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Editorial of April 11, 2024

Dancing in the Dirt

We are almost there. Winter is almost over and spring is truly arriving. The highly anticipated solar eclipse has set us on the right course. What we saw here was only a tiny bit partial and ever so slightly cloudy, but we didn’t have to struggle up to the Adirondacks to see this glorious phenomenon. And so, with spring arriving and summer on our doorstep, it’s time to think about getting outside, maybe even in a garden, at least under some trees, or even out on the lake.

And while we are in those gardens, it would be a good time to think about composting, the production of good fertilizer for such gardens, parks, and landscapes. This long-used process, which dates back to the early Roman Empire, as mentioned in Cato the Elder’s “De Agri Cultura” of 160 BCE, began as a means to conserve organic materials by piling them atop each other until the next planting season, and has been used by farmers and gardeners across the world since. Composting, an aerobic method of decomposing organic waste, is a way to recycle organic material using carbon-rich brown materials (twigs, leaves, paper, wood chips, etc.); nitrogen-rich green materials (fruits, vegetables, grass, spent flowers); oxygen, and water.

Simply put, establish an outside space for a compost pile, or container (a bin or a construction of wire, wood or cinder block), either in the shade or under the sun, that is accessible all year and has good drainage. Enclosed barrels work as well. Then add chopped browns from your yard and chopped greens from your kitchen in a ratio of around three to one. Layer the pile like lasagna, with the browns on top, and add some water if it’s not already soaking wet. Having the right proportions of ingredients will provide the composting microorganisms the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and moisture they need to break down the waste in the compost. Keep the pile wet and turn it over periodically to speed up the decomposition process and aerate the pile, the temperature of which will rise, even to 160 degrees F, especially in the center.

When the temperature is no longer high, and there are no visible food scraps, the pile is cooked and should be allowed to cure, and shrink, for up to four weeks. A well-maintained compost pile can be ready for a garden in three to five months; if untended it might take a year.

A successful composting program has very positive results: the structure and health of the soil is improved with organic matter; the soil retains more moisture and more nutrients; the soil attracts beneficial organisms, reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizers; soil erosion is decreased; carbon is sequestered in the soil; the soil is more resistant to climate change.

Although in Otsego County composting is a large and essential part of our organic-farming establishments, myriad initial efforts to create composting programs for all residents have come to naught. It is not easy to recycle this waste for people who live in apartments, in our towns and in our great City of Oneonta. The Southern Transfer Station in Oneonta will take food waste, for a small price; the Cooperstown Farmers’ Market will take it, for no price; the Clark Foundation recycles the waste from all their organizations.

This is a start. Let’s ramp it up.


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