Take leaves, scraps and create black gold

Placer Nature Center workshop to teach composting basics
By: Gloria Young Home & Garden
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Considering composting? Master composter Richard Huntley says autumn — with all the falling leaves — is an ideal time to get started. Huntley, who manages the composting program at the Placer Nature Center, is teaching a workshop Saturday that will cover the pros and cons of tumblers, open and closed bin systems. It was something he didn’t know much about until he became a volunteer at the center two years ago. “I lived overseas for quite a while,” he said. “When I came back, I had retired and just wanted something to do so I went to the Placer Nature Center for docent training.” The composting area drew his attention right away as a spot that hadn’t been getting a lot of attention and could use his help. He learned the basics at a Placer County Master Gardeners’ composting workshop. That led to his enrollment in the Placer County master gardener and master composter programs. Now he’s fully immersed in teaching others how to turn leaves and kitchen scraps into “garden gold.” His tips start with building a compost bin. It can be as simple as a chicken wire enclosure. A 10-foot piece will make a three-foot circle and a 12-foot piece will make a four-foot circle, he said. Or you can nail together four wooden pallets. That’s what Huntley used to build bins at Rock Creek Elementary School, the Placer Nature Center and at home. Situating them in the yard is easy, too. “Any level ground will do — sun and shade don’t matter,” he said. “Winter or middle of summer doesn’t matter.” Adding the ingredients The recipe calls for four things: Browns, greens, moisture and air. “The browns are fallen leaves, pine needles, most (types of) sawdust — anything that’s dry and full of carbon is considered a brown,” he explained. “Greens are anything moist and that’s called nitrogen — fruit and vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds, any garden clippings, cut-up tomato plants. They can be chopped up and put into the compost.” Items you should never put into the compost pile are dairy products, grease, fat, diseased or invasive plants or meat. “Those attract flies and rodents,” he said. If you build your compost pile using all natural, organic ingredients, it will never smell, he said. At the nature center, Huntley gets a garbage can full of kitchen scraps from the California Conservation Corps a few times a week. “I chop it up with a shovel into smaller pieces, put that into the bin, and then I’ll put a layer of leaves over the top of it and then I will water it so it is damp,” he said. “You want it damp like a damp sponge. Then in a month or so, I’ll turn it over into another bin to add air to it.” Aeration is a very important part of the process. An easy way to accomplish that is to move the chicken wire bin or pallet bin a few feet over and then put the compost mixture back in, upside down. “You’re turning it over,” he said. “I usually do it about every two or three weeks or maybe once a month.” Open bins are more effective than closed bins because they have the most aeration. But for areas that have critters, Huntley suggests closed bins that have aeration holes. There are also hand-crank tumblers. There are different methods for managing the compost pile. “You can put your materials into one pile and that’s one batch,” he said. “Or you can do it lasagna style, layering it with kitchen scraps and browns. But don’t dump and run.” With help from Huntley and other volunteers, Rock Creek School has an active composting program. During the past few weeks, he has given a composting class for the students and hopes to get them actively involved in the process after Thanksgiving. “We’ve had a very good response from the kids,” he said. He visited Chana High School, too, where he taught students about vermicomposting — composting with worms. “I was amazed how enthusiastic the students were,” he said. For the general public, he has a monthly vermiculture and vermicomposting class at the Roseville Utility Exploration Center. “It makes a better compost because everything that you put in there goes through that worm,” he said. “Instead of regular compost, which when you put it in the garden and on the lawn, it’s only replacing about 20 percent of nutrients; the worm castings, when you put that on the lawn, are replacing 80 percent of the nutrients.” Getting started with vermicomposting is easy. “Basically, you start out with a 10- to 18-gallon Rubbermaid tub,” he said. “You drill holes in it for air. And start out with strips of newspaper. Dampen it down, add worms and food, and every so often you feed them more food. You can put anything organic in there.” At home, Huntley keeps his vermicomposting bin on the north side of the house where it is protected from direct sun. During hot weather, he suggests putting a piece of damp burlap over the top. As the water evaporates, it creates a cooling effect. “(The worms) like it between 40 and 80 degrees,” he said. For Huntley, composting has become a passion. “Everybody should compost,” he said. “This is what my soapbox is. If you watch the pharmaceutical ads on TV, they’ll always tell you the side effects of those (medications). When I first came back from Europe, I’d rake those leaves and take them to the dump and I’d get chemical fertilizers and put them on my lawn. Then I realized those fertilizers have side effects, just like those pharmaceuticals. “If you are making your own compost, you know what that compost is made of and you know what’s going to be in there. … If you compost in your own yard ... it’s free, environmentally safe and good family fun.” Huntley retired from AT&T and had a second career as a minister. He’s traveled the world in the ministry and most recently served in Turkey as a chaplain with the U.S. Air Force. Under his guidance the compost education program at the Placer Nature Center has flourished, Executive Director Megan Kerkorian said Tuesday. “The program has taken off because we now have one of the best and most active composting education displays in the region,” she said Be prepared to get your hands dirty at Saturday’s workshop. “It is hands-on,”Kerkorian said. “We recommend that people come dressed to compost and take notes and be ready to learn.” Reach?Gloria Young at ------------ Composting workshop When: 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Nov. 19 Where: Placer Nature Center, 3700 Christian Valley Road, North Auburn Cost: Free to members and $7 general admission. For more information: Call (530) 878-6053