I made a trip out to UDC’s Muirkirk Farm in Beltsville, Maryland last June for a tour led by Sabine O’Hara, Dean of UDC’s College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability, and Environmental Sciences, or CAUSES. Part of this tour included a large cleared area for leaf composting. Dean O’Hara mentioned that she hopes in the future to have a facility that can handle DC leaves and provide quality compost to DC residents. Leslie Malone, head of communications and marketing for CAUSES, yesterday provided some great information on the District’s composting program. Here’s more, on the benefits of composting. -Marlene Berlin
by Leslie Malone
The DC Department of Public Works collects about 8,000 tons of yard waste per year that is recycled into compost in the fall and distributed in the spring as compost at the Fort Totten station. The compost is free to general public and is also available to community groups for neighborhood beautification, according to DPW Director William Howland. (Watch his June interview with Dean O’Hara on CAUSES TV.)
Composting is a method of carbon capture, and good compost can help increase the nutrient content of your home-grown vegetables. Soluble liquid fertilizer does not deliver the same benefits of a slow release and organic soil compost. You also lose important minerals like copper and boron with a liquid fertilizer. Chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorous are running into the water system instead of in the soil where it belongs. Compost helps prevent this.
“If you’re using and making compost correctly, you can create a healthier population of people through the growing of food,” explains Che Axum, director of the CAUSES Center for Urban Agriculture. The leaves fall, and then we take the leaves and put it into the soil – this is the cycle of life. This is extremely important for urban centers. It heals the planet.”
UDC has cleared 10 acres at Muirkirk farm to handle municipal composting in the hopes that one day all of the District’s leaves, yard waste and food waste will be sent to UDC’s Muirkirk facility, to create a high-quality compost that will benefit the District.
Composting is a naturally occurring method of decomposing yard and food waste, and other organic materials. The composted mixture breaks down, generating heat and is eventually transformed into a valuable soil conditioner known as humus. But composting is more than just environmentally friendly recycling, compost is actually healthy for your garden. Composting is not new; the process was happening in forests long before any of us were on this planet.
Compost also promotes soil structure. A quality compost is full of pores that not only hold nutrients, but help retain air and moisture; and more water being stored in your soil, mean less plant watering and fertilizer you need to use. Finally, compost benefits insects and worms that support healthy plant growth, yet also suppresses weeds and killing bad organisms.
In comparison to liquid fertilizers, a high-quality compost can be crafted to promote plant nutrition. Liquid fertilizers often lack many of the macro and micronutrients found in compost. And whereas store-bought fertilizer often results in chemical runoff harmful to our watersheds, a carefully crafted compost slowly releases essential nutrients like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen—over weeks, months and even years.
It is important to note that not all compost is made equally, and that there is such a thing as bad compost. So before you take advantage of free municipal compost or purchase a giant bag from a big-box retail store, make sure it’s of quality. How can you tell the difference? Good compost should be brown and crumbly. All materials should be broken down, so there should not be any discernible wood chunks or food pieces. And compost should smell earthy.
Interested in starting your own compost pile? The following items are recommended to produce the best results:
- Grass clippings
- Coffee and tea grounds
- Fruit and fruit peels
- Vegetable scraps
- Peanut shells
Avoid these items in your compost pile:
- Cooked food waste
- Dairy products
- Fish and meat scraps
- Cat litter
- Peanut butter
Composting is actually a very easy process to do at home. You can turn the piles for quicker results, or you can use the “cold composting” method which takes longer, but still produces a valuable product. Our friends at University of Illinois Extension provide more tips to get you started.