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

I was invited to an interesting meeting this week where people’s perceptions
about composting were examined and various barriers to, as well as reasons for
composting, were discussed. Being an enthusiastic composter for years and more
recently, initiating the Master Composter Program at the University of
Connecticut, I am aware that composting is not for everyone. It might be
difficult to convince an apartment dweller, for instance, that composting would
make sense since they typically would not have an outdoor area to apply the
finished compost to.

While most people think of making compost so that they can apply it as an amendment
to their yards and gardens, a more universal reason is to reduce the amount of
solid waste that either goes into landfills or gets incinerated. Solid waste
disposal uses land that could be repurposed, requires payments by individuals and municipalities, and can add to air
pollution when incinerated. Many households can successfully compost about 25%
of their solid waste.

One concern was the cost of compost bins and tools, which can actually vary from
practically no cost to several hundred dollars, depending on the composter’s
desire. This custom built, 3-bin unit was made by two Master Composters at our
Fall Compost and Garden Fair in Norwich on September 24, 2011. The cost was
approximately $260.

3-bin composter built by UConn Master Composters in Norwich

UConn Master Composters also staffed a composting and worm composting exhibit and
held informational sessions on general composting and vermicomposting.  UConn Master Gardeners were at the Fair as well offering free soil pH tests, tours of the rain garden, horticultural advice and presentations, children’s activities, and hosting a perennial plant sale. But I digress! Fancy, expensive compost units are not necessary.

Another potential stumbling block was the perceived need to bring collected kitchen wastes
out to the compost pile on a daily, or at least regular, basis even during the
winter months. Not everyone shovels a path to their compost pile. Some people
freeze their wastes during times when they are not able to get to the compost
pile. Others start worm bins in their cellars. Since our chicken coop is near
the compost bin and we have to water and feed the chickens, I must admit, I had
not given this problem much thought.

The feeling that compost bins will attract unwanted, four-legged varmints was also
listed as a reason why some people would not want to compost. While I have
found occasional evidence of some critter nosing around the compost bin, for
the most part in more suburban and rural areas this is not a huge issue –
unless you count the bear that one of our clients called to complain about!
Generally, if the compost pile just contains plant materials (eggshells are
also acceptable), any new food wastes are placed inside the pile and covered
with leaves or shredded paper, the pile is turned regularly, and somehow
contained, it will not attract very much unwanted wildlife. This may be more
problematic in urban areas and a more secure bin system may be needed. Keeping
items like meats and fats and grease out of the compost pile also makes it less
likely to attract undesirable creatures.

A barrel composter may be a good solution if animal visitors are a problem.

Probably the reason for not composting that surprised me the most was that it takes too
long to make compost! I do realize we live in a society where the desire for
instant gratification is quite pervasive. But, whatever happened to the old adage
that the best things in life are worth waiting for? I am not quite sure what
would be the best way to convince folks that finished compost is such a
marvelous addition to gardens that the few months it takes for the organic
materials to decompose can be compensated by years of improved garden

This time of year is a marvelous time to start a compost pile if you have ever
thought about doing so. There is no dearth of carbonaceous ‘brown’ material, in
the form of leaves and if there are too many to use in the compost pile they
can be stockpiled in a separate holding unit, fenced in area, or even in leaf
bags. A few handfuls can be used to cover food waste additions throughout the
winter months when you can make it out to the pile. Check out our backyard
composting fact sheet for basic information to get you started. Or, feel free
to give us a call at the UConn Home & Garden Education Center for answers
to your composting questions.

Composting……Because a rind is a terrible thing to waste!  (Anonymous bumper sticker)


As the trees shed the last of their leaves in preparation for the coming winter, New England gardeners are collecting the last of their harvests or preparing plants like parsnips for in-ground harvest throughout the cold winter months. We have had several frosts and a tad of wet snow which is fine for the Brussels sprouts that I am harvesting this week for Thanksgiving dinner. Exposure to frosts sweetens them up a bit. Also picked this past weekend were a handful of leeks which were made into a potato leek soup flavored with caraway seeds and dill – served with an herb and onion bread. It is one of my favorite cold weather meals. There is still some chard, broccoli and another kohl rabi left and they will be dealt with shortly. With the relatively mild winter we experienced last year, several Swiss chard plants made it through the winter to provide early spring greens much to my delight so I will leave a few plants to see if my luck continues.

November 8th dusting of snow on Brussels sprouts

 November is often such a gloomy month that any burst of color is a welcome relief from the drab browns of dying vegetation. A definite attention getter is Winterberry (Ilex verticillata).  This native is commonly found in moist areas and can grow up to 15 feet tall. Bright red berries persist well into winter and are a sought after food source for dozens of species of birds. The native species tends to be rather loose in form but there are many cultivars and selections that are more compact and fruitful. There are also selections with yellow berries.

There are two things to keep in mind when planting winterberries in the landscape. First, like all hollies, they are dioecious which means that there are separate male and female plants and both are needed for the flowers to be pollinated and red berries to form. Usually one male plant is purchased for every half dozen or so females. If you have some winterberries growing nearby and producing berries, you must have a male pollinator in the vicinity so you may not need to purchase one. Secondly, although winterberries do tolerate and even produce some berries if grown in part shade, a much heavier crop will occur when plants are grown in full sun.

Winterberry brightens the November landscape

 Another favorite plant of mine this time of year is the witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) which is the last plant to bloom. Flowers consist of four, curious, yellow, strap-like petals and are produced after the leaves fall from the branches. Our native witch hazel is not as flashy as the cultivars but it gives the wooded areas in which is grows a soothing, golden haze making a very pretty scene when touched by the early morning sun. 

 Many folks do not know that Connecticut is the witch hazel capital of world, with East Hampton being the epicenter. A minister named Thomas Dickinson opened the first witch hazel distillery in Essex, CT back in the mid 1800’s. Family feuds ended up with the establishment of a second distillery in East Hampton and rival brands. In the 1970’s the East Hampton distillery was bought by a non-family member. It was automated in the 1980’s and this was the beginning of the end for the Essex facility which closed in 1997.

Presently, hundreds of tons of witch hazel stems are needed each year for witch hazel production and as of 2008, only about 8 families in Connecticut are responsible for most of the harvest. It is a perennial crop which takes just a few years to regrow after the stems are harvested.

Native Americans used witch hazel as a cure-all for a number of ills, many of which it is still used for today. Some of the cosmetic and pharmaceutical products which contain witch hazel include various shampoos and conditioners, bath gels and soaps, shaving creams, suntan lotions, aftershave lotions, deodorants, acne care products, psoriasis creams, hemorrhiodal products, mouthwashes, topical anti-bacterials as well as a number of veterinary products.

I am so excited about this year’s graduating class of UConn Master Composters! What’s a Master Composter you ask? Developed along a similar line to the UConn Master Gardener program, a UConn Master Composter attends 6 to 7 educational sessions on composting which typically include classroom learning, hands-on demonstrations and activities, and at least two field trips. In exchange for this training on the many aspects of composting, they are asked to participate in two University-sanctioned, educational, outreach activities within one year of their training program. My first class of Master Composters consisted of 10 individuals, 9 of whom completed their outreach requirements. Their total volunteer outreach hours reached over 200 hours towards community composting education. We had a very nice (and delicious) pot-luck graduation luncheon at the Middlesex County Extension Center in Haddam on November 7, 2010. The next Master Composter class will be starting up in March in Bethel. Plans for the class are being set up now and will be available on our website, shortly.

Lastly, I am thankful for many things this past year. I am thankful that we only had 8 weeks of drought and the rain came before my well went dry; I am thankful for the 3 little bunnies that decimated my beets and lettuce but were so tame I could get within 6 feet of them for photographs: I am thankful for no late blight on my tomatoes this year so I had plenty for homemade chili sauce, I am also thankful for the pollinators that gave me a bountiful harvest and the birds whose choruses delighted me while I battled weeds and insect pests. I will admit, however, not being thankful for those pesky chipmunks who dug up about a quarter of all my transplants last spring. Please tell me why a few zinnias can’t be left to grow in peace? !!!

Interesting Fish Bowl Bed at out Thanksgiving Dinner Host's house

 Wishing you all a happy and delicious Thanksgiving!