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It’s the ultimate in recycling: compost

The Union StaffMaster Gardener Charlotte Bolinger turns the handle of the drum composter.
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Years ago, a wonderful Sacramento organic gardener named Bonnie Coleman was gently introducing a very, very green garden writer to the world of horticulture and touched on the subject of compost. “If things were allowed to happen naturally,” she said with a smile, “you and I would someday be compost.”

That’s what composting is all about. When things die, they return to the earth. It’s recycling, pure and simple. (I’m not sure what the nutritional value of my mortal remains would be if I were allowed to compost, but hopefully it would at least equal the 2 percent nitrogen of horse manure.)

But if it’s so simple, how come the University of California Cooperative Extension has made it sound complicated by creating the title of “Master Composter”?



I asked the question of Ken Herr, who heads the UC Master Gardener (and Master Composter) program in Placer and Nevada counties. He was quick to explain that although Mother Nature will, indeed, complete the composting process on all living things without assistance, people should know there are ways to speed up the process.

And they can learn more at Nov. 9’s demonstration (see box for details).




Herr, who took over coordinating the UC Master Gardener (and composter) program for the two counties just a few months ago, admits that even he was puzzled at first about why it would take 16 hours of instruction for already knowledgeable master gardeners to learn the techniques of composting.

“I’d been composting for years without really knowing what I was doing,” he says, “and quite frankly, I was amazed at all the things I learned in that short time. Now I can make some pretty good compost in two or three weeks!”

That’s the reaction of those who attend the demonstrations when they learn how those “pesky” pine needles in their yards can be used to great benefit. In the most recent issue of The Curious Gardener, published by UC Cooperative Extension in Placer and Nevada counties, the process of composting is described by Master Gardener Liana Mackey.

“Compost is NOT a substitute for fertilizer,” Mackey writes, “but its use reduces the need for fertilizer by 15 to 20 percent. It’s an excellent soil conditioner and improves soil structure to retain nutrients and encourage micronutrients that break down organic matter and make existing nutrients available to plants.”

The Master Composter program, which began 20 years ago in California, arose out of necessity. We generate an enormous amount of “garbage” in this country, some of which is burned (polluting the air), and the rest goes to landfills that are rapidly reaching capacity.

So now all those who enroll for the UC Master Gardener program (with instruction from January through April) will also become UC Master Composters.

The Master Gardeners’ demonstration garden at Nevada Irrigation District’s headquarters in Grass Valley is a showcase for several different composting methods. That’s where Herr and I met with Master Gardeners Charlotte Bolinger and Rose Wikstad, who recently completed their composting training.

Charlotte, cranking a handle to demonstrate how a drum composter works, said, “I have one of these at home. One day when I wasn’t feeling well, I asked my husband to do me the favor of turning the compost with a pitchfork, and he turned around and bought me one of these! They do a good job, but to make them work best, it helps to have a chipper/shredder to make the particles small. The bigger stuff takes a lot longer to break down.”

Far less expensive, and in fact FREE to those who attend the demonstrations, is a 4-foot-tall substantial black polyvinyl model (provided by the Northern California Air Quality Management District) with large air holes ventilating its sides.

“I really enjoyed the composting program very much,” Bolinger said with a smile. “There were some Master Gardeners who rolled their eyes. ‘What is there to learn?’ when told the program would take 16 hours, but every hour was just packed with information.”

UC Master Gardener/Composter Wikstad also applauds the composting program: “I can’t believe how much fun it was. You can’t imagine how exciting it is to get my pile up to 130 degrees.”

Symbolically, the three-section compost pile where Wikstad is working has been created using recycled wooden loading pallets. She says the composting process was accelerated by running a power mower over the vegetative material to make it smaller.

Extending her hand over the compost she’s just turned, she smiles: “Here. Put your hand over here, and you’ll see what I mean.” And the warmth is indeed impressive.

In moderate amounts, shredded paper can also be used in compost, so I wasn’t too surprised to see toilet paper tubes in the mix. But I then learned from Bolinger that they have another use: “Because of their shape, they’re used to help capture air in the center of the pile and speed up the composting process. See what we’ve learned?”

Want to learn more?

The Nevada County UC Master Composters have scheduled a special demonstration of composting at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 9 at the Demonstration Garden at Nevada Irrigation District’s headquarters, 1036 W. Main St. in Grass Valley.

Everyone who attends will get a free compost bin from the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District, or people may pick up a bin at the district offices, 200 Litton Drive, Suite 320, Grass Valley (phone 274-9360). Since 1998, over 1,000 of the bins have been given to Nevada County residents.

For further details, contact the Placer-Nevada Cooperative Extension at 273-4563. That’s also the number to call for a free subscription to the quarterly Curious Gardener newsletter. On the Internet, use the site

Dick Tracy is an award-winning garden writer and photographer, Master Gardener and former president of the Foothills Horticulture Society. You can write him in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.


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