universally love herbivore manure, neither human nor carnivorous pet waste should be included in garden compost because it can carry diseases that make people very sick.
* No diseased or contaminated plants. Composting diseased plants can contaminate the garden, reinfecting next year’s crops. While in theory, complete composting at high temperatures will kill garden pathogens, it is difficult to ensure complete composting of diseased materials, so avoid this situation altogether by disposing of infected plants elsewhere. Similarly, greens grown in contaminated soil can contain high levels of lead or other heavy metals and should not be composted.
* No meat, bones, or fat. Animal fats, bone, meat, and fatty fried foods decompose very slowly, are more likely to stink, and attract rodents.
* No weed seed. When adding weeds to the compost, make sure they haven’t flowered and gone to seed yet or you will nurture weeds in your garden. Some pernicious weeds can resprout from their roots while in your compost bin and multiply. Letting unwanted plants thoroughly dry in the sun (perhaps for a couple weeks) will ensure that they are dead and won’t grow in your compost.

Resources for composting in Brooklyn

The NYC Compost Project, established by the NYC Department of Sanitation in 1993, provides compost outreach and education for city residents and businesses. The project provides invaluable information, training sessions, and demonstrations, and also sells discounted compost bins and tools to local residents. Check out the Web site at www.nyccompost.org.

In Brooklyn, the Compost Project is run through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The garden operates a compost help line, at (718) 623-7290, and can be contacted via the Web at www.bbg.org.

Additionally, dozens of community gardens accept compost, both from gardening members and from neighbors who need a place for their kitchen waste. For a list of community gardens in Brooklyn, go to www.cenyc.org/openspace/gardens/bk. One great way to get your compost to a community garden, if going there directly is not an option, is to bring your compost to the Greenmarket. There are nearly a dozen Greenmarkets in Brooklyn, some year-round and some seasonal, and many of them accept compost in partnerships with community gardens. For locations near you, check the listings here: www.cenyc.org/ourmarkets.

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