One man’s kitchen scraps are another man’s gold. Especially if that man is John Deatcher. Now that gardening season has (almost) arrived here in the Hudson Valley, Deatcher is a good man to listen to. He can teach you how to turn your used coffee grounds, egg shells, orange rinds, and other organic material into compost — or black gold, as it’s known in the gardening world.
Deatcher, 71, of Woodstock, is a retired IBM field engineer. Engineers can’t just do something; they have to understand how that something works. While studying to become a certified Master Gardener (which he achieved in 2000), Deatcher took courses at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook. Part of the coursework included composting. He took a special interest in recycling organic waste and keeping it out of the landfill — but he also liked the fact that he could save money by making his own. “I’m Scottish,” he says with a still-evident burr, “and I tell people I am not cheap, just thrifty.”
After a few years of continuing education and applied theory in his own garden, he became expert enough to offer courses of his own, often through the Cornell Cooperative Extension. For those who missed his lectures this winter, Deatcher agreed to offer a pared-down version for these pages.
There are four components necessary for successful composting: carbon-based organic material, nitrogen-based organic material, water, and air. Mix those four things together in the proper ratio, and let nature do the rest. “It’s pretty simple,” Deatcher says. “If you follow the basic rules it’s not too hard.”
Carbon-based waste includes the woody stuff in your yard, such as twigs and leaves. It can also include newsprint, old phone books, and coffee filters. (But not coated, glossy paper, such as what you are holding now.)
Nitrogen-based waste is other plant material, such as grass clippings and dead-headed flowers, along with the stuff you’d normally send down the kitchen disposal: potato peels, carrot stalks, apple cores, and coffee grounds. It does not, however, include animal products such as chicken bones or hamburger grease, and no dog or cat poops. Although these elements would decompose, they also would draw critters looking for lunch.
For composting, the preferred ratio of these two waste groups is about 25 percent carbon-to-nitrogen. A different ratio will affect how long the process takes, Deatcher says. “You put it all in a pile, add moisture and air, and then you basically wait.”
Deatcher keeps a small, decorative container in his kitchen to collect usable scraps. When that’s full, he dumps it into a larger container on his deck. And when that’s full, he adds it to his composting bin.
You can buy composting bins at Home Depot, Lowe’s, or your neighborhood gardening center. They can run anywhere from $25 to hundreds of dollars. Or you can be “thrifty,” like Deatcher, and simply wrap chicken wire around four wooden stakes. The optimum size of your bin is 27 cubic feet — three feet wide by three feet deep by three feet high. “Any bigger or shallower doesn’t work as well,” he says.
He recommends employing a three-bin system, with each bin holding the compost at different stages of its decomposition. Fill up the first bin, give it three or four months to break down, and then move it to bin two. Refill bin one, wait another three or four months, move both of them up, and refill bin one. That way, you have a constant stream of properly decomposed composting material.
The only thing you need to do is keep the piles moist and aerated. During the dry months, water the piles every week or two, and fluff them up with a pitchfork to work more air in. “You can tell if it’s working if you feel heat coming from the piles,” Deatcher says. “That also keeps weeds from growing on the pile.”
In about a year, your garbage will be black gold. Now, what do you actually do with it?
For the answer to that question, we turn to another retired IBM engineer. Frank Almquist, 73, of Kingston, is also a Master Gardener. He often lectures with Deatcher, but focuses on the chemical components of soil. “As an engineer, I am curious about the technical aspects of fertilizers, how the whole plant comes together, because half the plant is below ground,” he says.
Almquist is a dedicated composter. “In the forest, organic matter naturally falls onto the soil and breaks down, but in the garden it doesn’t,” he says. “You have to add it yourself.” Every fall he digs a six-foot trench in his garden, fills it with garden debris, and pulls the soil over it. “My wife asks me if I am digging a grave,” he laughs. “It’s surprising how many leaves you can bury. Come spring, I plant right over that trench.”
He is quick to point out, however, that compost is not the same thing as fertilizer. “Compost is the organic material that holds the plant, captures moisture, and keeps the soil loose and aerated,” he says. Fertilizer, on the other hand, adds specific nutrients to the ground to nourish your plants. So along with maintaining a topcoat of compost throughout the year, he also applies some standard 10-10-10 fertilizer to his garden.
His system has proven successful in fighting a pesky garden problem. “Leaf rot is very common in the Hudson Valley. I’ll typically place two inches of compost into the ground, and till that into the soil. I had a lot of compost this year, so I put shovelfuls around each tomato plant, about six inches worth. I actually had very little leaf rot after that. It also kept the weeds out, and I got good quality tomatoes. I’m not sure if it was the compost, but I’m going to try it again this year with other plants.”
Want to learn more?
On April 25, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County hosts a Garden Day at Ulster County Community College, during which John Deatcher will discuss composting. While you’re at the college, check out the demonstration garden, which features Deatcher’s three-bin composting system.
For more information, visit http://counties.cce.cornell.edu/ulster, or call Cornell Cooperative Extension at 845-340-3990.