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Workshops Reveal the Secrets of Good Compost

  • Cat Buxton sits on top of a hugelkultur mound at the Cannilis Community Garden in Lebanon, N.H., on Aug. 11, 2017. Buxton is leading series of composting workshops in the area. A hugelkultur mound is a way of composting wood debris and yard waste. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2017

When Sharon resident Cat Buxton was growing up in Connecticut in the 1970s and ’80s, her family didn’t give much thought to where their food came from.

But she does remember where it would go: “We would go to ‘the dump’, drive up a hill and throw our trash over a bank into HUGE pit,” she wrote in an email exchange this week. “By the time I was in my 20s, that pit was a mountain and was closed. Everything got carted … somewhere.”

Buxton’s experience was part of a deeply ingrained habit in American culture, one that we have only recently begun to question: We eat what we want, throw out the rest and when the trash bag fills, we get rid of it. Out of sight, out of mind.

Now, as a gardener, composter and educator, Buxton is on a mission to introduce people to a different way of dealing with leftovers: giving them back to the earth without using a single trash bag.

A lifelong nature enthusiast, Buxton believes mitigating climate change begins, literally, from the ground up — more on that later — and she wants to empower people to start doing this small-scale but high-stakes work themselves.

This is why she’s been leading a series of composting workshops this summer geared toward those with little to no experience with the practice.

Tonight, she’s offering a free workshop from 7 to 8:30 at the Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock. Next up is an Aug. 24 workshop at the White River Junction Community Gardens, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. This latter workshop costs $5 for Upper Valley Food Co-op members and $10 for non-members.

Over the past 10-plus years, Buxton, who has previously served as the education coordinator at Cedar Circle Farm in Thetford and recently earned her master composter certificate from the University of Vermont extension school, has had plenty of opportunity to fine-tune her composting technique.

But she realizes that for many, if not most people, the practice is far from second nature.

“My family were not farmers or gardeners, or really healthy eaters. We threw our food scraps — and everything else — into the trash and brought it to the landfill,” Buxton said.

In keeping with the workshops’ emphasis on making composting more accessible, Buxton advises people to use natural, free-to-cheap materials, since she views consumerism as one of the reasons why composting is so necessary.

Using expensive, store-bought compost ingredients, such as fertilizer, doesn’t make sense to her. “Look around,” she said during an interview at Thetford Elementary School, where she has implemented a school-wide composting program she calls a “food loop,” as part of her duties as the school garden manager. “The field and the earth thrive without bags of store-bought nutrients, and always has.”

Her workshop tonight will focus on basic, easy-to-follow compost “recipes,” such as the 3-to-1 rule, which calls for three parts carbon-rich materials (think dry old leaves and wood chips) for every one part food scraps, or nitrogen-rich materials. But there are multiple recipes and methods to suit different uses, which she will explore in her workshop on Aug. 24.

“It’s composting for the masses,” she joked.

To this end, she encourages people “to try not to get too tripped up on the specifics” when looking for materials with which to begin or maintain a compost heap. While a few different kinds of carbon-rich materials is ideal, “if you only have three buckets of hay available, by all means, use three buckets of hay. It’s way better than not enough carbon.”

Too little carbon is one of the most common compost ailments, Buxton said. Without it, the nitrogen-heavy heap will develop anaerobic pockets, which cause the most important microscopic organisms — such as bacteria, fungi or nematodes that use air — to retreat, go dormant or die. This is because organic matter, which is carbon-based, serves as food for these tiny but mighty life forms.

For Buxton, this microbial world is at least as fascinating as our own.

“Soil microbiology is my latest obsession,” she said. “Exciting, I know.”

But Buxton is, in fact, visibly excited when talking about these infinitesimal processes. She thinks of composting as a way to “bring life back into the soil,” which has the potential to curb some of the effects of climate change.

When asked to expand on this topic, Buxton rattled off several mouthfuls of multi-syllabic terms that quickly left the realm of a layperson’s understanding. But the gist is this: Carbon, as in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, belongs in the soil, not the sky.

“What was once in the ground,” she said, “is now in the atmosphere. And we need to get it back.”

Composting and other practices can help with carbon sequestration, which is when carbon leaves the atmosphere and gets stored indefinitely in the soil, where it takes part in the all-important process of nutrient cycling.

But this can happen only when the soil is healthy enough to support aerobic microorganisms, which create airways in the soil through which carbon can enter. Thanks to such factors as overdevelopment and pesticides, this microbial smorgasbord is hard to come by in the United States.

For now, Buxton will continue to operate her food loops, and to loop in as many people as she can along the way.

Cat Buxton will hold a free workshop, “Turning Trash to Treasure: Backyard Composting​” at the Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock, tonight from 7 to 8:30.

Her Aug. 24 workshop, “This Rots! Demystifying Compost” will run from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the White River Junction Community Garden. Admission costs $5 for Upper Valley Food Co-op members and $10 for non-members. To register, find the event listing on the Upper Valley Food Co-op’s online events calendar.

To learn more about sustainable garden practices, visit Buxton’s website, www.growmorewasteless.com.

Cat Buxton’s Compost Recipe “For the Masses”

Ingredients

1 part food scraps (nitrogen, or “green,” material)

3 parts carbon, or “brown,” material. Examples include: horse manure, brown paper towels, wood shavings, sawdust, dead dry leaves, dry grass clippings, straw or hay.

3 large containers with sealed covers, such as garbage bins

Steps

1. Select composting spot, ideally somewhere dry and easily accessible in winter. Set up bins: one for your active batch, one for your “curing” batch and one for storing dry carbon materials.

2. Add about 12 inches of dry, brown carbon material to the bottom of the bin, from edge to edge.

3. Add several inches of brown material around the perimeter of the bin, leaving a hole in the middle.

4. Add food scraps to the hole until level with the carbon materials, keeping the 3-to-1 ratio in mind.

5. Add 4 to 6 inches of carbon material on top, edge to edge.

6. To make a deposit, dig a new hole by pulling the brown material in the center of the pile off to the sides, along with the partially decomposed material under the carbon layer. Add food scraps to the new hole, and mix it with the brown material on the sides of the bin, fluffing the mixture as you go. Finish with a layer of brown materials that leaves no food scraps visible. Cover.

7. Repeat until bin is full, then cap off with a final 4 to 6 inches of brown materials. To “cure” your compost, cover the bin and let it sit for 3 months, or until the contents have stopped shrinking, at which point the compost is ready to use.

Tips

1. If you notice your compost has developed an unpleasant odor, it is probably too nitrogen-heavy, and has developed anaerobic pockets. Try turning or fluffing the mixture to give it more air, and adding carbon.

2. To test the moisture content of your compost, squeeze a small handful in your fist, hard. If it yields no moisture, the compost is too dry and needs water or more green materials. If water drips out of your fist, the compost is too wet, and needs more carbon materials. If the mixture produces small beads of water, it’s just right.

3. The best compost is at the very bottom of the bin.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

Correction

Gardener and educator Cat Buxton will lead a composting workshop at the White River Junction Community Gardens on Thursday, Aug. 24 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. The date of the workshop was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.