Alaska scientist fueled by passion for composting

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

Some people talk about creating compost like it is an obscure art form close to alchemy in its technically challenging process. Not Jodie Anderson, an enthusiastic soil scientist from Palmer who presented at the recent Kenai Peninsula Resources Conservation and Development District Agricultural Forum. Anderson talks about composting like people talk about their favorite movie.

Anderson said she's on a mission to transform what she calls the "cold piles of goo" that pass as compost piles in much of Alaska. She's spreading the word of the hot compost pile, encouraging people to use the resources right in their backyards to create compost to augment Alaska's largely lacking soils.

"Alaska has all the sources it needs to make great compost," she said. "We just need to use it."

One obvious source for those living along the state's oceans and rivers is fish. Anderson said she's been stinking up labs across the state with concoctions of fish and cardboard. Successful fish composting examples can be found across the state using fish and wood chips or peat moss.

"One million metric tons of fish is ground up and put back into the water," Anderson said, noting that the fish waste causes problems in some waters. Instead, she'd like to see the fish waste used to enrich the state's soils.

Sources of nitrogen like fish waste are abundant -- kitchen scraps, garden waste, lawn clippings and manure all fall in this category. Finding enough carbon to balance out all that nitrogen and get it working into a hot pile can be a little more challenging, but Anderson said that's not impossible either. Carbon sources need to be about three-quarters of a compost pile and are typically things like straw or hay. But wood chips and even cardboard can do the trick, Anderson said.

Since pretty much everything in Alaska arrives in a cardboard box, there's plenty of cardboard to go around. Anderson said while visiting rural Alaska communities, she has witnessed box burning night -- when everyone brings their cardboard out and has a big bonfire. That's crazy, she said, because that cardboard could be turned into much needed soil amendments for your garden. While some questioned the chemical components of cardboard when trying to achieve relatively clean compost, Anderson said most of the chemicals used in the process of making cardboard are broken down by the microbes that turn everything into compost. The only issue with compost is that it tends to rob the pile of oxygen, she said, as it starts to break down. Wetting the cardboard down and shredding the moistened material works well and is easy, she said.

Spruce chips have been considered too acidic or difficult to break down by many composting enthusiasts, but Anderson said again, the process of composting negates most of the acidic properties producing an end product that is fairly neutral. Anderson said she advocates using larger wood chip pieces, even if the end product still has chunks of wood in it. The larger chips allow more airflow in the pile, she said.

Once your materials are gathered and layered together, Anderson said the fun part begins.

"You are a zookeeper," she said. "You now have a microbial zoo."

Anderson said you don't have to add anything special to your pile -- not even soil -- all the microbes needed to get things rolling are found in the materials you've already added. And you certainly don't have to add any store-bought mycorrhiza fungi or other additives -- those get scorched by the heat of the microbial activity early in the composting process. If you buy those additives, Anderson said, add them later on after the pile has reduced. But you don't need to add anything -- it's all there already.

Your pile materials do need to be damp (not soggy and not dry), and if you want to know if they are the right wetness, Anderson offers up this highly technical approach:

"Stick your arm into it," she said. "Birth that calf."

When you reach into your pile, pull a handful of contents out. If you pull it out and there's water running down your arm, it's too wet. If it falls apart in your hand, it's too dry. If you pull it out, squeeze it and a little bit of moisture comes out, you've got it right.

Assuming there is proper airflow and wetness, plenty of carbon and some nitrogen, the resulting pile should get hot fast.

"These bugs are like a kid with a candy bar," Anderson said. "When bugs are happy, they release a lot of heat."

The pile should be about 130 degrees in a day and a half, she said. There's no need to do anything at this stage -- just leave the bugs to do their stuff. The pile shouldn't get over 165 degrees or it will kill the microbes that are eating all the carbon, but if the temperature does get that high, simply turning the pile should do the trick. Likely, there was too much water on that pile, she said.

After about five days, Anderson suggests taking the temperature, again, by sticking your arm into the pile -- though you can use a thermometer if you want to get "techy." If it has cooled down, then it's time to turn the pile, providing fresh fodder for your microbes.

And here's the rub. That huge pile you created should have shrunk as much as half. But the resulting product will be gold for your plants, she said. You do, however, have to employ some patience after you orchestrate the initial composting event. Now, she said, turn the pile every ten days or so for a month, and lastly, let it sit for a year.

While the compost may look good after a month or two, it won't have many of the beneficial microbes in it until next year.

Once the pile is done curing, Anderson suggests using it half-and-half with soil. Compost tends to be salty, she said, so using pure compost to grow in is not a good idea, especially with salt intolerant plants like peas.

Compost can dramatically change your garden's productivity, Anderson said, noting studies she has conducted on crops using various forms of compost. And it's not rocket science, nor does it require a lot of expensive equipment or technical expertise.

"Alaska has a tremendous amount of waste," she said. "We have everything we need locally to develop our own soil."

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.


By Carey Restino
Arctic Sounder