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SOLUTIONS 4/8: Preserving local environments through composting

By Huck Fairman

While warnings from the United Nations’ panel on climate change call for wide-ranging, indeed global, adoption of clean energy and environmental preservation, if we are to maintain the world as we’ve known it, there are also a number of local or individual steps people can take to save local environments.

Among those steps is composting, where organic cuttings and trimmings from our kitchens, yards, fields and woods are collected and piled together. When those collections decompose and are mixed together, and then are returned to the land, a number of benefits accrue.

Most broadly, composting reconditions the soil it is applied to. It does so by improving the composition of the soil by increasing its aeration, its moisture, and its fertility. It helps the latter by assisting root development and beneficial microbial activity. All of this assists plant growth.

But additionally, it reduces garbage collection and landfill volume. (And costs.) It also reduces the need, and costs, for fertilizers, manufactured mulch, and watering.

Composting that delivers nitrogen comes from: vegetable scraps, flowers, grass, and even coffee grounds. Composting that provides carbon comes from chopped twigs and branches, wood chips, sawdust, straw, and dry leaves.

Those seeking these benefits should spread the compost around plants. This maintains moisture and nutrients and it smothers weeds while also reducing soil erosion. Before planting, it is recommended to mix in 1-3 inches of compost with the existing soil. For those seeking to grow potted plants, compost may be mixed in the potting soil or sand. But the compost needs to be fully decomposed and screened.

Generally, the compost is ready for use when everything in the pile is brown and crumbly and is no longer identifiable.

One may manage the composting at different rates. For fast harvesting, maturing in 2-6 months, one should mix equal weights of greens and browns, cut into small pieces, moistened regularly, and turned once a week with a pitchfork.

For slower harvesting, layers of yard waste may be added over 18 to 36 months. It is necessary for the pile to receive regular rain. Kitchen waste may be added to the yard waste, and be aware that the material at the bottom and middle will compost first.

The composting will be most successful when waste ingredients provide both carbon and nitrogen, from the different families of sources. Water and aeration are also necessary, and periodic turning assists in providing those elements.

One may either create a composting pile or construct a bin. The more surface area allowed the compost, the quicker it will decompose.

Undesirable odors can result from too much moisture or dryness. Add more material or water to improve the balance.

Mercer County runs an educational garden, Mercer Educational Gardens at 431A Federal City Road in Pennington. It has a demonstration site adjacent to Mercer County Stables, and near Rosedale Park.

Rutgers runs a Master Gardeners Program at 1440 Parkside Avenue in Ewing.

For more information, call 609-989-6830 or the Help Line at





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