Master Gardener Jane Egan recently shared her extensive knowledge of composting with the Green Action Team from the Academy of the Holy Angels. Egan manages two Passaic County community gardens and heads local composting and sustainability initiatives as a leader of her hometown’s Green Team.
Early this year, AHA used a grant to purchase three compost bins that recently yielded a rich batch of this organic soil amendment. In February, Egan met with AHA Maintenance Chief Robert Shanney and Director of Mission & Ministry Joan Connelly to provide startup advice.
This November, Green Action Team Moderators Sean Hickey and Andrew Sanchez and their students contacted Egan to determine how to make the program a success for years to come.
Egan began by outlining the four-ingredient “compost recipe,” which includes browns, greens, oxygen, and water. Brown ingredients include leaves and small twigs, while greens include coffee grounds, tea bags, and fruit and vegetable scraps. Grass clippings that are not treated with herbicides or pesticides are also green materials.
Turning the contents of the compost bin keeps everything oxygenated, and aids in decomposition. Egan explained that keeping the contents of the bin damp, like a wrung-out sponge, is also desirable. Meats and animal waste should not be added to the compost bin, as both contain pathogens and can attract pests.
The final product is not dirt or soil, but a soil conditioner (or amendment) that enriches the garden bed so plants grow stronger and yield more flowers or produce. This should improve the yield at AHA’s vegetable garden, which helps feed clients at a local food bank.
Egan pointed out that plants will not grow well in compost alone.
“Compost is ‘too new.’ It must be mixed with existing soil, otherwise, the medium gets too soggy,” she said. Egan recommends adding a half-inch of compost to the soil surface to enrich the school’s vegetable garden and flower beds. Compost can also be used as mulch, which feeds plants and protects their roots from the elements.
“You can add to the compost bin year-round,” Egan said. “Decomposition is slower in winter, and you may get frost on top, but don’t let it dissuade you. The compost pile will be warm and decomposition will be happening.”
At home, Egan adds to her compost bin throughout the winter but does not turn the material as often. Team member Ellie Sawyer asked how often AHA’s turnable compost bins should be spun.
“You can do it daily,” Egan said. “The more you aerate, the faster the decomposition will be in the warmer weather.”
She noted that the frequency of the turning and weather conditions determine whether the finished compost is ready in four months or 18 months.
Hickey asked how full each bin should be. Egan said a bin should not be too difficult to turn, and more materials can be added if the bin looks like it has room and is easy to turn.
When asked if students should be permitted to add materials directly to AHA’s bins, Egan recommended that students follow a school policy so a knowledgeable composter could monitor what is being added to the bins and screen out undesirable food scraps.
Hickey questioned whether citrus peels should be composted. Acknowledging concerns about attracting fruit flies, Egan said that layering leaves on top of any citrus peel would act as a barrier, and still allow aeration to continue.
“We are working on a number of hands-on environmental projects to improve sustainability at AHA,” Hickey said. “One of the group's goals is to make composting a regular practice at Holy Angels to reduce food waste and put resources that we already have, like food scraps, dried leaves, and cardboard, to good, productive use. We envision the compost being used in the greenhouse, garden, and school flower beds. Composting is important because it reduces waste that ends up in landfills, and creates a product that enriches the soil, which needs care.”
He added that Egan “made us feel confident in what we were taking on.”
Sanchez added, “This will allow students to be more involved in the composting process at AHA, by layering and spinning the compost bins on their own. They will also be able to implement this knowledge in a personal capacity.”
He added, “The Green Action Team is interested in composting because we believe in limiting waste. We can take certain foods from the cafeteria that would have been waste, and use them to produce compost that enriches soil that we use in the greenhouse.”
Green Action Team members include Hanga Antal, Hannah Glaser, Julia Covino, Madeline Outlaw, Mary Quimbo, Carol Laux, Lauren Tomasella, Areni Chaglasian, Sarah Machado, Ellie Sawyer, Ella Springer, and Hollie Melia.