October 2, 2003

Workshop Teaches Compost Basics

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Last Saturday at the Ithaca Community Gardens, eight local residents and college students gathered to learn the basics of composting, as part of the ongoing “Compost With Confidence!” workshop series.

With funding from the Tompkins County Solid Waste Management Division, Cornell Cooperative Extension offers this free workshop on the last Saturday of every month to teach the community the benefits and methods of decomposing organic waste.

Michelle Nowak ’04 and Keith Kreider, an employee of the solid waste division, taught the class using the different types of compost piles maintained on the gardens as demonstrations. Adam Michaelides, program manager of compost education at CCE, was also present and occasionally chimed in with compost tips.

Kreider spoke of the “basics for a general managed compost pile.” He said that compost is useful for gardens, among other reasons, because of its “antifungal properties and nutrients.” Also, it is good for the environment because it “diverts compostable materials from the landfill.”

Kreider explained “WONC” which stands for Water, Oxygen, Nitrogen and Carbon. When managing a compost heap, there are two balances that must be maintained for optimal decomposition: one between water and oxygen, and another between carbon and nitrogen. He taught “one of the most successful types” of composting — the “lasagna method” — which alternates layers of browns (carbon-rich materials such as dried leaves, wood chips, straw, and even torn paper) and layers of greens (nitrogen-rich materials such as food scraps and garden weeds). This is often described as the “easiest method” because it requires little labor. Kreider said it is important to “start and finish with a layer of browns” so that no food is showing.

Michaelides affirmed that “browns are very important” for purposes of aeration and as a filter from animals. Once a year he usually goes around neighborhoods and collects peoples’ leaves to use for compost heaps. “I am an official leaf thief,” he jokingly declared.

Contrary to popular opinion, properly functioning compost heaps do not smell bad. Kreider said, “One of the first signs you have a problem with your compost heap is a foul smell.” To prevent such smells, it is useful to use a bin made of wire fencing and to insert wooden branches into the heap for proper aeration.

Kreider warned the class not to use any dairy, meat, or oily foods because they attract animals. Also, he said that pet waste should be avoided because of the dangerous bacteria it harbors.

Composters can expect their heap to be useable in nine months on average. More active turning of the heap can result in useable compost in as little as 6 weeks. Michaelides recommends turning the heap at least once a season.

The second part of Saturday’s class was devoted to a special topic known as “stealth composting.” While it may seem that composting is a luxury that only those with a large yard can afford, “in reality you can compost anywhere,” said Nowak. Intended for those limited by space, neighbors and landlords, stealth composting makes use of two containers to be used indoors. One of these containers is smaller than the other and has holes at the bottom of it. The aerated composting takes place in this smaller container and is kept hidden within the larger container.

Nowak and Kreider are graduates of CCE’s Master Composter Program, which required that they undergo 40 hours of training, in the form of 10 two-hour classes and 20 hours of practical internship. A graduate of the program founded the workshop series in 1997.

Recounting how he first got into composting Kreider said, “It was wet and cold outside, and my wife and I took a class. … As I started I realized my office [solid waste division] funded it.”

Among those in attendance was John Weston, a physician. “I just moved here and there were compost bins outside my house,” said Weston, recalling why he was interested in composting. “It feels good to return things to the earth,” he said.

Barbara Appel, a resident whose husband read about the workshop, is interested in composting both for environmental reasons and to save on the expenses of garbage. “I grew up with [a compost heap] and it feels right to not throw things into the trash,” she said.

According to the CCE website, “The Compost Education Program supports the goals of the Solid Waste Management Division by reducing the amount of compostable materials handled by the County, thereby reducing the cost of their operations to the taxpayer.”

The next workshop, scheduled for Oct. 25, will cover winter composting strategies, such as worm composting. Complimentary starter earthworms may be provided. The workshop is free and open to the public, and registration is not required. CCE instructors will also present a compost display at this weekend’s Apple Harvest Festival on the Commons.

Archived article by Phillip Kim