Armstrong Education Center’s Composting Systems

Our commitment to healthy soil is grounded in extensive composting: a system mimicking natural decomposition that produces fertile and productive soil for gardens and landscaping. Composting embodies sustainability since the process recycles nutrients and enhancing the growth of plants. Compost decreases the reliance on expensive and artificial soil fertilizers and increases the health and productivity of existing soil structures with nutrients and minerals, like carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. The Armstrong Education Center utilizes two compost systems: traditional outdoor compost (with both active and passive processes) and an indoor worm composting bin. The compost systems are demonstrational and are used in our educational events and workshops.

Our new four bin compost structure where we compost a large variety of materials.  Eagle Scout Marc B. oversaw its construction in the summer of 2012.

Outdoor Compost: The four-part compost structure is located next to the mandala garden where food scraps, garden scraps, fine wood chips, leaves, manure, cardboard, paper, and old dry wall are composted. When we are in full production, we process approximately 80 pounds of food scraps per week, which are generously donated from Scotts Corner Market in Pound Ridge.

This compost pile is considered a hot, active pile because it is aerated frequently (turning compost into itself), which encourages temperatures up to 160 degrees F and rapid decomposition. Compost requires a balance of carbon or ‘brown’ and nitrogen or ‘green’ materials in a ratio of 25:1.  The right ratio creates an ideal breeding environment for the microorganisms that drive the decomposition.  A more passive example of outdoor compost is the lasagna style sheet mulching located within one of the quadrants of the mandala vegetable garden.

Black gold!  Finished compost before it is screened and added to our garden.

Indoor Compost: Vermicomposting – keeping earthworms to break down food scraps and create a soil additive – is an indoor compost option that does not involve the efforts and maintenance of an outdoor pile.  The Armstrong House’s kitchen hosts a Wormcycler bin donated by Nature’s Footprint.  In it are hundreds (possibly thousands) of  ‘red-wiggler’ worms, a variety of worms best suited for rapid decomposition.  Like our outdoor compost, the worm bin needs green materials (kitchen food scraps) and brown materials (recycled newspapers), but on a much smaller scale. Though worms and food scraps are typically associated with bad odor, proper care of the worms and bin will avoid unwanted flies and scents.  Worms prefer a warmer environment (50-80 degrees F) with the moisture of a damp sponge. After several weeks, rich compost can be harvested from a worm bin and utilized in the garden.

Our indoor ‘vermicompost’ bin.  In it we keep hundreds of ‘red wiggler’ worms to make compost out of our food scraps.

For more information on vermiculture click here: Vermicomposting info

Why do we compost at the Armstrong House Education Center?

While there are many reasons to compost, two are undisputable.

Reason #1.  We compost because we garden.  As every gardener knows, plants need good healthy soil in order to thrive.  Industrially made fertilizers are commonly used to add nutrients to garden soil, but these products can only be made by burning lots of fossil fuels.  These fertilizers are not necessary, as compost is a cheap and local alternative which uses virtually zero fossil fuels in its production.  When we use compost as an alternative to industrially made fertilizers we reduce our use of fossil fuels.

Reason #2.  We compost to reduce waste.  Much of what ends up in a landfill—fruits, vegetables, grains, yard clippings and bones—can be composted.  When compostable foods are mixed with our standard garbage it unnecessarily increases the cost to collect, bag, transport and bury our trash in landfills.  When we send our food to the landfill we throw away all their nutrients instead of recycling them in our backyards.  We compost to keep organic material and its nutrients where it should be–in our garden.

What is ‘closing the loop’ and how does composting at the Armstrong  Education Center help ‘Close the loop’?

In agriculture, ‘closing the loop’ means producing food in a way where imported resources are minimized and on-site resource generation is maximized.  To achieve this we recycle organic material; the byproducts of one system are used as inputs in another system.  For example, at the Armstrong Education Center, our food scraps (byproduct of eating) are turned into compost and used in our garden (input in food production).  As the garden is tended and weeded the waste organic material (byproduct of food production) is composted and used in a future garden (input in food production).  Another example of closing the loop at the Armstrong Education Center is the relationship between the Armstrong’s bee colony and its garden: the colony pollinates the garden and produces honey and wax as natural byproducts.

How does compost work?

If you pile up a bunch of leaves they will eventually break down; decomposers (mostly bacteria, but bugs and fungus too) will literally eat their way through the pile, pooping out small, nutritious material.  A compost system operates the same exact way, except it is managed to move a little faster.  We compost food scraps, (veggies, fruits, coffee grounds and egg shells) wood chips, leaves and straw at the Armstrong house.  After a couple weeks of monitoring the compost to make sure it stays within a desired range of aeration and hydration, we have very healthy humus, which is then applied as fertilizer to the garden.  This is exactly the same humus that is available for sale in nurseries.

Can I compost at home?

Absolutely!  There are many fabulous websites to consult and you can visit the Armstrong Education Center to learn about composting at home.

Online resources

http://compostguide.com/

http://unclejimswormfarm.com/

 

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