David Korbonits carefully scrapes food waste from a large plastic container into a dark bin. Almost instantly, dozens of red wigglers come to life, crawling over the scraps in a tangle.
“They love melon rinds,” Korbonits, Meadow Area Horticulturist at Mt. Cuba Center, says with a smile. These worms are the unofficial pets at Mt. Cuba Center. They live in sturdy containers bedded with shredded paper and dried leaves and they feast on the lunch leftovers of Mt. Cuba Center staff members.
The adage about one person’s trash being another person’s treasure comes to life through composting, the natural conversion of organic material into nutrient-rich soil. It is estimated that every individual in the United States creates an average of four pounds of waste every day; much of that waste can be recycled or composted. In an effort to garden more ecologically and to recycle waste, both from the gardens and the kitchen, Mt. Cuba Center implemented a multi-pronged composting program in 2013. Today, staff collect raw material from all over the gardens, grounds, greenhouse, and kitchen and turn it into usable compost.
“Compost is more than just broken down organic material,” explains Peter Schmidt of Compostwerks, an ecological land care company in upstate New York. “It is filled with a concentration of beneficial microorganisms that slowly release nutrients to keep soil and plants healthy year-round.” Compost naturally provides essential nutrients to the soil like nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. “Through the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, humans have compromised the soil biology that has taken a very long time to develop, making it easier for pathogens, or bad bacteria, to thrive. Compost can put an end to the pesticide cycle.” Schmidt says.
Composting, like cooking, requires a good recipe, the right ingredients, and patience. Out in the gardens and grounds, Mt. Cuba Center staff members gather organic waste such as weeds, dried leaves, and pruned limbs, and combine them in an equal mixture of “greens” (nitrogenrich stems and grass clippings) and “browns” (wood chips and dried leaves).
Staff members add water, keeping the mixture as moist as a wrung out sponge, and turn the pile with long pitchforks to add oxygen. The pile must be turned several times to ensure a thorough cooking. A long thermometer and a good nose help with this process. They turn the pile when the center temperature rises above 160 degrees. The heat kills weed seeds and pathogens. After a few turns, with the help of bacteria, fungi, and other micro-organisms present in the pile that do most of the cooking, the main dish is ready in a few months.
“When compost is ready to use, it has a good, earthy smell and looks like dark chocolate,” explains Peter Schotzberger, Nurseryman and Chemical Coordinator at Mt. Cuba Center, who oversees compost applications. Schotzberger recommends a final testing of the compost by placing some in a ziplock bag overnight. If the bag does not expand from heat, then the compost is finished cooking and is ready to use.
Schotzberger distributes part of each fresh pile to the staff and converts the rest into compost tea. Mt. Cuba Center staff use the compost in garden beds, in seed starting mixes in the greenhouse, and spread it out on the lawns with a compost spreader. It can also be used to spruce up suffering trees by applying compost around the drip line, the ring on the ground that mirrors the tree’s canopy.
Not quite as literal as it sounds, but close—at Mt. Cuba Center, Shotzberger creates compost tea by steeping compost in aerated water. The good organisms multiply in the bubbling bath. The result is a liquid concentrate of good bacteria and fungi that he applies through a hose, allowing compost to coat surfaces like the leaves of plants, which would not be possible in its solid form. The grass lawns have benefited most from Schotzberger’s monthly compost tea applications. In only two years of treatment, damaged lawns have progressed from patchy grass to lush carpets of green, with no need for chemical fertilizers.
Back in the kitchen, the red wigglers are busy turning food scraps into nutrient–rich vermicompost, or worm compost. Korbonits empties the containers and gathers a fresh batch of compost. He adds a portion to the compost tea and sprinkles the rest on garden beds and in the soil under new plantings for an extra boost of nutrients. Anyone can compost. Whether it be with large piles or worms, a little effort can go a long way in reducing your waste and adding essential nutrients to your soil that will keep your plants healthy year-round.