- Author: Debbie Schnur, UCCE San Bernardino County Master Gardener
Have you considered composting in your school or community garden, but don't know where to start? Based on my experience, I can tell you it's easier and more rewarding than you think! In November 2020, a team of San Bernardino County Master Gardeners and trainees embarked on a mission to develop a composting system for the Root 66 Community Garden in Rancho Cucamonga. Now, a little more than eight months later, the system is fully functional, the first compost pile is curing, and the second pile is growing larger by the week. Thanks to committed volunteers, local businesses, and the City of Rancho Cucamonga, the initial composting mission has been accomplished.
What is composting and why is it so important? Composting is a method of decomposing organic waste into a nutrient-rich, humus-like material. When used as a soil amendment, compost improves the biological, chemical, and physical characteristics of the soil. It increases water retention of sandy soils and drainage of clay soils. Adding garden trimmings and food scraps to a compost pile reduces landfill waste and greenhouse gas emissions. In a community setting, composting turns organic waste into an asset to enrich gardens and support local food production.
During the first phase, our team determined the system and site requirements to guide the design of the composting system. We chose a simple 3-bay system constructed of wooden pallets that would be easy and inexpensive to build, use, and maintain.
After the design was finalized in the second phase, our Resource Group began identifying local businesses, organizations, and individuals willing to provide donations and funding to obtain materials, tools, and supplies. At the end of February 2021, we held our first composting workshop to promote the benefits of composting and solicit input from garden and community members about our project plans. To create a safe environment during the COVID-19 pandemic, we held the event outside and followed local social distancing and masking protocols.
By April, we were ready to build the composting system. On a sunny Saturday morning at 8 am, 12 Master Gardeners arrived at Root 66 with their power tools. Fueled by coffee and donuts, the group completed construction and cleanup by noon. Within days, garden members were already asking if they could start composting. Little did we know our work was just beginning.
At the start of the third phase, we needed to educate ourselves about the composting process to avoid health and safety issues. One reference that was particularly helpful was “Community Composting Done Right: A Guide to Best Management Practices”, available on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website, ilsr.org. We decided to use the hot (thermophilic) composting method. Although it requires more work than cold (passive) composting, it produces a finished product more quickly and kills weed seeds and pathogens. The main ingredients of composting are greens, browns, water, and oxygen. Greens are materials high in nitrogen such as fresh fruit and vegetable scraps, garden trimmings, grass clippings, eggshells, and coffee grounds. Browns are materials high in carbon such as wood chips and shavings, shredded newspaper, dry leaves, and straw. The microbes that drive decomposition during composting require the proper amount of water and oxygen to thrive. When the moisture content is optimal, the compost will feel like a wrung-out sponge. When oxygen levels become too low, the compost will begin to smell. Your senses will tell you if you're doing it right!
To prepare to start composting, our team created a site layout plan and composting process flow chart. At the end of May, we officially “cut the ribbon” on the Root 66 composting system and created the first compost pile using free wood chips, plant material from the garden, and food waste from local coffee shops, juice bars, and a brewery.
Once we fully understood the composting process, it was time to share our knowledge with the community. In June and July, the Education Group spent nearly every Saturday morning at the garden, distributing informational flyers and encouraging gardeners to contribute materials for composting. We installed signage in the composting area to show where to leave different types of waste. The City of Rancho Cucamonga supported two public workshops in July by promoting the events through Healthy RC and providing finished compost, seeds, and hand tools to use as giveaways.
The Master Gardener project formally ends at the end of August. To wrap up the fourth phase, our team will complete the project documentation, transfer ownership to the Root 66 Community Garden, and celebrate our accomplishments. As it turns out, this is perfect timing. Root 66 is about to start receiving support from the Community Composting for Green Spaces program to expand its composting operations. Administered by the California Alliance for Community Composting (CACC) and funded by a grant from the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecyle), the program aims to launch or improve community-scale compost sites in six regions, including the Inland Empire.
As I reflect on my first experience of community composting, I realize it not only benefits the environment, it also engages, educates, and empowers the community. It's an opportunity to build strong social bonds and leave a lasting legacy. While community composting requires a concerted, long-term team effort, the process is not particularly complex or costly once the system is set up. So why not get started? For more information about composting at Root 66, contact email@example.com.