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Everything You Know About Composting is Wrong by Mike McGrath (Transcript)

Mike McGrath at TEDxPhoenixville

Full text of You Bet Your Garden host Mike McGrath on Everything You Know About Composting is Wrong at TEDxPhoenixville conference.

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Was it Chekhov [Anton 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?

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, 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.”

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.

And they’re waiting, and they’re waiting, and at the end of the season they take the composter off, and they have a big pile of kitchen garbage. 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? He blows all this nutrient dense material onto his neighbor’s driveway.

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 two American men who are being occupied, who otherwise might get into real serious mischief.

But eventually, even an America man is going to realize, “Harry and I have been blowing these leaves around for three months and they’re still on the ground.”

So that’s when the American man digs out the rake and then he goes to the hardware store, or Home Depot, 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 read this part, you finally get religion.

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. 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 who are 15 years old, these are in mint condition, down in the basement.

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. If you are doing hard work while gardening, you’re not paying attention.

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 matt 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’d want to avoid doing the same thing, so the only thing we have to do with our leaves is shred them.

And if all you do is shred up your leaves, put them in a contained bin, it can be as simple as a big wire enclosure, it can be a fancy, dancy composter you buy, it can be tumbler, it can be your old tomato cages. I’ve worked out a sequence, whereby this time of year — first of all, the stink bugs have been violating my tomatoes for the past two 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.

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