Master gardener teaches the value of making compost to enrich the soil

May 25, 1994|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Special to The Sun

Soil and dirt aren't the same thing to Bob Tucker.

The 70-year-old Clarksville resident cites his 2 1/2 -acre garden -- a cornucopia of fruits, berries, vegetables and flowers -- as proof that nutrient-rich soil yields healthy plants.

But if your yard is made up mostly of the hard, red clay common in this part of the country, don't despair, says Mr. Tucker. Rely on compost.

"The best way to improve that heavy clay is through compost," said Mr. Tucker, a master gardener with the Cooperative Extension Service University of Maryland System since 1983. "Compost supplies organic materials, increases its friability and also its water holding capacity."

The retired physicist, who works an average of 60 hours per week in his garden, practices what he preaches at a compost demonstration site at Centennial Park in Ellicott City.

The site is one of two in the county set up by the extension service, in conjunction with the Howard County Department of Parks and Recreation, to teach gardeners about composting.

Every other week, Mr. Tucker and another master gardener, Walt Carlson, spend two hours at the park tending to five piles of organic materials decomposing in five different types of containers. The site yields 1 cubic yard of compost every month.

The Centennial Park site is set up next to a walking and jogging path so that the composting activity is easily visible to the public.

"We want to promote composting, primarily because landfills are filling up and we want to encourage people to use their yard materials rather than the landfills," Mr. Tucker said.

Mr. Tucker splits the monthly output among himself and two other master gardeners, and says, "I could use up ten times that amount."

The gardener's work is part of a minimum 20-hour-per-year requirement to maintain the extension service's designation of master gardener. There are about 95 master gardeners in the county.

Mr. Tucker volunteers 100 hours per year teaching the public about gardening. His work includes clinics at the Miller Branch Library twice a week, speaking engagements

and information booths at garden festivals and the county and state fairs.

B6 In order to become a master gardener, someone must

complete a 40-hour training program covering such topics as botany and entomology, offered annually by the extension service.

After completing the course, gardeners can educate others about topics that include gypsy moth infestations and tomato blights.

Composting is Mr. Tucker's particular interest.

Two years ago, when the compost demonstration site was set up at Centennial Park, he built the containers. Eventually, he volunteered to manage the site.

The second demonstration site opened recently at Savage Park and is managed by another master gardener.

"Anything that has grown will make good compost," says Mr. Tucker. "You have to give organisms the same thing that is required for any life: water, carbon and nitrogen."

A compost pile is made by piling weeds, grass clippings, leaves, jTC harvested garden plants and other organic material. In a pile or container, the material soon starts to break down.

A brochure, "Home Composting," distributed by the extension service, and available at the site, suggests mixing two parts grass clippings with one part fallen leaves in the compost pile.

Ultimately, the yard wastes decompose into dark, crumbly matter that can enrich soil. It can take six months to two years for the raw organic materials to break down into compost.

"The biggest mistake is not turning the pile," Mr. Tucker said. "Even without the perfect carbon-nitrogen ratio, if you turn it, the decomposition will work faster."

The containers at the Centennial Park site are built of such materials as old wooden pallets and chicken wire. Such containers cost about $50 to build, says Mr. Tucker. The portable units can be moved throughout a garden.

Gardeners who have large yards and need high quality compost may prefer to use multiple bins in which the yard waste is turned frequently, speeding up the decomposition process. That can yield compost in as little time as a month, says Mr. Tucker.

Also on display at Centennial Park are plastic compost bins that can be purchased from hardware stores. Those units cost about $100.

"The reason I promote composting is that I hope more people will start the process with their own yard stuff," Mr. Tucker said. "Using compost makes a better garden."

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