Category Archives: Soil Health

All Schools Need Compost Systems

I’m in the process of applying for a grant so that my son’s high school will have the funds to build a compost system at their school. While it was always my plan to get one into the school it was actually my son who initiated the discussion. It was a proud parent moment to see him frown and think about throwing away the garden waste we are currently removing and announce we need a compost. But it’s not just this school that needs a compost. ALL schools (pre, primary and high) need a compost. A nice big compost. Here’s a few reasons why:

  • Reduce green house gas emissions – throwing organic waste into the general rubbish stream results in higher green house gas emissions. This is because when organic matter decomposes in landfill it decomposes anaerobically (without air) which releases methane gas. Methane is a potent green house gas and landfill is a significant contributor to its release into the environment. Composting allows this waste to decompose with air (aerobically) which reduces the amount of methane entering our atmosphere.
  • Turn Waste into Resource – the compost produced can be used in school grounds or passed on to people within the school community. Traditionally made compost is one of the best ways to get nutrients into soil and making it yourself reduces the need to buy it wrapped in plastic. Also soil that is rich in organic matter holds more water and traps carbon.
  • Community Composting is Cool – Not everyone likes composting at home so community composting is a good way to capture those that want to compost but don’t want to do it in their own back yard.
  • Compost is a Teaching Tool – The compost area is a great place to talk about a whole range of subjects from the science of global warming to the maths of temperature and cubic measurement to literacy of making ‘how to’ signs. I like to use the compost as a vehicle for anti littering discussions (no plastic does not break down in a compost – how did it get in there? what should we do with rubbish when we see it on the ground, even if it isn’t ours?), not to mention the inspection of insects and other creepy crawlies we find in there.
  • Compost is a way to connect with Local Business – school composts are a great way to get to know your local businesses, particularly the ones that produce organic waste. There’s nothing like a bucket or two of coffee grounds to heat up a compost and most cafes are more than happy to separate out their waste grounds for collection.

If your school doesn’t have a compost and you think it might like one, start the conversation. Or ask me how to get one going. There are also plenty of grants around to help you get started, like this one!

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What to plant in Sydney in March

Well it doesn’t feel like the weather is cooling just yet but it’s time to start thinking about those cool weather crops. Think broad beans, broccoli and cauliflower. That’s what I think. But I won’t be putting these into the soil just yet. Right now I think it’s time to pull out those summer crops that are finished, beef up the soil with a new layer of compost. Cover that with a nice layer of mulch and get those seeds into the greenhouse (or seed raising area) so they are ready to go in after Easter. Surely it will cool down by then?
If you are keen to get planting then probably best to stick to the all year-ers like carrots, greens and herbs until we start to regularly drop below 30.

What’s your favourite cool weather crop and when do you think you’ll start planting?

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Is bad compost still better than no compost?

Here’s the question – is it better to compost badly than not to compost at all?

This question has been on my mind lately. I haven’t had the time to get out to my own compost as much as I’d like and I’ve lost a valued helper at one of the schools so that compost isn’t getting the attention it used to get. So am I thinking I’m doing a good thing with my piles of organic waste when actually I’m not? If I’m not getting out there and getting air into the compost am I doing more harm than good?

The problem is this – when you are composting aerobically (with air) everything is fine. The problem with decomposing organic waste occurs when it decomposes anaerobically (without air) as is assumed to be the case when organics go to landfill. Anaerobic compost produces methane. Great if you’ve got some kind of method to capture the methane and use it as an energy source, bad if it’s heading on out into the atmosphere. Methane is a significant contributor to green house gas emissions. That’s why people object to methane producing cows and why some people object to composting.

So how can we make sure we are doing more good than bad? If you aren’t a regular compost turner then keep your compost simple and the balance right. Here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Don’t put in dinner leftovers, any meat, fats or bread.
  • Get a compost bin that has an open base to encourage worms in there to do the aerating for you.
  • Don’t let your bin dry out. Keep it moist, this will keep all the good bacteria alive and working.
  • Cover all of your kitchen scraps with dry leaves or shredded newspaper. This will keep your compost balanced.
  • Turn it when you can.

My conclusion is that it’s still better to compost badly than not to compost at all. When organics go to landfill we have nothing except more green house gas emissions. Even if we are a little lax with our composting we still end up with a nutrient rich compost at some point. And we encourage other kinds of soil life. What do you think?

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Vegesafe – what I learnt and what you need to know about lead in your soil

The good people of Vegesafe have recently released a report on their findings re regards to heavy metals in Sydney soils and how that may affect veg growing. They will also be at the Australian Garden Show in Centennial Park so if you’re planning to go, you can bring in a sample of your soil for free testing.

We had Mark Taylor from Vegesafe come to Stanmore Public School to conduct tests on the soil in a number of different parts of the garden. Our soil in this garden was all pretty good (still elevated but not dangerously so). It was a really interesting process and Mark and his colleagues were full of helpful information. Here’s what I learnt:

  • Lead in soil will usually be the result of a building having been there and old lead paint flaking off and getting into the soil; or
  • Left over from the days of leaded petrol if you’re on a busy street;
  • Plants don’t tend to take up lead from the soil so eating plants grown in lead contaminated soil isn’t the problem (though probably still not recommended);
  • The problem comes if you don’t wash your veg properly or if you are playing in the dirt or tracking it through the house or in some other way coming into contact with it and possibly ingesting it. This, particularly for young children, is the problem.
  • Mulching and generally making sure there are high levels of organic matter in the soil reduces the levels of lead contamination in your soil.

Mulching! Is there nothing it can’t do?! But seriously I think this illustrates again the importance of good soil. Vital to our health, our food’s health and our children’s health, it’s worth the time to get it right.

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