Energetic retiree Lew Shell is known to farmers and gardeners around the state. For many years, he was a Master Gardener and Horticultural Consultant for the University of Maryland Home & Garden Information Center and the Nursery Manager for the Anne Arundel County Farmers’ Coop.
Though officially retired, he is also a Master Composter, he still loves to give talks to community groups and school children throughout the area about the value of composting.
According to the University of Maryland Extension Center website, there are several very compelling reasons to compost:
- Composting reduces the amount of material going to landfills. Municipal waste is composed of 13 percent yard wastes, 12 percent food waste, and 34 percent paper, most of which can be composted, according to the EPA.
- Compost is a valuable and free soil amendment that saves gardeners the money used to buy alternatives, such as peat moss, fertilizer, or vermiculite. Compost improves the condition of tilled soil, the soil’s aeration, and water-holding capacity and contains a wide range of plant nutrients. All soils benefit from regular additions of compost.
- Compost suppresses some soil-borne diseases. Populations of some microbes in compost may out-compete pathogens for food and habitat while others attack or repel plant pathogens.
In his lectures, Shell describes backyard composting as a “little art and a little science.”
The “art” portion he said, is as easy as finger painting and the ‘science’ portion is equally uncomplicated.
As for the science, Shell said compost is produced by providing carbon, nitrogen, water and oxygen to the microbes that do the major part of the work.
There are two groups of microbes involved in the process: mesophiles and thermophiles. Mesophiles live and reproduce in the same ambient temperature range (60-110 degrees Fahrenheit) in which humans live. The mesophiles are capable of producing an excellent quality of compost, but they are slow. It typically takes them a year or so to convert the four nutrients into dark, rich compost.
Shell said most home composters “can harness mesophiles to work for us in the backyard with little effort but with a lot of patience. Anne Arundel County Public Works will give residents a free compost bin to be used for this purpose.
The ‘art’ portion then comes into play. As the homeowner produces vegetable peelings and fresh vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, grass clippings, animal or human hair, et cetera, all of which are sources of nitrogen, these items can simply be tossed into the compost bin.”
“The next important step is to cover those fresh, nitrogenous items with a layer of straw, dried leaves — saved from last autumn, drier lint, old cotton t-shirts, small amounts of shredded newspaper, or old telephone books that are shredded. All of these items are sources of carbon.”
Shell said water is equally important to the composting process, but must be monitored. The consistency of the working compost should resemble a wrung-out sponge.
The oxygen requirement is provided by the construction of the bin that the county provides: it is perforated with numerous holes all around the bin. These holes allow air (oxygen) to circulate within the working compost. A bin made of fencing provides similar benefits.
In order to harvest useable compost, the bin should be lifted from the pile and placed adjacent to the pile. The top material is then placed back into the bin and the finished compost will be at the bottom of the pile.
“This method is called ‘passive’ composting and is the easiest method for busy homeowners and elderly homeowners,” said Shell.
The Lasagna Method
The recent Annapolis Rotary Crab Fest, held at the Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, was notable for the fact that almost all of the trash generated by the event – crab shells, corn cobs, platters, cups, bowls and crab mallets – is being turned into compost and will be sold in early December as an additional Rotary fundraiser. Further, the calcium in crab shells is prized by savvy home gardeners.
The company that collected the trash and is turning it into compost is the Aberdeen-based and veteran-owned Veteran Compost, owned by Justen Garrity, a 10-year Army vet who served in Korea, Kuwiat and Iraq. His company provides residential and commercial composting services, providing bins that are picked up on a regular schedule.
For at home composting, Garrity said, “I like the ‘Lasagna Method’.” He described it as a simple layering system that can be used in any bin.
There are “brown layers,” carbon rich materials like straw, dried leaves, wood chips, sawdust or torn up paper. They help balance the moisture in a compost pile and are usually more coarse and dry than “green layers.”
Green layers are rich in nitrogen. They can be food scraps from preparing a meal, old leftovers, grass clippings too long to be left on the lawn, garden weeds and manure.
Meat, dairy products, bones or oily materials should not be put into the compost pile as they attract bugs and other pests to the area.
“In your bin, you first put down a layer of leaves or carbon material that is dry, woody, papery – even newspapers. It should be at least a couple inches,” Garrity said.
“Then, is the layer of ‘greens’ – coffee grounds, fruit scraps, chicken manure, egg shells, grass clippings. It should be half the depth of the brown layer. Alternate those layers and end with a brown layer.”
After a few weeks, composters can either turn and mix the compost with a pitch fork or a shovel.
“In your backyard,” Garrity said, “you can compost about 200 gallons of material in six to eight months.”
A Faster Composting Method
If you are in a hurry, Shell advises: “Those who would like to harvest compost within a couple of months need to work a little harder. First, the bin must be filled with a blend of nitrogen, carbon, and water all at once.
The mesophiles will begin the process, but as the temperature reaches 110 degrees Fahrenheit, a second group of microbes begin to wake up and participate in the process. These microbes are called thermophiles and they live and reproduce between 110 degrees Fahrenehit and 160 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Shell said, the themophiles work so fast in the core of the working compost that they eat up all the nutrients and drink up all the water at the core of the pile or bin within a day or two. In order to keep this group of microbes working at the faster speed, the pile must be turned and moistened appropriately in order to replenish the food supply at the core and maintain a temperature above 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
This process continues for about six weeks during which time the pile diminishes significantly. When the temperature will no longer increase after turning the pile, it is allowed to ‘cure’ while the mesophiles finish it off within the next two weeks.
He uses a long stemmed, stainless steel, compost soil thermometer, similar to a meat thermometer, to determine the temperature at the core of the compost pile. Similar thermometers are available online at prices ranging from $6.14 to $83.71.
When the compost is ready, none of the original ingredients will be recognizable and the compost will look very much like rich, dark earth. It is all right for it to be a little coarse.
He said if the compost pile is maintained properly, there is no offensive odor. As with other methods of composting, residents should avoid placing meat, bones, dairy products and other kitchen scraps high in protein or fat into the pile.
Shell added: “If the compost bin is visible to the neighbors, it may be suitable to build an attractive screen or plant some attractive shrubs around the bin.”
For more information about compositing, visit http://extension.umd.edu/hgic/soils/compost .
Here is a link to the free compost bin Anne Arundel County gives to residents, free of charge: http://www.aacounty.org/services-and-programs/recycling-and-compost-bins.
The composting bins are available during business hours at Central Recycling Center, 389 Burns Crossing Road, Severn; and at Southern Recycling Center, 5400 Nutwell Sudley Road, Deale. The main number for both sites is 410-222-6100.
Free Composting Demonstrations are held twice a month in Quiet Waters Park on the Annapolis Neck. The Composting Demonstration Area is along Wildwood Trail.
Master Gardeners who are Master Composters give the hour-long talk while demonstrating various methods of composting. They will provide attendees with a free compost bin provided by Anne Arundel County, plus materials about composting methods.
The remaining demonstrations in 2017 are, weather permitting:
Wednesday, October 4 at 11 a.m.
Saturday, October 28 at 10 a.m.
Saturday, November 11 at 10 a.m.