Composting is Cosmic and Saves Green$Backs

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Tompkins Weekly 9-24-2012

By John Edmiston Milich

The Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCETC) often initiates campaigns that benefit our community. CCETC kicked off a Buy Local campaign in 2006 that quickly went viral. The local theme became a meme and spread from banners at GreenStar Co-op and Wegmans to bumper stickers and marketing efforts across Tompkins County.

CCETC recently launched another major campaign to “GET YOUR GREEN$BACK TOMPKINS” (GYGB), prescribing “steps” that we can take to save money and energy in four major areas:  Local food, transportation, waste reduction, and heating & electricity. Home composting – a form of waste reduction – is my new forte, and that’s where I’m “getting back” my bucks.

Serendipitously, I graduated from CCETC’s 10-week Master Composter program in May 2011,  just a few months before GREEN$BACK was launched. The skills I’ve learned are not difficult to apply and quite rewarding to implement. I now turn “yard waste” into premier topsoil for our garden and houseplants, saving more than $100 per year in the bargain.

John harvesting black gold Photo by J. MilichI’ll break down that figure later, once I’ve described my learning journey and the basics of home composting.

First, an admission:  My wife Iris did all the composting in our household for the first thirty-two years of our togetherness. Five years ago, seeking to finally help in the garden, I volunteered to “handle the compost.”

We already had a black plastic “Darth Vader” compost bin and a wood-pallet leaf-bin, constructed by Iris in the last century. I filled these bins rather haphazardly with leaves and all manner of food scraps, yielding minimal results. The compost piles didn’t much reduce, and I soon ran out of space in the bins.

I purchased a welded wire cylinder bin during January 2007, when I first met Adam Michaelides, CCETC’s Program Manager of Compost Education. Adam advised me to “lasagna layer” our “browns” (dry leaves) and “greens” (food scraps) in layers throughout the compost pile. He also wanted my excess leaves (!) for distribution to other composters in Tompkins County, placing a value on the “waste” I packed into about 35 large plastic bags each autumn for curbside pick up by the City of Ithaca.

Thus I started lasagna layering, but did nothing else. The layering – dry leaves on top – yielded more topsoil than I was getting before. My lack of composting knowledge, however, prevented me from harvesting the bounty of “black gold” that one could expect from such large piles. Black gold is the coveted harvest of homegrown topsoil, transformed from stuff otherwise destined for the landfill.

It took nearly four years to fill the wire-mesh bin. I was jolted then with the pressing need to do something educational to deal with our bulging compost piles. I applied and was accepted for CCETC’s 10-week Master Composter (MC) program starting in February 2011.

MC training teaches basic and advanced composting methods, “the facts of life in the compost pile.” I learned how to feed and nurture the “compost cosmos,” a term I coined for the functioning universe of microbial creatures like bacteria and protozoa, and seeable fungi, mites, millipedes, centipedes, sow bugs, earthworms, ground beetles and countless other species that perform the decomposing “work.”

The most effective composting is WONC, shorthand for Water, Oxygen, Nitrogen (food scraps) and Carbon (dry leaves) in the compost pile. The balanced combination of these elements, when tested by hand, should feel damp, like a freshly wrung out sponge.

I enjoy watering and managing our reduced compost piles. I feel a sense of purpose in carefully layering the crinkly dry leaves over food scraps, providing the multitudinous universe of compost critters with oxygen for faster decomposition. Last September, I harvested more than a dozen bushels of black gold for our garden and houseplants.

We reap the nutritional benefits of this organic topsoil every day at the dinner table. The houseplants, likewise, respond with quickened growth, renewed color and (sometimes) flowering after they are each fed a handful or two of our precious soil.

I no longer place any leaves at curbside. They are too valuable for wasting.GREEN$BACK TOMPKINS Photo by John Edmiston Milich

The City now prohibits non-biodegradable plastic bags for yard waste pickup, and it’s also no longer free. Leaves must be placed in large, durable paper bags. The required yard waste tags cost $1.50 each. Bags are sold in bundles of five for $1.87 (plus tax) at Lowe’s; however, each bag only holds about three-quarters of the leaves that can be stuffed into a large plastic leaf bag.

Dollar wise, the 53 paper bags I’d need for curbside pickup today costs $21.41 (plus gas). The tags alone would run $79.50. That’s $100.91 in GREEN$BACK annual cash savings, at minimum. The total value of home composting runs much higher. That’s my “step” for GYGB. What’s yours?

For more information about how to get your GREEN$BACK by composting your leaves and more, visit the Compost Program  online at or call the “Rotline” (compost hotline) at 607-272-2292. The next Master Composter training program starts in February 2013. Applications are due by January 28.

John Edmiston Milich is a master composter in Tompkins County. The first annual Leaf Swap is Saturday October 20th from 9am-12pm at the Cooperative Extension Education Center.

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