Cooking Up Compost
New ways based on years’ old know-how to make and use organic fertilizer for enriching your soil, with tips from Master Gardeners and kids who enlist the aid of worms.
Norva Lark says when it comes to the Earth, we as a society can’t keep taking without replacing. That’s why Lark, a Master Gardener since 1999 and Rineyville resident, has been composting for the past 12 years.
“I got started because I like to conserve the Earth and it’s kind of like giving back what you’ve taken away,” she says.
Lark, a Nolin RECC member, says composting is an easy and effective way to enrich the soil without using chemicals. She has a compost pile, and also a new flower bed using the lasagna gardening method of composting in which she plants directly into the layers of compost.
She also has a compost tumbler unit, and says it requires generally the same methods as the others, except that when she turns the tumbler every week or two to aerate the compost inside, she also adds some water to keep it moist, since it’s an enclosed unit with a few ventilation holes.
“Anyone can compost, any time of year,” says Lark, and it only requires organic material, water, and heat to break down the materials. She says for her corner pile, she uses old cinder blocks or wood in a three-sided configuration to hold the pile in place and keep its contents from scattering. In the pile she places grass clippings and kitchen scraps—vegetable peelings, coffee grounds and filters—shredded newspaper, manure, and even dryer lint. You can use almost anything except for meat or protein that would attract animals. She turns the mixture every couple of weeks, except during the winter.
“What’s on the bottom has started to decompose,” she says. “You need to flip it so the other part starts to decompose.”
Dark and crumbly, earthy-smelling compost should result, and she keeps the process going by periodically adding more kitchen scraps or other materials and watering the pile with a hose if the weather has been particularly dry. Just don’t add dead weeds to the compost, she says, or weeds will sprout wherever the compost is applied.
In addition to the environmental merits and the compost’s ability to make her flower beds and garden thrive, Lark says she truly enjoys composting as a practical and fun outdoor pastime that also provides exercise when turning the pile.
“You can hardly go wrong with it,” Lark says.
A Nelson County resident and member of Salt River Electric Cooperative, Bernie Roach, an organic gardener and also a Master Gardener since 2007, has a compost pile that he uses to enrich the soil around his two dozen or so fruit trees and a wide variety of berries.
“I compost all the kitchen waste and anything I have coming out of the garden like tomato vines and leaves,” Roach says. “I don’t believe it’s rocket science. I just put it in a pile and turn it.”
Roach turns his compost piles frequently, except in winter. He says the pile will yield usable compost in about two months in the summertime, and though the decomposition and his addition of materials continue through the winter, the process takes more time in colder months.
Joni House Webb, who became a Master Gardener last year, and her husband, Ed Webb, of Elizabethtown have been composting for several years. Ed Webb majored in horticulture in college, and encouraged her to share in his love of gardening and to use composting.
“We got tired of spending a lot of money on soil, so we thought, by golly, we’ll make our own!” she says.
Webb says each summer she picks and drops dead flower heads from her gardens into her compost bins, which are wood framed with metal wiring. She also has two store-bought rubber compost containers, which she doesn’t like using quite as well.
Each fall, Webb removes the contents of her compost bins and puts everything through a chipper-shredder to hasten the decomposition process.
“One of the essential things is to have small pieces so it can break down quickly,” she says.
Then she puts the shredded material back into the bins, combines it with leftover soil from her potted flowers that have died off for the season and some dead leaves and grass clippings, and mixes them together. She turns the mixture every couple of weeks with a pitchfork, adds water when it appears too dry, and by spring she has usable compost.
Since she has dead flower heads in her compost, she can’t use it on vegetables, or flowers will sprout all around them, so she uses the compost on the nearly 30 flower beds on her property.
Joni House Webb says composting is good for the planet, as well as the garden and gardener.
“It’s all about recycling and giving something a new purpose.”
Wormy world of vermicomposting
While it sounds like a rat’s trip to the Louvre Museum, “vermiculture” is really an easy way to enlist the aid of worms to create rich compost material that helps plants thrive.
This method of composting has been used in the Kentucky Children’s Garden at The Arboretum, State Botanical Garden of Kentucky in Lexington since before it opened in May 2011, says education coordinator Emma Trester-Wilson. The garden contains 10 raised beds of flowers, vegetables, and herbs.
“The children enjoy gardening, but they love to get up close and personal with the worms,” Trester-Wilson says.
The worms are of the red wiggler variety, commonly available at bait and tackle shops, she adds.
The Can-O-Worms vermiculture unit consists of a barrel-shaped multilevel structure about three feet high, where the worms are introduced to the composting materials. Children who visit the arboretum help shred newspapers for this purpose. Other materials in the mix include banana peels, apple cores, and other vegetable-based lunch leftovers and dead plants.
Kids or schools can win their own Can-O-Worms composting system from Gardening with Kids (see below), a nonprofit organization that provides a growing audience of more than 500,000 educators with grants, lesson plans, hands-on activities, books and curricula, as well as educational tools and free online resources. Visit www.KidsGardening.org for grant information, to sign up for Kids Garden News, and to gather inspiration from the extensive content offerings including classroom-tested project ideas and information to inspire plant-based exploration, indoors and out. Product resources are also available online at www.gardeningwithkids.org.
Because worms breathe through sensitive skin, avoid adding acidic fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and citrus, or highly aromatic foods like onions, garlic, and ginger, Trester-Wilson advises, as it is detrimental to the worms.
“We use the vermiculture system as an educational tool,” she says, and they also use the compost. “It teaches children how to compost and how essential decomposers are to any ecosystem.”
When not out on display for children to see, the vermiculture unit is placed in a dimly lit toolshed since the worms are sensitive to light. It also keeps them cooler in the summer.
Usually the vegetation itself is enough to keep the mixture moist—if it gets too slimy, more newspaper is added. “The mixture should be about as wet as a damp sponge,” Trester-Wilson says. Add water slowly. “Every time the kids add paper, we moisten it with water in a spray bottle.” The worms eat the compost materials and give off “castings,” or compost soil, as waste.
While vermiculture alone doesn’t yield as much compost as other methods, Trester-Wilson highly recommends adding worms to any composting system. “The results are incredible.”
Also helping educate people about the benefits of vermiculture is Chris Muesing, environmental educator with Bluegrass PRIDE, a nonprofit environmental education and outreach organization that was founded about 10 years ago to educate the public about ways to reduce environmental impacts.
Muesing and others on behalf of the organization help businesses and schools set up their own vermicompost bins in an 18-county service area, funded by donations, grant money, and contracts with federal, state, and local governments.
He says Bluegrass PRIDE helps install approximately two vermicompost units in his service area per month, also using red wigglers as wormy workers manufacturing the compost. He reports that businesses are a little slower to catch on to the idea than schools.
“For kids it’s fun,” he says. “It’s 100 percent fun. Kids can pull that compost up to see what they’re munching on…They will eat through a banana peel in no time.”
Bluegrass PRIDE also provides instructions for how to make a larger, outdoor vermiculture compost bin; see below. For more information about Bluegrass PRIDE’s program, contact them online at www.bgpride.org or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is also a wealth of information about composting with worms online at www.vermicompost.net.
So easy a child can do it
In Hardin County schools, children, school personnel, and parents are using compost as a medium to grow not only vegetables and herbs, but a new environmentally conscious generation.
Janelle Mason is the Family Resource Center coordinator at Lincoln Trail Elementary School in Elizabethtown, and Charis Kahlden is in the same role at Lakewood Elementary School in Cecilia. Using donations from local businesses, the two schools, along with Creekside Elementary in Sonora, have planted vegetables and herbs using what’s called the lasagna method of composting.
The name of the series of classes the schools are providing for students and parents to learn this method of composting is “Growing Families…Growing Food.” Lincoln Trail’s gardening efforts began in June 2009, and they intensified their composting efforts after a Kohl’s Cares National Go Green grant was secured. Three lasagna garden beds are now in use there. An additional three beds are in the preschool playground lot, created as part of a Nature Explore Area initiative with a grant of just over $1,000 from Nolin RECC, Mason says.
Lakewood’s composting debut was in spring 2011, with a greenhouse assembled by volunteers from Kohl’s and Metalsa, a local factory, and a 10x30 foot lasagna garden. Creekside’s composting program is in earlier stages of development.
Named for its layering process akin to the Italian casserole, Mason said the lasagna method can be started any time of year and involves building a raised garden bed by layering composting materials and then planting directly into the compost.
“It’s so easy, and it’s also cheap!” Mason says.
For the first layer, children place wet newspaper or cardboard on the ground, Kahlden says. Students follow that with a layer of manure. Other layers can be added—alternating “browns” such as dead leaves, pine straw, or shredded newspaper with “greens” that can include grass clippings and vegetable peelings. Brown layers ideally should be twice as deep as green layers, Mason says.
“I wasn’t that scientific about it,” she says, noting that she still had success.
Mason says manure or purchased topsoil can also be used among the layers, finishing up with a layer of straw. Kahlden adds that straw and manure were donated by local farmers.
In fall 2011, crocus, daffodils, and pansies were planted in the lasagna beds at Lincoln Trail. At Lakewood, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, basil, and peppers were planted in the lasagna garden, and smaller lasagna beds were created inside recycled tires, where they successfully grew pepper and tomato plants.
“I haven’t even had to weed the gardens at all,” Kahlden says.
Mason says during the program to teach parents and kids the benefits of composting and growing fresh garden produce, one father’s comment made her feel her efforts were worthwhile.
“He said, ‘Gosh, I’ve gardened for years and I had no idea it could be this easy!’”
COMPOSTING TIPS FROM MASTER GARDENERS
• A tumbler is a very easy method of composting, Master Gardener Norva Lark says. The tumbling is performed every week or two, when she also adds some water for moisture. However, in her experience, she says having a compost pile on the ground works faster, and you only have to occasionally turn the pile with a pitchfork.
• Do not add weed clippings to your compost, because wherever you apply it there will be an overabundance of weeds, Lark says.
• Master Gardener Bernie Roach says he’s read if you turn a compost pile more often at the beginning of its life, it will work faster. Once established, he turns his compost pile monthly with a forked shovel and uses a rake to straighten it.
• In the summer, Roach says his compost pile will yield usable soil within eight weeks, but it takes longer over the winter.
• Roach advises using a 1/2-inch depth of compost per square foot of soil, either applying it directly to the topsoil or raking it in with the topsoil. An organic gardener, he sends soil samples to the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service each fall. If requested, they will report on the organic content of the soil. (To learn more, see How to Have Your Soil Tested below.)
• Master Gardener Joni House Webb puts her compost bin materials through a chipper-shredder each fall to expedite the breakdown process over the winter, then stirs the compost pile every couple of weeks with a pitchfork.
HOW TO HAVE YOUR SOIL TESTED
Anyone in Kentucky can have soil samples tested by the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. Talk to someone at your local Extension office for how to go about taking good, representative core samples of dirt, where, and how deep. Then take the sampling to your local Extension office for sending to the main testing facility. Soil samples are tested for levels of phosphorous, potassium, and various micronutrients and pH.
If you want your sample tested for organic matter content (very important to organic gardeners; Master Gardener Bernie Roach says 5 percent is a good level to strive for) you must specifically request this, as it will not be done automatically.
Cost of testing varies from free in some counties to about $5 in others. It takes approximately two weeks, and your report will include results along with the agent’s recommendations for what to add, when, and how much, to bring your nutrient levels and pH into proper balance for the plants you are growing.
To take advantage of this service, contact your county’s Cooperative Extension agent. For contact information, go online to http://ces.ca.uky.edu/ces, click on “Counties,” then click on your county on the map. Or call (859) 257-4302 or write to UK College of Agriculture, S-107 Ag Science Bldg. North, Lexington, KY 40546-0091 to get contact information for your local office.
Win a Can-O-Worms Composting System from KidsGardening.org
$159.95 Retail Value
The ingenious worm “condo” allows as many as 20,000 red wiggler worms to eat their way up through food scraps from level to level, leaving rich, odorless castings behind, for use as compost. The Can-O-Worms unit comes with worm bedding made from coconut husks and instruction booklet.
WHO CAN ENTER Children ages 13 and under; individuals or Kentucky elementary or middle school classrooms, or home schools or other educational groups of children with 15 or more members. Family members of employees of Kentucky electric cooperatives, their subsidiaries, or Kentucky Living are not eligible to win.
HOW TO ENTER Tell us in 200 words or fewer why you would like to win the Can-O-Worms system for you or your school or other group, and how you plan to use it. One winner will be drawn randomly from among those entries chosen for publication in a future issue of Kentucky Living. Send to email@example.com with Subject Line “Can-O-Worms Contest” or mail a letter to us. Include your name, age, school or group name, address, phone number, and the name of your electric cooperative, if applicable.
ENTRY DEADLINE: March 31, 2012
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: >BUILD YOUR OWN WORM COMPOSTING BIN
For instructions from Bluegrass PRIDE for how to
make and use an indoors vermiculture compost bin
with worms—such as right under your kitchen sink—or
to build a larger outside vermiculture compost bin, go to worm compost bins.
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