Composting


It’s that time of the year again: the Christmas holidays are days away. If you are looking for last-minute gifts for the gardener in your life then here are some ideas, including some new trends.

Herb-growing kits are one of the latest trends in indoor gardening. I always bring an herb planter in at the end of October when it gets too cold at night for it to remain out of doors. It generally does very well in a southwest-facing den window for a few months but the reduced sunlight and cooler nighttime temperatures usually cause it to gradually decline in vigor.

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Unfortunately, the window in my kitchen faces northeast and therefore is the least desirable growing spot in our house. There are many herb growing kits available now that have growing lights built into the units so that if you or your gift recipient also have a kitchen with a window that gets low light (or no window at all), fresh herbs can still be within reach of your culinary efforts.

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There are more than a few lower maintenance herb kits that come in a variety of containers, one of which is sure to fit the décor of any home. Burlap or heavy paper bags come complete with all that is needed to grow flowers and herbs.

The Eggling kits would be a great gift for a young gardener who would really enjoy cracking open the top of the egg to see that it contains everything (except water) that is required to grow herbs, strawberries, or flowers. Colored glass canning jars contain everything from herbs to palm trees!

Another way to grow fresh herbs or micro-greens is a portable water garden that incorporates a fish tank and a plant bed in a unique symbiotic relationship. We gave one of these to our daughter for her birthday in April and have seen the mini-aquaponic system in action. The cut-and-come-again micro-greens that sprout and grow to harvesting size in a week to ten days include radishes, broccoli, arugula, spinach, and wheat grass.

This closed system circulates the water from the fish tank up through the rock garden that sits atop the tank. As this water is rich in fish waste it supplies fertilizer to the plant’s roots. The water that is returned to the fish tank has been cleaned by the plants.

Once the herbs have been grown, whether indoor or out, there are special containers to keep them fresh and assorted culinary tools to prepare them such as a stripper that eases the removal of small leaves from herbs such as rosemary and thyme. A larger variation of the stripper works well with larger-leafed vegetables like kale. A cactus-shaped herb infuser allows any cook to add a bouquet garni to their cooking pot and then easily remove it before serving.

If your gift designee would prefer to adorn their table with flowers rather than grow them then there are plates for every style, from bold orange, green and black tropicals to powder blue backgrounds with delicate cherry blossoms to, my favorite, the high-contrast black and cream Queen Anne’s lace.

And of course, there is the traditional and always welcomed hostess gift of a flowering plant. Poinsettias are not the only way to brighten a home during the winter. Florist’s departments are teeming with an abundance of colorful blooms. Kalanchoe is a succulent houseplant that may be found with white, red, yellow, orange, and fuchsia long-lasting flowers.

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Anthurium, with its dark green, heart-shaped leaves and a tall spike of minute flowers that sit above a brightly-colored bract that may be white, pink, or red is a lovely houseplant.

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Flowering plants in the Cyclamen species include Cyclamen persicum and C. coum, both of which bloom in the winter and C. repandum which blooms in the spring would be welcome gifts. Cyclamen have beautifully variegated leaves and up-swept flower petals that range from white to soft pink to deep red.

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But if you are looking for a flowering plant that comes in a color to match any décor than nothing can top the appeal of the dramatic Phalaenopsis orchid hybrids. As seen in the image below, they are available in a veritable rainbow of colors.

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Here’s a  suggestion that may also be a final destination for plant and herb refuse: a kitchen compost bin. Now available in many materials and sizes, these bins make composting easy and may only need to be emptied on a weekly basis, perhaps a bit more often if the household is basically vegetarian like ours is or if there is a coffee-lover filling it with used grounds.

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If your gardener is also a coffee lover, then these mugs that reflect the current succulent houseplant trend would receive a warm welcome.

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Its not too late to shop for your favorite gardener or, if one or two of these gifts happened to catch your eye, then print this off, circle your choices and leave it where Santa may find it!

Susan Pelton

All images by S. Pelton

Cornell Pink Azalea and Steeple

Spring is just around the corner bringing a fresh year to begin new gardening activities. Composting is a great way to recycle weeds, food waste and just about anything that was once a plant. Composting home and garden waste is one way to reduce what is picked up by the garbage truck, reducing your carbon foot print, and saving money for you if garbage collection is charged by bag, or your town in tipping costs. Tipping costs are the amount municipalities have to pay per ton to use regional trash plants. Every little bit helps. The benefits of the end product of compost can be used in gardens and lawns, returning nutrients and increasing organic matter to the soil resulting in healthier plants.

compost finished

Finished Compost.

Composting is controlled decomposition. Everything eventually rots, but by knowing a bit of the science of how things break down, we can make rot happen quicker, getting more compost faster. Every compost pile or bin needs carbon, nitrogen, air and water, and soil organisms to do the dirty work of decomposition. Micro-organisms are the fungi and bacteria which feed on the stuff in the pile. They are most efficient when the pile contains a ratio of 30 carbon to 1 nitrogen.

Browns are the carbon and are from dead plant material. They are the browns of the pile. Fall leaves, newspaper, scrap paper, woodchips, dry hay, straw sawdust dried grass clippings and weeds without seeds are all browns.

newspaper for composting

leaves and caroline Dry leaves are carbon.

 

Newspaper is carbon. No glossy sections.

Greens provide nitrogen the microbes need to process the carbon. The nitrogen will be given back to the pile after the microbes use it, and also release more from the carbon material. Greens are green leaves, grass or weeds without seeds. Also fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves and even coffee filters as they are paper, which comes from trees.

compost pile

Things  not to put in a compost pile include meats or dairy products, fats and oils, bones, weeds with seeds, diseased plant material, and dog or cat manure. Also no pesticide treated plant material.

dog, rye

Pet waste is not recommended.

Water should be added to keep the pile as moist as a wrung out sponge. Too much water and microbes drown. Too little moisture and the microbes will dry out and die. Turning the pile will incorporate more air, helping the pile to dry if too moist.

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Piles can be out in the open just as a heap on the ground or contained with wire or fenced sides.

Closed container can also be used and must have drainage holes to allow water to escape it the inside become too wet from rain or watering the pile. Some containers are mounted so they can be turned, effectively turning the contents inside. Turning the container or the pile incorporates more air and distributes moisture, both of which the microbes need to do their work of decomposing. If a container is used to compost, add a few shovels of soil or finished compost to introduce healthy microbes into the organic matter of greens and browns.

Finished compost can be screened through a 1/4 inch piece of hardware screening stapled to a square made from 2×4 inch boards. Shovel the compost in, and shake or move it around to keep the larger sticks and debris out of the finer end product. Through the larger pieces back into the pile for further breaking down.

compost screened

Happy composting!

-Carol Quish

Living more sustainably has become a goal to many individuals who recognize that the earth’s natural resources are finite. There are numerous ways to lessen our impact invoking the three R’s of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. One relatively easy method of recycling is composting. And now would be the perfect time to start as May 1 – 7, 2016 is International Compost Awareness Week.

Up to one-third of a household’s waste could potentially be composted including food scraps, yard wastes and paper products. It has been estimated that about 70 billion pounds of food waste are discarded by Americans each year. That comes to about 20 pounds per person per month. So between 25 and 40 percent of food grown, processed and transported each year never gets eaten!

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Fruits and vegetables can be composted if not consumed. Photo by dmp.

According to www.feedingamerica.org, most of this is disposed of in landfills or by incineration. In fact, more food reaches landfills and incinerators than plastic, glass, paper or metal in municipal solid waste. When landfilled, the buried food breaks down in an anaerobic environment and methane is produced. Methane, as many of you are aware, is a potent greenhouse gas about 21 times more the global warming potential than carbon dioxide.

On top of the environmental cost and loss of resources that all our food waste is creating, we need to pay to have it removed from our property. Either we contract with private haulers or your city or town removes it paid for through your taxes. Many localities are beginning encouraging residents to compost their leaves and other organic wastes as both a cost saving tool and a way to amend lawn and garden soils.

While the optimal solution to this problem would be not to waste food and this should top everyone’s list, if food is going to be thrown away, as much of it should be composted and turned into a valuable soil amendment as possible.

Composting is simply the controlled process of decomposition of organic materials. Decomposition is a natural process. Any bit of plant or animal debris that falls upon the earth’s surface gets broken down and transformed by visible and microscopic creatures. Composting hastens this natural process by creating conditions that tend to accelerate natural decomposition the end result being a stable humus-like product that is great addition to most soils.

3 bin composter Haddam

3-bin compost unit at Middlesex County Extension Center, Haddam, CT. photo by dmp

Composting can be as simple or complex as one chooses to make it. The basic requirements for composting are a source of organic materials, air, water, microorganisms and a site for composting. The organic materials can be food scraps, leaves, grass clippings, spent plants, shredded newspaper or office paper, coffee grounds, tea bags, eggshells, manure, sawdust and spoiled hay. These organic materials may be layered proportionately according to how much carbon and nitrogen they contain. Decomposition is hastened when the amounts of carbonaceous material (brown) are balanced with high nitrogen containing organic matter (green). Many piles are started by using 2 parts green to 1 part brown. Technically this is referred to as the carbon nitrogen ratio and there are many online and written sources listing the ratios for a variety of organic materials. A carbon nitrogen ratio of 25 or 30 to 1 ensures faster decomposition.

Composter

Easy turn compost bin. Photo by dmp.

Typically natural rainfall keeps the pile moist but you may need to water it occasionally during dry spells. Keep in mind that most of the decomposition is done by soil microbes and they need oxygen and water just like all living creatures. The compost pile should be as moist as a wrung out sponge. If it seems dry, give it some water. If it is too wet, turn it to aerate and dry out a bit. A general rule of thumb would be to turn the pile every week or two initially.

Whether you make or purchase a compost bin or simply create a compost pile is up to you. Wire fencing or cement blocks are an inexpensive way to contain a pile. Locate your bin or pile not too far away from either the garden or the kitchen so food waste and garden debris can be readily added to the compost pile and finished compost will be conveniently located next to the garden. Facts sheets at www.soiltest.uconn.edu give greater details on the composting procedure as well as on the various types of compost bins available.

Compost is finished after 3 to 9 months when it is loose and crumbly and the original organic materials that were put in the pile are no longer recognizable. Using compost in the garden or landscape has many benefits. It adds organic matter to the soil which in turn increases the water and nutrient holding capacities of the soil. Compost improves the soil’s structure which in turn results in better plant root growth. Since the pH of finished compost is usually around 7.0, using compost also often eliminates the need to add limestone or wood ash to the soil.

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Topdressing garden bed with compost. Photo by dmp.

Depending on what organic materials were added to the compost pile, the finished compost will contain varying amounts of the nutrients that plants need. Manure-based composts would generally have higher nutrient levels than leaf- or food waste-based composts. After adding an inch or so of compost to your garden soil and mixing it into the top 6 inches of soil, it is a good idea to test the soil before adding any more fertilizer or limestone. Many gardeners tend to add copious amounts of compost to their vegetable and flower beds resulting in excessive levels of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen which can pollute surface and ground waters. Conscientious gardeners want to supply their plants with enough nutrients to ensure productivity but not caused environmental or human health problems.

There is no time like International Compost Awareness Week to learn about composting and figure out how to incorporate it into your yard or garden. Apartment dwellers might want to consider indoor composting using worms. Yard-less residents may find that a nearby community garden would take their food scraps.

Dawn P

Every once in a while, I come across some new way to garden I was unaware of before. At the Hartford Flower and Garden Show a visitor asked what I knew about Hugelkultur, and I had to tell him “Nothing, tell me what you know.” There is always something new to learn, research and read about in all endeavors, but I especially love new gardening ways and tips. He offered what he knew, and I promised to find out more and pass it on.

Hugelkultur is a German word meaning hill culture; the process of planting a garden or plants over or near buried  logs  decaying below the surface. While the logs are  composting below ground, they are holding moisture like a sponge which the plant roots can access. Nutrients are also released from the decaying wood and made available to surrounding plants. It is like planting your garden over your compost pile to feed the plants over a long period of time.

from permaculture.com.uk

from permaculture.com.uk

 

This centuries’ old way to garden is making a comeback with permaculture enthusiasts. It is a self-sustaining  practice, replacing the nutrients which the gardeners remove when vegetables are removed from the garden. It is also thought of as forest gardening. Nobody fertilizes or feed the soil in the forests, but no one is removing the fallen leaves and dead wood; they just rot in place, helping the new seedlings to grow.

Nutrient cycle, from Oregon State University.

Nutrient cycle, from Oregon State University.

The size of the pile should be at least three feet wide and three feet deep or high. Piles can be made above ground is location is in a wet area, just cover the pile with soil several inches thick whether above or below ground. Over the  years, a depression will develop as the material below decomposes. More soil can be added to raise the level for easier gardening. The composting process gives off some heat which rises through the layers to benefit the plants above, perhaps allowing a little bit earlier planting in the spring and some frost protection in the fall.

black walnut fruit , hort.uconn.edu

black walnut fruit , hort.uconn.edu

black walnut leaf, hort.uconn.edu

black walnut leaf, hort.uconn.edu

One word of caution on the species of log used; do not use black walnut as this species of tree releases a toxic chemical called juglone which inhibits plant growth. Juglone is present and active even in dead wood. Other species of wood will not produce juglone. Soft woods such as pine will rot more quickly and hard woods will take longer. Wood will decay more slowly underground where there is less oxygen than it would if sitting on top of the ground and exposed. Be sure any wood used is dead to prevent sprouting from the wood used. Species of wood that works best are alders, apple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, maple, oak, poplar, willow.

When the hugelkultur system is first getting started, the soil microbes will be using nitrogen from the soil in order to do their work of breaking down the wood and organic matter. The microbes will eventually return the nitrogen plus more nitrogen from the wood, into the pile. Adding a sprinkling of blood meal to the pile will feed the fungi and bacteria doing the decomposition getting them off to a strong start.

-Carol Quish

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery Jelly in situ

We answer all kinds of horticulture and nature questions here at the UConn Home and Garden Education Center. This week a citizen called wanting an identification of a ‘mystery jelly’ that appeared on his property. It was out back, near the woods where he dumps leaves and sticks. He said it was ‘leaking’ down the hill off of the pile of leaves. Another spot appeared nearby. He was certain it was growing out of the pile.  Photos  were sent for me to take a look. Sure enough it looked like clear pieces of jelly or really thick cubes of hair gel with a gorgeous green color around the edges of the mass. He said it was impossible that someone came onto his property to  dump something foreign onto his compost pile. To me, it looks like a pile of polymer crystals which had absorbed copious amounts of water. One ounce of crystals will absorb one gallon of water making quite a large pile. The polymer crystals are used in potting soil to retain and slowly release moisture to plant roots. They are also used in flower arrangements and come in different colors. This could be the reason there is some green on the edges or it could be algae growing in the super wet environment. The client brought in a sample for a look under the microscope. No fungal or plant life was found, only clear and green chunks resembling very thick jello pieces. The client couple has used soil moisture retaining potting soil in the past, and could have dumped spent potted plants in this pile. They could not remember them in any flower arrangement, but did no discount this theory either. Either way, it was a good mystery to solve!

Crystals close up. Pamm Cooper photo

Crystals close up.
Pamm Cooper photo

On a different subject, the hummingbirds have arrived back in Connecticut. If you hang feeders, put them out now. Hummers are hungry after traveling back from the Gulf of Mexico and other far off warm areas to avoid our cold winter weather. Smart birds! Typically, they are here from April through mid October. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only hummingbird east of the Rocky Mountains., so this is the only species we will see in Connecticut. Hummingbirds eat insects and spiders for protein. We humans can supplement their diets with sugar-water. The feeders should be washed and refilled at least weekly.

ruby_hummer, fsc.fernbank.edu

The recipe for hummingbird food is  one part ordinary white cane sugar to four parts water.It’s not necessary to boil the water. It is not recommended to add red dye of any kind.

Hummingbird feeder, http://www2.ca.uky.edu photo

Hummingbird feeder, http://www2.ca.uky.edu photo

Plant flowers and vines that will attract hummingbirds, too. Red, pink and orange tubular shaped flowers are their favorite. Cardinal vine, trumpet creeper and petunia are natural attractors. I have had at hanging baskets of verbenia visited daily last summer. Hibiscus and nicotiana are other reliable flowers to bring hummingbirds info the yard.

-Carol Quish

 

Starting on October 8th, 24 adult students will begin their training to become UConn Master Composters at the New Haven Cooperative Extension Center in North Haven. So just what is a Master Composter you ask and why do we need them anyway?

From 2010 data (I could not get newer federal data because of the shutdown), it was estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that about 33 million tons of food waste was generated in the U.S which averages out to about 400 pounds/year/person. Meanwhile in Connecticut, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) figures that the average CT resident generates approximately 5 lbs of trash a day (1500 lbs/yr) with at least a quarter of it being compostable.

So by promoting composting, Master Composters are encouraging folks to reduce the amount of waste that goes into incinerators and landfills while at the same time promoting the use of these waste materials to create a usable, soil enrichment product, namely compost.

Pick up leaves along with grass clippings in fall to add to pile.

Pick up leaves along with grass clippings in fall to add to pile.

The program, as it now stands, consists of 4 evenings of lectures, Worm Day, and two field trips. We are fortunate to have some truly outstanding lecturers from academia and private industry as well as ardent, enthusiastic volunteers. This year our evening lecturers include Dr. George Elliott from the UConn Plant Science & Landscape Architecture Dept., Dr. Robert Rafka formerly from Pfizer, a URI Master Composter and now a school teacher, Dr. Geoffrey Kuter from Agresource in Amesbury, MA, Master Composters Gregory Moonie, Tracy Burrell and Stephanie Turner.

Tracy Burrell guides Master Composters with presentation tips.

Tracy Burrell guides Master Composters with presentation tips.

We held our first ‘Worm Day’ last year bringing together both the beneficial and destructive power of earthworms. Dr. Josef Gorres from the University of Vermont will again give a fascinating presentation on ‘Earthworms from Heaven and Hell’. Carol Quish from the UConn Home & Garden Education Center will walk us through how to create, maintain and harvest a worm bin and then anyone who preregistered and brings their own materials (we give them a list) can make their very own worm bin Both Master Composters and the program will supply the worms.

Master Composter, Charlie Tefft helps participants create a worm bin.

Master Composter, Charlie Tefft helps participants create a worm bin.

Dr. Josef Gorres from UVM during his Worms from Heaven and Hell lecture

Dr. Josef Gorres from UVM during his Worms from Heaven and Hell lecture

A favorite part of this program is the one or two field trips that we go on. At the end of this month, the Master Composters will journey to New Canaan to visit Freund’s Farm, a working dairy with an anaerobic digester that supplies energy for part of the farm, a garden center, bakery and catering business, and producer of cow pots. Matt Freund gives us a great tour and much insight on entrepreneural dairy farming and his wife, Theresa provides us with a home grown, absolutely scrumptious lunch. Our second stop of the day is just down the road to Laurelbrook Farm owned by the Jacquiers. Bobby Jacquier or one of his sons gives us a tour of their state of the art manure composting facility. Their windrow turner in action is quite the sighte and on a cold day the turned piles steam from microbial activity. Exquisite fungal mycelium can often be seen when examining the windrows of compost.

Matt Freund (facing camera) gives Master Composters a tour of his dairy farm and cow pot operation

Matt Freund (facing camera) gives Master Composters a tour of his dairy farm and cow pot operation

A late fall, this year December, field trip brings the Master Composters to the Manchester Leaf Recycling Facility and under the tutelage of Ken Longo. Ken spends some time discussing how the leaf facility operates and then we get a tour of his composting operation and equipment.

Machine to pick up leaves in Manchester

Machine to pick up leaves in Manchester

Running this program (with the help of Greg Moonie) is one of my favorite activities. Everyone involved in the UConn Master Composter program is a dedicated professional. We all enjoy sharing our knowledge and want to inspire the students to learn as much about composting as they can so they can go out and spread the word. I am most grateful to these exceptional individuals (both the instructors and the students) for their ardor, enthusiasm and ability to inspire others to make composting a routine (but definitely not boring) part of their lives.

Compost rules!

dawn p