By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
Steam rose from a pile of old leaves, sticks and grass clippings on a winter’s morning, and Sherrie Cochran considered it a beautiful sight.
“Isn’t that fantastic?” she said. “The process is amazing to me, and it’s free. Anybody can do it.”
She was talking about composting, not something most would describe as “fantastic” or “amazing,” but give Cochran a chance to make her case.
She works for the city of Tupelo as an environmental planner and executive director of Keep Tupelo Beautiful. She’s also a master gardener, so composting impacts her life on many levels.
“With Keep Tupelo Beautiful, we teach litter prevention and waste reduction, which is what composting is,” she said. “We also teach beautification, and composting helps grow beautiful plants and flowers.”
Let’s spend a few moments getting the definition down for composting. It’s been described as “the art of decay.”
By mixing “brown” carbon-rich materials, like small sticks and fall leaves, with “green” nitrogen-rich materials, including grass clippings and banana peels, a process is set in motion.
Add heat, time, air and water, and all that cast-off stuff breaks down to create what Cochran called “black gold.”
“The soil is the key,” she said. “Compost enriches the soil, and enriched soil means better plants. They’re healthier and better able to fight off insects.”
There’s an obvious question: How does someone know if their soil needs compost?
The answer can be attained with the aid of a shovel and a quick bit of labor.
“You can tell if the soil is depleted by looking at a shovelful. If it’s filled with earthworms, you have nutritious soil,” Cochran said. “No earthworms and that indicates you need composting. They’re not going to go where there are no nutrients.”
A heaping, ready supply of compost can be found on Commerce Street, where the city of Tupelo runs a massive operation.
When Tupelo residents bag leaves and grass clippings and put them on the side of the road, crews deliver them to the first of three piles at the Commerce Street site.
That pile is where the process starts. City employee Nathan Hill is one of the guys responsible for “turning” that steaming pile of early compost with a front-end loader.
“We keep it churned up so it will go through the gestation period of decay,” he said. “When it starts looking dark, it’s starting to decompose.”
The product goes to a second pile then on to a third and final pile, which the public is free to pull from.
“If you have a truck, you can back it up and fill it,” Cochran said. “People without trucks usually fill garbage bags.”
The city doesn’t keep records about how much compost it produces each year, but the compost piles tower over Cochran. You’d have to stack four – maybe four and a half – Sherrie Cochrans on top of each other to reach the top of the largest pile.
But there’s no need to go to such extremes. The principle that plays out on a grand scale on Commerce Street also works on a small scale.
The Community Garden on Spring Street, just south of the Farmer’s Market, showcases different composting processes.
Rather than a front-end loader, the tool of choice is a pitchfork to turn the three separate piles of waste material.
In addition to grass clippings, green material can include fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, cut flowers, tea bags and egg shells.
“You don’t want to put any animal products in there,” Cochran cautioned. “If you do that, dogs will come dig it out. Nobody wants that.”
Brown materials are dry leaves, wood chips, sawdust, straw, twigs and shredded newspaper.
“Don’t use treated lumber,” she said. “It has pesticides.”
There may be times when water needs to be added, and it’s a good idea to regularly turn the piles to air everything out and encourage decay.
It’s a balancing act. Too much air or carbon will slow the breakdown process. Overdo the moisture and the nitrogen, and the result is an ammonia-like smell, rather than the sweet smell you’re shooting for.
“It smells good, doesn’t it?” Cochran said near a well-balanced pile of finished compost. “I love that smell.”
A gardener can make containers to hold three different piles of compost materials in their various states of decay. There also are store-bought machines that do the trick.
“You can be as simple or elaborate as you want to be,” she said.
On the extreme simple end, garden supply stores sell bags of compost that can be added to beds or potted plants to provide a nutrient-rich boost.
A cold compost pile is fairly simple, too. That’s when fall leaves are packed on top of plant beds.
There’s no turning involved in cold composting, so it takes longer for the materials to break down. But over the course of the fall and winter, valuable nutrients seep into the soil.
“In the winter, there still are things going on. The process is going on,” Cochran said. “Do this in the winter and you will be ready for spring.”
Cochran gets excited about the process, but that makes sense. Educating people about composting is part of her professional responsibilities.
But she’s also a gardener who knows that the benefits of composting go on and on.
“It’s not just flower beds, either. When they finish building a home, the yard is just that commercial-grade dirt. Not very many nutrients in there,” she said. “The compost is free, so mix it in, especially if you want new seeds to take. Try it. See what happens.”
It’s not exactly a gospel, but it is good news: Seemingly useless stuff helps new life grow.
“The joy of composting is real,” she said. “That’s what I want people to know: The joy of composting is real.”