Gardeners find composting to be natural way to go green

Melissa Crowe By Melissa Crowe

April 21, 2013 at 9:05 p.m.
Updated April 20, 2013 at 11:21 p.m.

Roy Cook holds a handful of his special natural decomposing compost that came from his tumbler-style container.

Roy Cook holds a handful of his special natural decomposing compost that came from his tumbler-style container.   Frank Tilley for The Victoria Advocate

A cloud of fruit flies swarm above one of Roy Cook's compost piles.

Rotten oranges and dead leaves mingle with cracked egg shells and old tea bags, creating a harmonious mixture of carbon and nitrogen - a feast for the tiny flies - and the most basic element to any successful garden: good soil.

"If it smells, it's too wet," Cook said. "If it's got ants, it's too dry."

As long as the ingredients don't have bugs or disease, they go in one of the 4-by-4-by-4-feet hog-wire bins.

Throughout his past 23 years of living on Salem Road, Cook, 78, has transformed the hard clay ground into fertile soil by tilling in compost.

"I firmly believe in it," said Cook, a master gardener who retired from the military. "It's my soil, and I want it healthy."

The US Composting Council backs up Cook's claims.

Although some equate its benefits to lush green growth, the real benefits of using compost are long term and related to its organic matter content, according to the composting council.

Compost can suppress plant diseases, degrade pollutants and toxic compounds like petroleum, restore native wetlands, control erosion, provide resistance to drought and control weeds.

Cook sees it as an economical issue. It makes healthier plants and is less expensive and better-working than fertilizer. However, other master gardeners, like Charlie Boren, take on different compost ideologies.

Boren looks up to Cook's style, although she takes a more "hands-off" approach.

For her, it's practical and philosophical.

"Somewhere along the way, you realize this is what you need to do," Boren said. "It makes sense."

According to information from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service , one of the most prominent environmental issues facing Texas is solid waste management.

Although landfills are filling at an alarming rate, the extension agency reports that composting can reduce waste by 80 percent, which means putting less in the landfill.

Boren saves tissues and Q-tips, food scraps, dryer lint and biodegradable materials - basically anything without animal protein - to add to her two compost piles in her backyard on Tropical Drive.

The compost makes rich soil she uses in flower beds around her back fence, wildflowers in the front yard and potted plants around the house.

Boren, like Cook, knows unhealthy soil will not support healthy plants.

"The time involved depends on how much time you want to put in it," Cook said. "Everybody's got a flower bed; even people in apartments have potted plants."

Cook grew up on a Florida farm, so gardening has always been a part of his life. Now, it's part of the way he earns a living selling produce at the Victoria Farmers Market.

"I just like to grow my own stuff," Cook said. "I know it tastes better."

Each week, he loads up bushels of produce, squash, beets and tomato varieties many connoisseurs have never heard.

"Most everything out here was started from seeds," Cook said. "I can't say it's organic because it's not certified."

He has a distinguished reputation among gardeners for his composting setup and is sought after to teach the craft at lectures and luncheons.

Furthermore, he said, the majority of soil in Victoria County does not need fertilizer.

"It has high phosphorus and potassium in the soil already," Cook said. "It's a waste of money. All you need is nitrogen."

All the food scraps provide nitrogen, which breaks down the carbon in dried leaves.

He spreads leaves under all his plants to keep the produce off the dirt and to help retain moisture in the soil.

Although Boren's compost projects benefit her flowers, she uses many of the same methods.

Along with the compost, she collects rainwater and is an avid supporter of recycling.

"This is our earth. We need to take care of it," Boren said. "It's the right thing to do."

She grew up in New Jersey and has been recycling since she was 10 years old. When she got married and started her own family, she instilled the same values.

"We as individuals can all make a difference," Boren said. "We don't need the city or state to tell us we need to make a difference."

She has plans to expand her 50-gallon rainwater collection system to 500 gallons.

In her garage, she stores hundreds of milk jugs, usually filled with rainwater.

"It's perfect for potted plants," Boren said. "For an inch of rain, you can get a lot."

When she became a master gardener, she said, she wanted to take her hobby a step further. She made it her responsibility to take care of the environment.

"We started composting and looking at other things we could do," Boren said. "You start with one change. You don't have to do a lot."


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