Corrections or additions?
This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the April 26,
2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Residential Real Estate: Composting Tips
All Princeton area homeowners have two things in common – terrible
soil and lots of kitchen waste. Combine the two, and the result can be
greener lawns, more gorgeous flowers, healthier trees, and fewer bags
of soggy garbage to haul to the curb.
Turn all of those melon rinds and tea bags into compost, urges Barbara
Bromley, director of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Mercer
County. "It’s one of only a few things a homeowner can do to help the
It’s a natural process, it’s easy to do, and it does wonders for the
typically hard, clay-based soil in our area, soil that makes for
anything but ideal growing conditions.
"Nature has been composting for years," Bromley points out. "You don’t
need to put fertilizer in the woods." Whether it’s a stand of trees
behind a suburban development or a 100-acre wood far from
civilization, woods are self-renewing. Branches, pine cones, and
leaves – and Bromley points out, little dead bunnies – fall to the
ground and decay, creating an ideal environment for seeds, which
propagate and grow like crazy – all without one whit of human
The same beneficial effects of compost can work wonders in suburban
lawns and gardens. To date, an obstacle to taking advantage of
composting has been an obsession with order. "We’ve become nutsy
neat," says Bromley. An example is the totally unnecessary collection
of grass clippings. "They should be left," she declares. Soon enough,
they will decompose, thereby enriching the soil and saving landfills
from dealing with still more organic materials.
Leaving grass clippings where they fall is more than easy, and many a
youngster charged with raking them up would rejoice to hear that the
chore is unnecessary.
Creating a compost heap is not much more difficult. Bromley herself,
who studied plant science at Rutgers (Class of 1970), and has been
working with the cooperative extension since 1978, has been composting
at her Hamilton home for 28 years.
She uses a stainless steel bucket with a lid to collect kitchen waste,
but says that any kind of container is fine, "anything with a lid."
So what goes into the container? "Tea bags, tags and all," says
Bromley. "Coffee grounds – with the filters, celery stalks, potato
peels, rotten berries, that green thing in the back of your
refrigerator." Most of what would go down a garbage disposal can go
into the collection pail.
But that’s not all. "Some people add leather," says Bromley.
She is most delighted when scraggly, 90 percent dead house plants make
it to the compost pile. She senses that many people have trouble
letting go of the geraniums and African violets that they have
nurtured. Knowing that the over-the-hill plants will give birth to new
life could be the incentive they need to let go.
Most people are less sentimental about paper, and have lots of it
around the house. Speaking of perhaps the most despised class of
paper, she says "You can shred your bills and mix them in with coffee
grounds." Newspapers are fine too, and there is no need to worry if
some of its pages contain color. These illustrations used to be made
with chemicals, but are now more likely to be made with vegetable
Be a little careful with paper towels," Bromley cautions. They can
certainly be added if they were used to wipe up milk, but if they
contain cleaning fluids they should not go into the compost pail. This
is so because bleach will kill off some of the microbes that need to
do the work of breaking down the waste and creating compost.
Also be careful with plate scrapings. All of the vegetables can go
into the pail, but the meat should stay out. "It will compost," says
Bromley, "but it will attract animals you don’t want – and it will
stink." Keep piles of leaves out of the mix too. When wet they tend
to clump together and will blot out the oxygen. But it is all right to
add leaves if they have first been ground up with a lawn mower. One
more item to keep out is used kitty litter. "Don’t put in feces from
animals that eat meat," says Bromley. Those from rabbits, and similar
vegetarian pets, are fine.
Bromley is anything but authoritarian. If a stray Windex-coated paper
towel gets into the mix, it’s not the end of the world. She also says
that it’s a good idea to chop up waste – melon rinds, for example –
because smaller pieces will compost more quickly. But she acknowledges
that "there’s no need to run everything through a food processor."
A compost pile can be simply that, a pile. Or it can be a box –
homemade or store bought. Bromley says that there are many composters
on display at the county demonstration site on Federal City Road in
Pennington, where a composting demonstration takes place on Sunday,
April 30, at noon.
The ideal size for a composting box ranges from between 3′ x 3′ x 3′
and 6’x 6′ x 6.’ A box this size, filled with composting materials,
will heat up to about 140 degrees. It can be covered, says Bromley,
and it’s a good idea to place it in the shade. Composting does not
require light, she points out, just water and oxygen. A compost pile
sitting in the sun can dry out, robbing the process of needed
The compost pile needs to be turned – perhaps with a pitchfork or a
turning fork – about once a week. This ensures that oxygen will
continue to permeate the mix.
"A compost pile should be as damp as a wrung out sponge," says
Bromley. It can’t be dry, but it shouldn’t be too wet. The most
important way to attain this texture – and to ensure that composting
does indeed occur – is to add "browns" to the mixture.
"You need equal weights of browns and greens," says Bromley. "Not
equal amounts, equal weights." The greens – all of that kitchen waste,
plus weeds, fresh leaves, scraggly plants, and manure – provide
nitrogen. The browns are things like sawdust (from untreated wood
only), wood chips, dry leaves, cardboard, and shredded paper. They
provide carbon. Another help in figuring out what is nitrogen and what
is carbon is that the nitrogen-rich greens are also referred to as
"wets," and the carbon-rich browns and are also referred to as
"dries." To judge the relative weights of the browns and greens is to
keep in mind that seven bags of browns equals one bag of greens –
Again, don’t obsess. Just try to keep close to the seven-to-one ratio.
The moisture of the compost pile will provide guidance. If it’s too
wet, add more browns. If it looks dried out, throw in some more
It takes about four to six weeks to create compost during the growing
season, says Bromley. The process can be speeded up by shredding or
chopping everything that goes in to the compost pile or by using an
upscale composting tumbler that comes with a hand crank and
instructions to turn the mixture frequently. One such device is made
by a company called ComposTumbler (www.compostumbler.com). It promises
to turn yard waste into compost in two weeks in what it calls "a
14-day miracle in your yard." Tumblers cost anywhere from about $150
to $300. In addition to faster composting, these enclosed composters
ensure that odors are not an issue. There is a good selection online
at the Gardeners Supply Company (www.gardeners.com).
Whether or not miracles are involved, Bromley says that you’ll know
you have compost when the pile "looks like nothing that you put into
She spreads her compost everywhere – on her lawn, around her trees,
and in her garden. It’s a good idea to keep invasive weeds, or weeds
with lots of seeds, out of the mix, but still, the compost may cause a
few weeds to sprout. Not a problem. Says Bromley, "What compost does
for the soil so outweighs weeds."
– Kathleen McGinn Spring
Composting Demonstration, 431A Federal City Road in Pennington
(www.mgofmc.org), Sunday, April 30, noon. 609-989-6830.
9 Strobbe Lane. Alexander to Kolla. $800,000. Closing: June 28, 2005.
26 Running Cedar. Filo to Pruchnal. $2,900,000. Closing: March 24,
908 Cherry Valley Road. Brown to Pathak. $1,500,000. Closing: April 5,
108 North Road. Borchert to Chiurco. $1,300,000. Closing: March 29,
14 Meeting House Court. Prudential to Zhao. $1,060,000. Closing: April
101 Winant. Smith to Kwok. $885,000. Closing: March 29, 2006.
58 Governor’s Lane. McClelland to Svedosh. $815,000. Closing: March
1028 Kingston Road. Spencer to Hudson. $770,000. Closing: February 28,
366 Mt. Lucas Road. Colon to Princeton Land Development. $750,000.
Closing: March 26, 2006.
235 Clover Lane. Cruikshank to Jemas. $659,000. Closing: March 27,
1 Trewbridge Court. Esparaza to Hadick. $624,000. Closing: March 26,
108 Dempsey Avenue. Lindsay to Piepszak. $535,000. Closing: March 26,
30 Old Orchard Road. Webb to Thompson. $511,000. Closing: January 25,
33 Leigh Avenue. Kehres to Wu. $380,000. Closing: January 18, 2006.
179 Jonathan Court. Lee to Wenz. $324,000. Closing: March 29, 2006.
9 Wallingford Drive. Ginella to Paglia. $624,998. Closing: October 21,
23 Stonebridge Lane. Canning to Ludescher-Furth. $599,000. Closing:
October 28, 2005.
29 Fieldston Road. Alfieri to Bennett. $595,000. Closing: May 12,
6 Fieldston Road. Oh to Seletskiy. $589,000. Closing: September 7,
18 Stonebridge Lane. Thomas to Soriano. $554,000. Closing: June 23,
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