September 22, 2019 | 85° F

Rutgers outreach program provides composting training to local community

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Throughout the year, Rutgers Cooperative Extension holds composting training classes for local residents at its agricultural experiment station. In addition to teaching individuals how to implement composting into their homes and businesses, the program provides key information on the benefits and specifics of the practice.

The Rutgers Cooperative Extension offers composting and horticultural training classes to area residents this month and year-round.

The program takes place on part of Davidson's Mill Pond Park, which was granted by the federal government in 1862 and currently serves Middlesex and Union counties. 

It is an agricultural experiment station that disseminates research, science and technology information from Rutgers to local farms and industry, said Michele Bakacs, an associate professor at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

The Cooperative Extension is responsible for 4-H youth programs, stormwater runoff management, the state organic land care program for professional landscapers, the Rutgers environmental steward program, training master gardeners and the master gardener helpline, she said.

Composting is the breakdown of organic materials such as leaves, kitchen scraps and grass clippings, Bakacs said.

“There’re so many benefits to composting, it’s amazing,” she said. "It helps aerate the soil, improves root development, helps retain moisture and controls soil pH."

Bakacs said that composting is an effective way to reduce waste and recycle. Organic material like leaves and food waste account for about a third of solid waste.

Composting can reduce the lead levels in plants grown in urban areas, Bakacs said. High organic matter content and a high acidity level help bind lead with the soil, thus making it less available for plant uptake.

Compost encourages a healthy soil food web, which is one of the reasons it has so many positive effects. Compost fosters bacteria, fungi, protozoa and earthworms that help fight off diseases and pests, she said.

Backyard compost boxes should be between 3 and 5 cubic feet, Bakacs said. The boxes must exceed 3 cubic feet to retain the heat produced by the working organisms but no more than 5 cubic feet so that the material can be turned once a week.

Green materials and brown materials are added to the box, she said. Green materials, such as grass clippings, food scraps, coffee grounds, banana or onion peels, are fresh and nitrogen-rich.

Brown material is carbon-rich and may include dried leaves, cardboard, newspaper or shredded wood.

The mix ratio should be about 30-parts brown material to 1-part green material. Additionally, the mix must be kept moist to support the organisms facilitating the process, Bakacs said.

A diligently managed compost box can process its entire capacity in about a month and will produce a half inch of material over a 100-square-foot area, she said.

It is more affordable, more sustainable and often more effective than store-bought supplements due to locally sourced nutrients and living biology. If people do go shopping for compost, the color should resemble a chocolate bar, living organisms should be present and it should elicit a rich earthy aroma, Bakacs said. 

She said that not all store-bought compost and soil is bad, but the industry is unregulated. A scarcity of biology can reduce effectiveness and unwanted seeds may be included which cause unwanted headaches.

Anyone wishing to learn more about composting can register for free classes happening Oct. 17 and Oct. 21 on the Rutgers Cooperative Extension website.

Another big function within the Rutgers Community Extension is the Master Gardener Program.

This program helps teach the community environmentally sound horticulture practices, said Angela Monaghan, coordinator of the Master Gardener Program for Middlesex County. The program, which is open to public enrollment, has about 300 active volunteers with around 35 presently enrolled in training.

“We attract people who love to garden and who have never gardened before but are interested in learning how," Monaghan said.

The yearlong internship program begins every September and is broken up into three semesters, she said. For three hours each week, classroom instruction first covers botany, safe pesticide use, pest management, water resource management, solid waste management and more.

Then, come summer, interns work in Davidson's Mill Pond Park’s vegetable garden by prepping the soil, planting seeds, fertilizing and harvesting.

Interns are eventually given the opportunity to work on different committees, Monaghan said. These committees help maintain a native plants garden, a fruit garden, a perennial garden, a butterfly house, a garden of memories where people donate plants to honor a loved one and an interactive children’s garden focusing on plant texture and scent.

Near the end of the curriculum, service projects allow master gardeners to talk at local gardening clubs or work on the master gardener helpline, Bakacs said.

The Rutgers master gardener helpline aids area residents in diagnosing plant and pest problems.

“You can get a lot of misinformation on the web,” Bakacs said. "Master gardeners have an extensive library to reference and are trained in horticultural science."

Kenneth Kurtulik

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