Dale Wall, the best landscape architect I know, states, “You want a $10 hole for a $5 plant.” At Heritage Museums & Gardens (HMG) in Sandwich, they agree. As part of their sustainability efforts, HMG produces all of its mulch and compost, two elements that play an essential role in creating fertile ground for plants. This process saves them money and also goes a long way toward protecting the planet.
The best mulch is organic material that is spread over the soil’s surface as a covering. Using organic mulch helps improve the soil’s structure, drainage, and nutrient-holding capacity as it decomposes.
At HMG, they create mulch using shredded bark and trees, grass clippings, and shredded leaves. Annually, HMG loses about eight to 10 trees. In 2013 they lost some 50 trees, usually pines. These trees, plus other wood from fallen branches, are chipped and added to the mulch to give it a composition that will not decay too quickly.
Compost is similar to mulch, but at HMG it does not include the chipped trees. Compost, a much finer product, is added to soil as a rich amendment that provides essential nutrients for plant growth. At HMG, they utilize grass clippings, leaves, and other organic waste that will quickly decompose as their compost.
For compost at home, you can use plant food scraps and yard waste. You want to avoid animal products in compost, as they can cause disease-causing elements such as E. coli. Typically, food scraps and yard waste make up 28 percent of what a homeowner throws away. It could, instead, help your garden as compost or mulch. When these materials go to a landfill, their decomposition creates methane gas. This gas is one of the leading contributors to the greenhouse gasses that are causing climate change.
There are piles of mulch and compost in a carefully monitored site at HMG. They continuously add weeds, clippings, and other organic materials on to several distinct mounds. They turn these piles over periodically. The temperature of each pile is taken regularly. The optimal temperature for killing seeds is around 140 degrees Fahrenheit. HMG monitors the internal temperature of their compost pile using a temperature probe.
At home, you can create compost in a pile or in a drum or bin. Select a spot out of the way and near a water source. Add dry brown (such as fall leaves) and moist green (such as food waste from your kitchen) material. Depending on this dry/wet mix, you might have to add moisture as needed. Turn the mixture over periodically to keep the materials blended. A bin makes this easy, as they are often a drum that spins. You can purchase temperature probes with 20-inch stems online for around $25. When your materials turn dark and crumble in your hand, your compost is ready for use. This process can take as little as two months or as long as two years. If you do not have space in your yard, you can use a bin inside. Carefully monitor what you put into the container. Blend the materials regularly. Carefully tend the bin or pile to make sure it does not attract rodents or smell bad.
The benefits of mulch and compost are enormous. Mulch retains moisture in the soil, suppresses weeds, keeps the soil cool, and often makes a garden look better. Compost reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and creates nutrient-rich-filled material, which plants need. Most importantly, this smart and economic process also significantly reduces landfill waste, a critical part of climate change action.