Fall Composting for Sustainability

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Tompkins Weekly 9-23-20

By Adam Michaelides

It won’t be long until it’s time to clean up the garden and prepare for the next growing season. In just a few weeks, our yards, sidewalks and streets will be littered with leaves. Before the snow flies, we have the opportunity to set ourselves up for the colder months ahead. This includes the home compost.

Though the garden has slowed down, your compost will stay active until winter sets in. One trick for keeping our decomposer friends in the compost happy is to feed them more. A larger, more substantial pile of fresh material will generate heat. Also, cutting things up into smaller pieces will provide more surface area for the decomposers, which will in turn keep the compost active.

A demonstration of compost sifting at the Advanced Composting Class series. Photo provided.

Freshly fallen leaves can help to retain heat. Use leaves to insulate around your compost bin. If your leaves are in bags, stack the bags around the bin — especially on the windward side. If your leaves are loose, you can pack them down along the sides of your compost or set up a holding fence around the bin and fill the space with leaves to create an insulating wall around your compost. Most importantly, use a thick blanket of leaves to cover the top of your compost pile.

Leaves provide a valuable source of carbon for the compost. Keep a pile of them nearby and cover it with a tarp to prevent the leaves from getting wet and freezing together. This way, you can use handfuls of leaves in your compost bin throughout the winter.

As for garden cleanup, avoid putting diseased vegetative matter or weeds that have gone to seed in your compost so that you don’t spread diseases or add more weeds to your garden. I keep a second, out-of-the-way compost pile for this kind of plant matter and use the compost from this bin to fill holes or raise low areas of the yard.

What does all of this have to do with sustainability? Composting is the ultimate sustainable action. The endless cycle of growth, death, decay and new growth is a natural process that we can embrace by composting.

We build richer, more productive soils by amending the garden year after year with compost. Reducing our waste decreases our contribution to fossil fuel emissions, methane production and particulate matter created through disposal. For example, bagging leaves for collection adds to our carbon footprint because resources are needed to make the bags, and fossil fuels are used to transport them away.

Due to COVID-19, many of us are spending more time at home. For some, being home makes it easier to cook. For those of us with veggie gardens, it is harvest season. You may have read that 40% of all food produced in the United States is never eaten. We can be part of the solution to this problem by composting food scraps at home.

If you rent or do not have access to a backyard, it is still possible to compost with a worm bin or to participate in the county’s popular Food Scraps Recycling program.

Composting is an activity for the whole household. From lending a hand with leaf raking, to properly separating kitchen scraps, to cleaning up the yard or garden, everyone can participate. I highly recommend harvesting compost with others because it is truly satisfying to see how yesterday’s banana peel turns into tomorrow’s garden soil.

Shovel the dark, crumbly material out and sift it, removing any contaminants that you find (rocks, twist ties, etc.). Return the slow-to-decompose items like avocado peels, peach pits and wood chips back to the compost for another cycle.

Take your sifted compost and add a layer to your garden bed. Then, cover the bed with a thick blanket of leaves or straw and let it rest for the winter. Come spring, remove the top layer of undecomposed leaves or straw and have at it. Finished compost can also be used for fall plantings or to “top dress” shrubs or trees on your property.

To learn more and to see composting techniques demonstrated, consider attending our three-class Advanced Composting series in October. Weather permitting, we’ll spend the first class (Oct. 8) outdoors in the demonstration area at CCE-Tompkins, 615 Willow Ave. The second (Oct. 15) and third (Oct. 22) classes will be held online and will cover the science of how composting works.

In the second class, we will set up compost maturity tests, and in the third class, we will see the results. Bring your own sample of compost and all of your composting questions.

To learn more about the Advanced Composting Class series, please visit ccetompkins.org/advancedseries or call the “Rotline” (compost hotline) at 607-272-2292 x 124.

Have a wonderful fall, and remember to stockpile those leaves — you will need them for composting the rest of the year!

Adam Michaelides manages the Compost Education Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, which is supported by the Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management.

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