Dave Majewski is one of my favorite Buffalo citizens. I know no one more concerned about this community. I’ve written before about the Urban Habitat he developed at the Central Terminal, but recently I spent several hours talking about composting with Dave at his facility on the East Side where he is partnered with Ed Shanahan of Emerald Services.
The reason for our lengthy conversation: It turns out that compost raises many complex problems involving living fungi, protozoans, nematodes and microscopic arthropods; as well as how to control temperature, acidity, minerals and odor.
Good-quality compost has much to offer. It promotes plant establishment, improves moisture retention, reduces the need for fertilizers, suppresses soil-borne plant diseases, prevents erosion, controls weeds and diverts a valuable resource from landfills.
Compare the soil of your yard with the soil created by long-term decay in a mature forest. Go a few feet off the compacted woodland trail and you will find soft dirt that crumbles in your hand. Don’t try that in your yard: the clay there is tough to dig even with a spade.
You might think that forest soil is derived from those leaves that dropped last year. That would be absolutely wrong. The story is far more complicated and it almost certainly took a century or two for that humus to reach its current quality.
Can composting change your yard soil into forest soil? Certainly not, but careful treatment can at least improve it and, far more important, set in motion soil’s own self-improvement schedule. The lawn treatment Dave suggested is straightforward: First, have it aerated by a machine that takes out plugs of soil. Second, spread a quarter inch of high-quality compost. You’ll need to do this only once or twice, and the best time to do so is in autumn.
I hope what I have written will encourage you to use compost to improve the soil on your lawn and in your garden. You will notice, however, that each time I have mentioned compost I have stressed high-quality.
And therein lies the rub. Dave is convinced that many of the products offered by gardening retailers do not live up to reasonable standards. Many of them sold as turf enhancers, topsoils, lawn food, garden fertilizers and weed-and-feed products provide very little of lasting value and often increase longer-term problems. Like designer drugs, once your lawn gets a taste, it needs more and more and that serves only the retailer. Some of these products also pollute our water and harm birds.
Dave and I discussed these concerns while standing in his Armbruster Street lot surrounded by about two dozen 10-foot-high mounds of “steaming” compost. Despite the tons of material, some of which registered over 170 degrees, the only slight odor was that of mild cocoa.
Although the piles seemed all the same at first, I soon realized they differed in color and texture. When I first entered the yard, Dave was turning over one of them with a huge tractor scoop exposing billows of steam.
The mounds differ significantly in makeup. The materials include manure from poultry and horse farms, grass clippings, brush and wood chips from pruning operations, rejected produce and cardboard boxes from a food distributor as well as some proprietary materials. Dave carefully mixes these constituents and keeps meticulous records of what happens, adjusting ingredients when appropriate. The piles initially generate a great deal of internal heat, killing not only bad bacteria but also weed seeds, but over weeks the temperature moderates and only then does the product become usable as high-quality compost.
Dave has researched composting and consulted with regional scientists for many years so he knows the technical literature (he recommends the book “Grass, Soil, Hope”) but he remains convinced that developing good compost is only 40 percent science with 60 percent art derived from experience.
His operation serves mainly commercial users and wholesalers, but he is considering making his compost available to the public. I hope he will. Until then, his advice for individuals is to find a trusted seller, if possible one with credentials from professional organizations like the U.S. Composting Council. For more information visit srgofbuffalo.com or contact Dave at 432-2960 or SRGBuffalo.gmail.com.