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Talk highlights tips to create healthy compost without banana peel sludge and bugs

By Sharon Harrison
Local residents who work to keep the County’s ecology viable gathered at an environmental volunteer open house, as part of Earth Week, at the Wellington and District Community Centre.

A collaboration between the West Lake Community Association (WLCA) and the County’s operations department, WLCA co-chair Cathie Coultis shared a little about the organization formed in 2020. Stewardship efforts, she said, were initially devoted to help improve water quality at West Lake and its wetlands to help maintain the natural habitat of the wildlife who call the wetlands area home.

“Very soon after forming their small but mighty lake residents association, we discovered a wonderful opportunity and a need to be able to do so much more than the well-being of residents, human and wildlife in the small communities all along the shores of West Lake,” expressed Coultis. “We quickly discovered within these communities and throughout the County, many of the people who work and live here are just as environmentally and passionately concerned about the effects of climate change.”

Albert Paschkowiak, the County’s environmental services and sustainability supervisor said he was amazed by how much volunteerism there is in the County, and spoke to the time and efforts volunteers put in to make things happen to protect biodiversity and keep the ecology of the County intact.

“The County has made great strides in recent years to preserve and tackle biodiversity and ecological resources,” he said. “You guys are the workhorses, you get things done; you are the ones doing the work, thank you for all your efforts because, honestly, a lot of this wouldn’t get done if you didn’t do it.“

Among groups represented at the open house were the Prince Edward County Field Naturalists, the South Shore Joint Initiative, the Prince Edward County Horticultural Society (now the County Garden Club), Prince Edward County Trails, West Lake Community Association, PEC Monarch Preserve, and Tree the County.

Along with members of the County’s operations department, also represented were Quinte Conservation Authority, Sandbanks Provincial Park and Friends of Sandbanks, the Rotary Club of Picton, and the Wellington Community Association.

Lise Bois, co-chair the County Garden Club (formerly the PEC Horticultural Society), is also with Tree the County, the Prince Edward County Field Naturalists, and is a Butterfly Way ranger.

“We go around planting gardens and we volunteer to plant a number of gardens, and we have done two on the Millennium Trail, one in Delhi Park and one on the James Taylor Lookout, and these are usually pollinator plants to attract as many bees and butterflies as possible,” said Bois.

Two more pollinator gardens are slated for this year, at Prinyer’s Cove launch, and one at the new kiosk on the Millennium Trail at White Chapel Road, using native plants among them.

The free event Thursday not only showcased local environmentally-based community groups where volunteers were on hand to talk about the work they do and share information on upcoming projects, but featured a robust two-part Earth Week talk on the beauty of compost, presented by Lise Bois and Robin Reilly.

People who think compost is compost and that it’s all the same thing – had their eyes opened during a talk geared not only to those who  are new to the concept of composting, but to anyone interested in learning more and advancing their skill to create healthy life in soil and gardens.

Whether an average urban back-yard composter, or someone who composts on a larger scale, the presentation delivered insight on what composting is all about and how it is done, the reasons why everyone should do it, and the different types of composting techniques, and benefits.

Robin Reilly, retired Sandbanks Provincial Park superintendent, began by saying he has about 10 different compost heaps on his property, noting how they all do different things, and “they are all manipulated one way or another to a different end”.

“The main reason for people, especially if you are trying to grow food, and flowers to some extent, is you want to have richer soils, so compost is organic matter, the more organic matter in the soil, the more nutritious the soil is,” explained Reilly. “Usually, it holds water better; ironically, it also drains better at the same time if you have a heavy soil like a clay soil, so those are good reasons to do it.”

He explained the idea of a compost pile means making the nutrients that are generated through composing, and making those nutrients available to plants.

“What you are trying to do is to make it a nice place for bacteria to live and to get these nutrients that are in your banana peel into roots for your tomato plant,” explained Reilly. “Basically, what you are trying to do is pass them through the gut of the bacteria, so the actual thing that your plants are growing on and are being sustained by, are the excrement of bacteria.”

“So your banana peel miraculously decomposes and turns into a tomato; it’s that bacteria that eats the poops and that very well digested material is now at such a fine microbial level that the plants can absorb it,” he said. “So that’s a great thing, that’s obviously what you want to do, you want feed your bacteria for that purpose.”

He explained how for most people, compost heaps are more used for growing fruit trees and shrubs and to do that you need a much slower plan based on a multi-year cycle. “They are not high-speed annuals, they are low-speed perennials”.

These types of plantings, he said, do not want bacteria, but what they want is fungi, a fungi eco-system, and to do that, the compost heap needs to be a fungal one (as opposed to bacteria based), something he says he refers to as “calm-posting”.

“You want to put in a lot more ground matter, like grasses and stalks and stems that decompose really slowly, and you also don’t want to turn it over,” he said. “You don’t want to touch it for a year or even two years because the more air you get in, the more it favours bacteria against fungi.”

“Then you dump this fungi onto these fruit trees and that’s much more what they are looking for, all kinds of different excrements they are looking for and the fungal networks.”

In the second part of the presentation, Lise Bois talked about how to compost (which depends on what you are trying to achieve), and two different methods of composting.

She explained that one part greens (grass, plants, weeds, leaves, etc.), which are high in nitrogen, should be combined with three parts carbon (or browns), which can include twigs, paper rolls and newspaper, woodchips, where the browns purpose is to create air pockets and aeration which helps properly digest the bacteria.

“If you don’t put a portion of the browns, what’s going to happen is you are going to end up with sludge, and really nasty smelly one,” explained Bois. “You need to have that right mixture of stuff in order to have compost, otherwise what you have is something you are not going to be able to use.”

Another form of composting is vermicomposting, basically composing with worms, something she said people are getting into as it’s really easy as the worms do all the work, where she said it doesn’t smell if you do it properly.

“Worms (usually red wigglers) do the composting system for you and it’s a very effective composting system for small spaces,” outlined Bois. “With worm composting, it does produce a liquid which is worm tea (a compost tea) and it’s absolutely fantastic for the plants and you dilute that and the plants love it.”

She said the vermicomposter will be filled with digested worm poop (basically worm compost, also referred to as black gold) and because its takes them a little while to do that, not a lot of compost will be produced, but “what you’re going to get is going to be pretty fantastic”.

It helps to chop up the stuff very small as the worms will digest it quicker, where Bois explained how the worms eat through with the system and will keep going up as the vermicomposters can have one or several layers, even up to five.

“The worms keep moving up, it gets filled and you create a new feeding station and once they have exhausted the food in one area, they will move up to the next one where you are going to have some fresh food and bedding for them and they will be able to use that compost.”

She noted too how the worms reproduce and could be shared with a friend.

“You can add them to an outside composting bin and they will survive the summer, but not the winter as red wigglers are not winter-hardy worms.”

Reilly also addressed what cover crops are and how they work, and the difference between cover crops and catch crops, where basically growing a cover crop can enhance and increase the composting experience and is an alternative to regular composting.

“In our garden case, a third of it every year goes to growing things that we intend to turn back into the soil, something we do before they flower because if you wait for flower, they largely put all their energy into flowers and seeds and it is no longer put into their roots,” said Reilly.

He said the point of the compost is to try to get organic matter into the soil, but rather than just taking it from your dinner plate, you can produce a lot more by simply growing.

He described how buckwheat as an example grows 18-inches tall where its underground roots reach 10-feet deep, meaning there is a huge amount of organic matter being added just cutting the plant down and tilling it in.

Reilly explained how cover crops are things you are growing for two purposes, one to shade out the ground so it outcompetes weeds to get rid of a weed problem, and the other is to add organic matter into your garden.

“Buckwheat is a fantastic one, sorghum is another, they grow huge, sorghum grows 10-feet high, like a giant corn plant.“

He said common clover is another suggestion, as well as beans and peas, but stressed that you can’t grow the beans and peas to eat as well as growing it as a cover crop –it has to be one or the other- cover crops must be cut down when in full flower, and before they go to seed.

Different cover crops can be grown at different times, but most cover crops are sown in the fall and cut in early spring, others can be sown in very early spring (such as lava beans) where they can be cut before the regular growing season for vegetables begin in May or June where by then the ground will be rich with organic matter.

The idea of a catch crop is to grow something that will catch all the good nutrients in the soil and hold onto them so they can feed the plants through the growing season. Reilly explained how when it rains a lot, especially in the fall and spring, as well as with melting snow, a lot of the nutrients added to the soil bleed, or leach away, especially in sandy soil.

“They bleed through the soil, go down deep and guess what, they are not longer there in the spring, it’s gone.”

The three main catch crops are oats, winter wheat or rye, where he recommends oats as being the easiest requiring the least amount of work, as well as being the cheapest option.

“If you grow those kinds of things, the root systems bind up all those nutrients and hold it there until the spring, and come spring, wipe them out and when you wipe them out, all their roots start to decay, all their stalks decay, all of those nutrients are again released into your garden.“

Reilly indicated how people often think of compost as compost – that it’s all the same thing and it isn’t. He said what first has to be decided is the community you are trying to feed, a bacterial-based one or fungal-based one.

“That’s probably the biggest little piece of thought to convey to you today, and perhaps some of you wouldn’t have thought of, and that’s an important nuanced difference as you approach the strategy of your compost heap,” Reilly said.

Bois said composting is not a fast fix for anything.

“When you are using an organic composting system, it feeds the soil, your soil becomes healthy and your plants become healthy,” said Bois. “ If you are growing food for yourself, you want your food to have as much nutrition as possible; food that’s grown in a soil that has very little, it won’t be all that great for you, it’s not going to have all those nutrients that you need to have.“

“Get composting: feed your soil, grow better food, grow healthier trees, reduce your landfill waste, that’s really important,” added Bois.

Paschkowiak emphasized why composting is beneficial for all and why everyone should be doing it, noting it is the cheapest and most sustainable way to manage food waste.

“The cost to dispose of organic material in the County is very expensive, and it’s an expensive thing to do,” he said. “This is the best method to manage organic waste without generating greenhouses gases and transporting it all over the place without increasing the cost to dispose.”

More details of environmental-centred activities, events and current issues can be found on the sustainability hub on the County’s website, along with a downloadable composting leaflet.

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