Everything You Know About Composting is Wrong: Mike McGrath at TEDxPhoenixville


Translator: Bob Prottas
Reviewer: Leonardo Silva Was it Chekhov who said that if you bring a leaf blower
on stage in the first act you have to use it by the third act? (Laughter) The timing for this event
is so appropriate. We’re here in the fall, and I’m going
to talk to you about composting. A lot of people schedule
composting talks in the spring. A lot of people start composting
in the spring. They buy a compost bin, and along
with the bin comes detailed instructions which are about the size of a index card,
and it says on one side: “Things you can include: grass clippings, leaves, kitchen waste, old newspapers, your junk mail.” On the other side, it’s things
you should not include: “Dog and cat feces, old car batteries, (Laughter) people who need to go for a ride
behind the Philadelphia Airport and get to know the fishes
in the marshes better. Don’t compose them.” (Laughter) And so well meaning people
will get a compose bin in the spring, and will fill it
with their kitchen garbage. It says, it’s right there,
on front of the card. You can compost your kitchen garbage. So they fill the composter
with kitchen garbage, and they’re very happy with themselves. Al Gore is somewhere
giving them gold stars. (Laughter) And they’re waiting, and waiting,
and at the end of the season they take the composter off, and they have
a big pile of kitchen garbage. (Laughter) It has not improved in quality,
in any way, over the summer, and that’s the big lie of composting. People come to composting
to get karma points. They want to stop throwing away
their kitchen garbage, and you can stop throwing away
your kitchen garbage. But composting is an imitation of nature and nature does not make big piles
of trash, and garbage out in the woods, and neither should you. So this is the perfect time of year
to start composting. Thanks to our trees.
If anything will save us, it’s trees. Trees are the original solar panels. Every year, every season,
the roots of trees reach down deeper into the ground
than they went the year before, pulling up nutrients, pulling up trace minerals, which the roots
couldn’t reach the year before. They send them up to the canopy, where the leaves
that contain these nutrients are super charged by photosynthesis. Doubling and tripling
the nutritional content, and then, because nature realizes
that we’re a little slow, at the end of the summer,
drops the leaves down at our feet. “Hello, look at me, here I am. I am nutrient dense.” So, what does the average American man do? (Laughter) He blows all this nutrient dense material
onto his neighbor’s driveway. (Laughter) The neighbor comes out, and he blows the leaves
back onto the other neighbor’s driveway. Now this is not meaningless,
this is not wasted time. Here we have 2 American men
who are being occupied, who otherwise might get into
real serious mischief. (Laughter) But eventually, even an America man
is going to realize, “Harry and I have been blowing
these leaves around for 3 months and they’re still on the ground.” So that’s when the American man
digs out the rake and then goes to the hardware store,
or Home Despot, and buys SPBs, Stupid People Bags, which are brown paper bags,
that tell your neighbors, “I’m too dumb to save my leaves.
I’m paying extra to throw them out.” So that’s the first lesson today. SPBs are like unattended pens,
they’re yours. If there’s no one around
to protect the pen, it belongs to you. Same thing for leaves
put out at the curbside. This is everything
you’re going to need for your garden. I guarantee, you will never get to the end
of a gardening season, and go: “Boy, I wish I had fewer leaves,
or had made less compost.” So don’t be afraid to rustle up SPBs. But, as the leaves come down,
these tools can become valuable. Because if these American men would look
in their garage, or their basement, there’s probably a box
with a conversion kit, and I think it’s called
“The Conversion Kit” because when you’ve used this part,
you finally get religion. (Laughter) But you can replace
the blower with a vacuum, and now the most aptly named power tool
in the history of America no longer blows. (Laughter)
You can use it to suck up your leaves. Virtually every electric leaf blower
comes with one of these. There’s guys who have leaf blowers
that are 15 years old, these are in mint condition,
down in the basement. (Laughter) And a collection bag. You hang it from your shoulder,
and the first thing you will notice as you use this to rustle up your leaves,
is there’s no bending. Bending is for chumps. (Laughter) If you’re doing hard work while gardening,
you’re not paying attention. (Laughter) So you stand up, you suck up your leaves. Inside every one of these machines,
and the nice thing is these things should become even better
over the years, you may be able to see it. There’s a metal impeller in here,
a metal wheel. So as you suck up the leaves,
they get shredded, and dropped into the collection bag.
Take the leaves out of the collection bag. You can use those to mulch
your garden beds right away, preventing any weeds that would form
over the winter, and in the spring. But what you should do with your first
run of leaves, is make a big pile, and yes, the big question is always:
“Do I have to shred my leaves?” And the answer is: “Yes.” Whole leaves have a tendency to mat down
into a darn good imitation of a tarp. What people don’t realize about trees,
trees are not benign, trees are solar collectors,
trees give us everything we need to have a fabulous garden
the following year. But trees are bullies.
Trees do not want any competition. When they drop their leaves, yes they’re
preparing themselves for winter, they’re sealing off the parts
of themselves that would be damaged by cold, but they’re also smothering all
the little children on the forest floor. They are making sure
that they’re kings of the block. You have to be a good plant
to be able to survive leaf fall. Now over time, in the woods,
with wind, and deer, and winter those leaves get shredded. But when they’re first put down,
they are competition smotherers. So we want to avoid
doing the same thing, so the only thing we have to do
with our leaves is shred them. If all you do, is shred up your leaves,
put them in a contained bin, it could be as simple
as a big wire enclosure, it can be a fancy,
dancy composter you buy, it can be a tumbler,
it can be your old tomato cages. I’ve worked out a sequence,
where by this time of year – first of all, the stink bugs have been
violating my tomatoes for the past 2 weeks so I’m sick of looking
at that carnage in my garden, and it’s also time
to be done with tomatoes. So you take your old tomato cages,
get rid of the tomato plants. You can leave them in place,
put in something else, just start filling them
with shredded leaves. At the end of the fall, make sure
you’ve shredded up enough leaves to fill up everything like this, because again, you’ll never get
to the spring wishing you had done less. Now it may seem like a scam,
in the beginning, because the leaves will
shrink down in size. By the time we get to Christmas, your leaf
piles will probably be half their size. By the time we get to spring,
they’ll be half again smaller, but you still won’t seen any compost. All you’ll see is unshredded leaves,
and you’ll think I’m a fraud. Well, yes I am,
but not about this specifically. (Laughter) The dirty little secret of composting
is it’s always done on the bottom. Why? Because that’s
the least convenient place for us. (Laughter) So just lift off these tomato cages,
or just take a rake, or a broom, if you have a big open pile, and very gingerly, remove all the leaves
that still look like leaves. Down at the bottom, if it’s been
a freezing cold winter, if you’ve done nothing
to move this process along, you’ll have a beautiful pile,
of rich, black compost. Every agricultural study ever done says that 2 inches of yard waste compost made with this incredible,
nutrient-dense energy, harnessed by trees, through their leaves,
is all any plant needs to be fed, and protected from disease,
for an entire season. Two inches of compost,
that’ll take care of an American lawn. That’ll take care
of your vegetable garden. That’ll take care of your flower garden. I would say you could brew it,
and make tea out of it, and you can, but I wouldn’t drink it.
I would use the tea to feed my plants. It is everything your yard
and garden needs. Now, in the spring you’ll still have
uncomposted leaves. What are you going to do with those? Well, one of the inconveniences
of the fall leaf drop is right after the leaves come down
for us to harvest, it gets cold. As many of us know all too well,
cold slows down biological processes. So you get your least
composting action over the winter. If trees were more considerate, they would
drop their leaves in the spring. (Laughter) But they don’t. But when spring arrives,
you take those uncomposted leaves, mix them together into a big pile, they will compost down very quickly,
thanks to the warm weather. Now, what do you add to your leaves
to move things along? I had an epiphany once in Holland. I was over there
for an agricultural convention, and Holland will make you realize
that Americans know nothing. Because every schoolchild in Holland
speaks 16 languages, fluently, and we can barely speak English. No, that’s true. I got on a tour boat in Holland,
and the girl who was doing the tours would speak to everyone
in their own language. There was a Japanese couple,
she said she could do Japanese, French, German, no problem. People in front of us were Brits,
and they said English. And then my friend, and I got on the boat,
and we said: “English” too, And she goes:
“Oh, I’m sorry, aren’t you American?” (Laughter) And I go, “Yeah, what’s the difference?”,
and without missing a beat she goes, “I’ll talk faster, and slur my words.” (Laughter) So I’m at this big banquet,
as we’re getting ready to close down, and I have a Dutch high school girl,
who speaks 18 languages, and a French guy over here, and we’re
trying to converse about composting. She turns to me and goes: “He wants to know,
why you don’t like your leaves.” And I go, “I love my leaves.
What is he talking about?” And she goes,
“He says you mix garbage in with them.” (Laughter) It turns out that the entire
French Bedding Plant Industry, their entire system of horticulture, is based on what they call
“leaf mold” alone. they collect and shred
every leaf they can find, just let it sit out,
don’t add anything to it, and that’s what they use to produce
their bedding plants, in the spring. So if you’re confused about what to add
to your shredded fall leaves, don’t add anything. If leaves alone did not compost, the Earth would be covered
500 feet deep in unshredded leaves. (Laughter) “Everything rots”, as those of us
of an advancing age know all too well. They will rot. Shredding them is the only “unnatural”
thing you have to do, to move the process along.
Don’t add your kitchen garbage. I realize that is an unpopular statement, but your kitchen garbage is cold,
meaning it has no nitrogen. The real dirty little secret of compost is if you mix up kitchen waste
and fall leaves, it’s only the fall leaves
that become the finished compost. The right kind kitchen waste
can move the process along. Small amounts of the wrong kind
of kitchen waste won’t hurt anything, but it is only the leaves
that become the compost, which is why you must save,
and shred as many as possible. There is one exception,
one thing in your kitchen, that is, like myself, full of nitrogen,
that is really hot, that will move
the composting process along. It’s also rich in calcium, phosphorus,
and potassium, and that’s coffee grounds. Spent coffee grounds
add moisture to the pile. They add nitrogen to the pile. Were you to take
the standard Lehigh bin — developed by J. I. Rodale
at the Lehigh University, in 1942 — which is a 4-foot cube;
4-foot, by 4-foot, by 4-foot, fill that with leaves, mix in
5 to 10 pounds of spent coffee grounds. Believe me, coffee shops
are desperate for you to come in and ask for their coffee grounds.
Mix it all well. Whoever told you to layer
your compost pile failed physics. Because you don’t get a reaction
by isolating ingredients, you get a reaction by mixing them. Mix up those leaves,
and those coffee grounds, you can warm your hands
over that pile, for the next week. It will cook.
It will reduce in size immediately. You may get finished compost,
before the weather gets bad. Kitchen scraps, get a worm bin. I am late to the world of red worms,
and I am ashamed. I have a worm condo.
I have a rising tower of worms now. I just asked Gardens Alive
to send me 4 more levels. I’m building the Society Hill towers
of worm towers, (Laughing) and all of our cold kitchen waste
is going in there, where worms can turn it
into the only material that might even be better than compost,
nutrient-rich worm castings. A researcher once said: “Something magical happens
inside the gut of a worm. Because the material
they put out their back end is more nutrient-dense then the material
they took in their front end.” But, whatever you do,
whatever you take away from this, find a way to shred your leaves.
Save them in plastic bags. Just mulch your garden beds
with shredded leaves next spring. Earthworms will colonize that leaf litter,
and feed your plants for free. Make compost from it,
do both things from it. But don’t let it go to waste.
We love plants all year round, the leaves only come down once a year. This is your opportunity,
make the most out of it. Thank you. (Applause)

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