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Compost expert enriches plants, soil by turning waste to fertilizer
Master Gardener Bob Bradbury holds a flat of lettuce to plant in his organic garden at his South Hall home. Bradbury and his family make compost to keep their garden soil perfect for growing flowers, fruits and vegetables.

Ask Bob Bradbury about his compost and he’ll talk for several minutes about his garden and his health.

To Bradbury, a Flowery Branch honey harvester, gardener and retired pastor, it’s all related.

Bradbury has made his own compost for use in his organic garden since he lived in New Jersey in the 1960s. Since then, he says he has become healthier, growing good-tasting vegetables and 10 different kinds of fruit.

"About the time we were getting ready to leave there (New Jersey) ... we had a huge garden there. I mean, corn was a good 10 feet tall and very, very good," Bradbury said.

Bradbury, who teaches classes on composting with the Hall County Master Gardeners, said his methods saved money, too.

"With five kids, all of whom had healthy appetites — they all liked to eat — and on a pastor’s salary, we didn’t have a lot of extras. So that saved us thousands of dollars on our food bills by having gardens and using compost," Bradbury said. "It’s like gold when you have compost."

Saturday is the final day of International Compost Awareness Week, sponsored by the U.S. Composting Council, in which people are encouraged to remind neighbors about the benefits of compost.

Though Hall County held no official events to mark the occasion, Extension Agent Billy Skaggs says most people compost in one way or another. Many may passively compost by stacking yard clippings in one area.

"Eventually, that material’s going to break down and add nutrients back to the soil and be a beneficial thing," Skaggs said.

Others have a bin that they add material to, turn and water on a regular basis to make compost fertilizer for their gardens, as Bradbury does.

Bradbury said he normally uses a shredder to grind up his waste, anything from food scraps and manure to leaves and hair. He says the shredder allows him to produce good compost within about two weeks. Passive composters may have to wait a year for their clippings to turn into good, organic fertilizer, Skaggs said.

Aside from making the waste as small as possible with either a shredder or a machete, Bradbury said the trick to compost is to keep air circulating under the pile. He sometimes starts with a layer of corn stalks or wooden pallets to allow circulation, then alternates layers of leaf mulch, food scraps, manure and water.

Layering green waste, such as fresh grass clippings and vegetable waste, and brown waste, including dried leaves and branches, is important for good compost, as is keeping the pile moist.

Skaggs suggests a aiming for a 2-to-1 ratio of browns and greens and keeping the pile the consistency of a wrung-out sponge.

Turning the pile every couple of weeks will speed up the composting process, Skaggs said. When the compost is ready, you’ll smell it — "it should have a real earthy smell" — and you won’t see any whole remnants of your scraps, Skaggs said.

"For the home gardener ... a lot of gardeners call it ‘black gold’ — it just doesn’t get any better than good quality compost," Skaggs said.

"... Just by the process of it being broken down by microbes and bacteria, when you add that compost to your garden or to your landscape bed you’re adding life to the soil. You’re increasing the number of microbes and beneficial bacteria that are going to help make your plants stronger."

Compost does several favors for the soil, Skaggs said. It adds nutrition, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and organic matter that improve the soil’s structure and loosen it.

"Our soils here, being of a clay nature predominately, are very low in organic matter," Skaggs said. "So they compact very easily. It’s hard to work compact clay soils."

Skaggs says the biggest benefit to composting that affects everyone is that it saves space in the county’s landfill.

"I think that’s first and foremost what we’re talking about," Skaggs said. "When you consider the amount of leaf litter that we have in the fall of the year, also grass clippings and other pruned materials just in the landscape alone, that constitutes a pretty large bulk of material that otherwise would be going to the landfill."