composting smart (including in a pit!), with ‘the new gardener’s handbook’ author daryl beyers
WHAT’S YOUR composting setup? Bin, tumbler or open pile—or maybe even an ingenious set of three pits in the ground (that’s one pit, above)? And most important, how is it working? More effective composting tactics, along with other timely advice to prepare for spring, was the subject of my conversation with New York Botanical Garden instructor Daryl Beyers.
The popular course that Daryl Beyers teaches at NYBG in New York City is called Fundamentals of Gardening. And now Daryl, who has more than 25 years of professional landscaping experience besides his teaching role, has put all the fundamentals into a new book, “The New Gardener’s Handbook” (affiliate link).
It was in its pages that I picked up some new-to-me tips on better composting and more—including the right way to water as you plant trees and shrubs; how to choose which limbs to prune off or keep when shaping and thinning; and how to rejuvenate overgrown shrubs (all at once, or in stages?).
Read along as you listen to the March 16, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
‘the new gardener’s handbook’ with daryl beyers
Margaret Roach: So for a number of years you’ve taught the Fundamentals of Gardening course, as I just said, at NYBG.
Daryl Beyers: Oh, yes.
Margaret: And I wonder if in that class, as in the intro to “The New Gardener’s Handbook,”whether you also tell students when they’re beginning that you see gardening as part art and part science—which I totally agree with, by the way.
Daryl: I do, I do. Really within the first 10 minutes, the way that I’m trying to explain things to my new gardening students, and sort of the same reason why I talk about it in the introduction of “The New Gardener’s Handbook,” is the idea that gardening isn’t just science, but it’s also not just guessing. And so there’s a combination of strategies that you have to kind of put together. And what I try to do is build people’s confidence by giving them the background scientific information that they need to garden smart, and to go out there and sort of feel comfortable, and to have a good time with it.
And what happens then is once you’ve sort of understand what somebody once mentioned to me is “the how-do’s of the why to’s.” That’s sort of the thinking of it. I stole that from Joe Lamp’l, who I talked to recently and…
Margaret: Love Joe; Joe’s a good friend. Yes.
Daryl: Yes. That was his line. I like to give credit to anybody who comes up with a good one. If you understand the reasons why you’re doing what people may have said that you should do to garden, what happens is you go out there and you become much more confident, and you have a little bit more fun with it. And then basically what happens is you get better at it, because you’re doing it because that’s how you learn how to garden is by doing it.
And bringing the idea of the science and also the art and craft of it together is what, to me, makes a complete gardener and somebody who can get things done out in the garden and have fun with it, too.
Margaret: So you want to help us develop our intuition by first giving us the knowledge, the solid knowledge.
Daryl: Exactly. I’m a firm believer in the fact—although, I don’t know if it… I believe it’s a fact, but maybe it’s not—that we are all gardeners inside. We can all be a gardener. It’s this genetic sort of… a genetic inheritance that we have. And I think we really, if we tap into it, we can all do it. There’s no such thing as a green thumb or no green thumb. I think everybody can do it. And so if you just want to do it, and start connecting to nature in those ways, it’ll work out for you. But you do need to have the basic science background to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. I think that’s what’s important.
Margaret: Yes. So before we get into composting and your amazing pit composting system most of all, which I just totally loved, there were so many other ahas in the book. And even though I’m not a new gardener, I got a lot out of it I want to say. Thank you.
Margaret: And so I just wanted to ask you about a couple quickly that are kind of timely for people, because maybe it’ll help them, too. It’s almost time when… or in the Southern states, it’s already time when people are transplanting, especially trees and shrubs. And I loved seeing that when you’re transplanting, you’ve dug a hole for a new tree or shrub and you’ve maybe taken it out of its ball and burlap or out of its pot or nursery pot, and you’re putting it in the hole, you don’t fill that hole completely and then stomp on it with your foot and then water it.
Daryl: [Laughter.] Right.
Margaret: Tell us the right order of things.
Daryl: You’re supposed to dig the hole and get the plant in—basically digging the right size of hole, depending on the size of the rootball, and getting the crown of the plant at grade level or the root flare of the tree at grade level—and then you put the plant the rootball inside of the hole and that’s when it’s time to water.
Daryl: The distinction is between… I make the distinction between the way that a landscaper plants a plant and the way that a gardener plants a plant. A gardener plants a plant by watering that rootball in.
The landscaper is the person that throws the soil down, stops around it a bunch of times, and then says, “O.K., onto the next one.” And they’re just sort of doing it to finish the job and go home and do something different, whereas the gardener is doing it knowing that this is a longterm prospect, I need to get this thing established the right way. And by watering the rootball before you fill in all the backfill soil, you are ensuring that the root zone of that rootball is nice and moist all the way around and all the way through. And that’s the main reason why people lose new plants, is because the rootball dries out. So that’s the first really good distinction.
Margaret: I’d say that that landscaper that you talked about, and not all people who are landscapers do this, but some companies install plants. They don’t plant plants, right? [Laughter.]
Daryl: Right. Right.
Margaret: They install them.
Daryl: Yes. There’s a difference between trying to bust out a planting and going out there and planting a garden. It’s a different approach.
Margaret: Yes. And I think of what you do, I used to call it puddling it in. It’s like gradually making sure that all those layers of that hole, especially the bottom where the roots are, where you’re going to encourage them to go are, are nice and moist and inviting. So I loved that because I think so many people do it wrong.
And I also loved a pruning sort of insight that I hadn’t really thought about. I guess I need to take a proper pruning class. But where you discussed what you could infer from where a trunk and a limb, a branch of a tree come together, the crotch, the so-called crotch- and whether it was V-shaped tighter or U-shaped and how close to 90 degrees. You say, “the closer the crotch angle to 90 degrees, the more trustworthy the limb,” when you’re trying to decide which ones are good and going to grow well and be useful to the structure of the tree or not. The ones closer to 90 degrees, the more trustworthy. Explain that to us.
Daryl: Yes. So every tree will have a slightly different kind of crotching pattern, I suppose, as far as that U-shape versus that V-shape. And I learned this from an arboriculturist years ago.
Margaret: Not Wayne Cahilly? It wasn’t Wayne Cahilly at the New York Botanical Garden, was it?
Daryl: No, it wasn’t. It was somebody that was trying to get involved on the estate where I was working. So he decided to give me a really good lesson.
Margaret: Good, good, good.
Daryl: And we brought him in because he knew his stuff. And basically what’s going on there is with the U -shaped crotch, if you if you take a close look at it, you can see how there’s a lot more wood, sort of wood mass, to hold the limb in place. The V-shaped crotch has a lot less sort of volume of wood to keep that limb safe. And so that’s the limb that’s more likely to crack and to break if it has too much weight out on the extension of it. It’s just a weaker setup, that tight V-shaped crotch.
And so when you’re looking at it, and if you’re looking to prune a tree, and maybe you have a potential crossing branch or you want to open up the canopy of a tree and do some thinning cuts or something like that, and maybe there’s a limb that you want to remove, you would always choose between the U-shaped crotch versus the slightly more V-shaped crotch.
In other words, the more acute the angle is, that would be the candidate to remove. And you can do the same thing when you’re selecting a tree, especially this time of the year. If you start looking at trees to purchase, the leaves aren’t on there yet. You can see the branching structure, and you can see what’s going to happen in the future, and you pick the tree that has more U-shaped crotches and fewer V-shaped crotches, and you know that you’re going to have a tree that ‘s going to last.
Margaret: A stronger architecture innately. Yes, yes, yes.
Daryl: Exactly. If it’s an oak tree with really strong wood and I have U-shaped crotches and if the branch is going over—even if it’s going over a structure, a house of some sort—I trust that limb. I trust it. If the tree is healthy otherwise, I will trust that limb.
Margaret: I see. So also about woody plants, there was a tip about rejuvenating shrubs and not all shrubs respond to the same treatment. And this is a time when—early spring—when things are just about to wake up and have a lot of energy, and we can do some serious pruning or some rejuvenation pruning. And I was interested that you show… You tell some different reasons why we might do it over several years, like take out one-third of the oldest stems of the shrub every year for three years—kind of the traditional wisdom of rejuvenating over several years—versus just hack the baby down. [Laughter.]
Daryl: Mostly it’s a matter of the shock to your system when you look at that shrub being completely gone. And that’s really one of the main reasons.
Daryl: Yes, it’s aesthetics. And so it’s one of the main reasons why I would do a multiyear rejuvenation prune. And it could be two years, it could be three years, it could be four years, and you just take off a corresponding percentage of the limbs each time. One nice thing about going slowly is that what happens is each year as the new growth comes in, you’re able to assess it and prune it and shape it the way that you want. And so it’s a little easier to kind of keep track of that when it’s not all just coming up all at once. And so you can slowly kind of build the shrub back into a new form.
But mostly it’s just… people get shocked. You have a 20-foot hedge row of lilac bushes and all of a sudden you just come and you knock them all the way flush to the ground, which lilacs like. The common lilac loves that to happen. About every seven to eight years, it’s a good thing to do because they’ll bloom better and be stronger. But it can be a shock to the system, because now you’re looking at your neighbor, or you’re looking at a road, or you’re looking at something that you didn’t necessarily want to be looking at all summer long. But over the course of the season it’ll grow back.
Margaret: Yes. But a couple of other, besides lilac. You have a nasty, big old forsythia that’s just way outgrown its… It’s one of the plants that I truly loathe by the way, and I don’t want one, and I don’t have one. But at any rate, there are certain sort of fast growers, gangly growers that are good for the sort of once take it down and let it redo itself. Name some other ones that are good for rejuvenation.
Daryl: Exactly. Like a honeysuckle shrub would do the same thing. Things that really start to go wild. And especially if you’ve neglected them for a while and they’ve really lost their form. Even a viburnum is something that you could do if it’s really sort of gone…
Margaret: I’ve done viburnums. I’ve done Physocarpus, the ninebark, I’ve done them sometimes multiple times. I’ve done them and some I have are over 20 something years old. Really big old guys and they come back. They just come back.
Daryl: Yes, I think that’s the thing that gardeners need to… Newer gardeners or people who maybe are a little bit afraid of doing something like that. They need to understand that if the plant has been there for a long time, if it’s been there 5, 10, 15, 20 years, it has a really good strong root system.
Margaret: Root system, yes.
Daryl: That can bring it right back. Because I talk a lot about balancing the roots and the shoots when I talk about caring for plants. We’re responsible for the roots just as much as we’re responsible for the shoots. But if the top of that plant is going crazy, and it’s really healthy and really strong and doing really well, that means you have really good roots under there. And so you can rely on those to push that new growth back. It’s going to work.
Margaret: Yes, I’ve done weigelas, too, a number of times. That’s an easy one.
Daryl: Yes. Totally. People do need to be a little bit careful about conifers, and certain evergreens.Like a Juniper isn’t going to do that. It’s not going to come back. You cut a juniper back like that, that’s pretty much the end of that particular plant.
Margaret: But a yew would come back, wouldn’t it?
Daryl: But a yew would come back. That’s why one another little slogan that I have is, “pruning is easy to learn, but difficult to master.” In other words, you need to do a little bit of research on the plant that you’re going to work with. Yes.
Margaret: Definitely. Definitely. Definitely. Yes. Yes. So composting. Yay.
Daryl: Yay. Composting.
Margaret: So we’re all going to start our spring cleanup. We’re going to generate tons of organic material. Where is it going to go? And you really have a different slant on composting. A very clear… You have some great tactics.
So just quickly before we get into your pits, because you have these sort of three pits that you describe and show pictures of. But there are other things like a tumbler, a bin, an open pile, what are those good for or not good for quickly.
Daryl: The tumbler is good for really for maybe urban gardening, or if you want to compost on a terrace or a deck and you’re just—you have limited amounts of things. You don’t… It’s not a big garden space with lots of clippings and lots of cuttings because they are limited. The kind of tumbler that you want is a dual tumbler. That’s the best one, because the trick with tumblers is you can’t just keep adding the browns and the greens, the nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich ingredients, because then you never kind of get a chance to harvest anything. You’re continually putting in fresh stuff, you need to kind of fill it and then tumble it. And then when it gets full and it finishes, then you can harvest it.
So these dual tumblers that they have out there nowadays, or if you have room for two tumblers, that’s the way where you fill one up, start tumbling and then start filling up the second one. You can do it that way, but it’s more for… I always recommend it to my more urban gardeners because they’re worried about critters getting in there, certain vermin and things like that.
Margaret: And a bin can keep some of those critters out too, can’t it? Certain of the bins are enclosed, aren’t they?
Daryl: Yes, they can, but I’ve seen a…
Margaret: [Laughter.] Raccoon.
Daryl: I’ve seen a pretty determined raccoon lift the lid off.
Margaret: I knew it was a raccoon, Daryl.
Daryl: Yes. And I’ve had some students say, “The rats ate through it.” So if you’re gardening in the city, because we have a lot of gardeners who are gardening in New York City, and it’s a different… It’s kind of a different world over there. But the other bins are great. I have a bin that I use, and it’s primarily for my kitchen scraps. That’s kind of what I focus on putting in there. If I was to put all my gardening clippings and things like that in there, it would fill too quickly, and I would never have enough space for it. But just for kitchen scraps for a family of four or something like that, it’s certainly big enough to use. Yes.
Margaret: Right. I have an open pile [above]. I have a big garden and so what would be called a windrow, I think, and so it’s about 40 feet long and I don’t know, 8 feet wide and it gets very tall in the peak season. So I couldn’t possibly use a bin or a tumbler.
But I was fascinated and I’d have to dig some pretty big pits for what you’re doing. But I just… Tell us about your pit system, your three-pit system. And then after that we’ll get some tips about preparing incoming materials and stuff, but how does this pit thing work? See, if you can conjure this for us without photos, which we’ll have with the transcript.
Daryl: Sure, sure, sure. Well, the pit system is kind of the lazy-guy gardener technique and related to the three-bin system I suppose or the three… Where people make three side-by-side bends out of chicken wire or…
Margaret: Pallets. Old wood pallets.
Daryl: Or pallets. Or even hay bales and stuff like that. Really cool techniques. And you just have three of these… you have three of these sort of bins. And so the pit method that I like to use is instead of making those bins, you basically dig a pit. And so like a 4-foot by 4-foot, maybe 2-foot-deep pit is what you could start with that would certainly handle a good portion of a small garden clippings and kitchen scraps and stuff like that.
The reason I like to use the pits is it becomes a little bit more flexible, because you build the bins and they’re kind of there and they’re sitting there and they’re going to be there until they basically sort of rot and fall apart.
Margaret: Fall apart. [Laughter.]
Daryl: Yes, because they’re going to last maybe five, seven… It depends on what you use, but the pit method is kind of a different thing where you can kind of expand and contract it as you go. And so the first thing that you do is you dig out a pit. And so you could start with 4 by 4 by 2 feet deep, and you pile the soil up next to it. And then you basically start putting your nitrogen-rich and your carbon-rich ingredients in there. And what I basically do is I put some of my kitchen scraps down. And then I sprinkle some newspaper clippings or dried leaves or something. That’s my browns.
And then I take a little bit of soil from the soil that I dug out and I cover it up. And that has done a pretty good job keeping suburban critters out of it like raccoons and dogs and rabbits and stuff like that. They tend to sort of stay out of it that way. And what I’m doing is I continue every time, I go green, brown, soil. Green, brown, soil. Because basically the soil has all the microorganisms and all the stuff that’s going to make the compost happen.
Margaret: So it inoculates it.
Margaret: And you don’t need to buy compost starter. You don’t need to pay money for that.
Daryl: No, that’s like… Don’t ever buy compost starter. Just dig some good dirt out of the garden and use that. So it’s all in there. It’s all in there. There’s billions of microbes in that. And so I keep going over and over and over and I keep building it up until it’s sort of, it’s a little bit taller than the pit itself, right? It kind of goes, maybe it’s like a foot taller than the pit. And then when that one’s full, I dig pit Number 2.
And basically while I’m filling pit Number 2, pit Number 1 is slowly working. And the nice thing about the pits is you don’t turn them, because you have soil contact around all of the ingredients, so you don’t need to turn anything. Even the bottom of the pit has soil and the sides of the pit are soil, and you’re covering it with soil. So you’re really… It’s super-rich in the organisms that are needed…
Margaret: Do you water occasionally by the way? I forgot to say that.
Daryl: If it doesn’t rain I’ll give it a sprinkle, yes.
Margaret: But not a big deal.
Daryl: No, rain tends to do it. And you want to put it in a place that’s not super-duper hot and sunny, but also not dank and shady. So somewhere kind of in-between. Like right off of my deck is my perfect spot because then I can just, after cooking I can walk out there, I drop it down into the pit, I can sprinkle some shredded mail on there, and then I can take a scoop of my dirt and toss it on and I can be done in like a minute.
Daryl: And so then I start building pit Number 2 while pit Number 1 is biodegrading and then by the time I finish pit Number 2, 1 is isn’t done yet. It’s still working, but it’s starting to shrink. I can tell that it’s happening because I can see it starting to shrink. And then I dig pit Number 3 and then while I’m filling, while I’m working on pit Number 3, by the time that gets full or maybe if it’s cycled through all the way through a whole year.
Because the thing… This process is slower, that’s one thing to remember. It doesn’t happen as quickly as a bin or definitely not as fast as a tumbler. It’s a little bit more in line with a heap or something like…
Daryl: And so if I started pit Number 1 in April, it’s going to be ready for me the next spring. Then I’ll be filling pit Number 3 over the winter. And then in the spring in March or something like that, I’ll harvest pit Number 1 and hopefully it coincides with the completion of pit Number 3. And then there we go. I start filling up pit Number 1…
Margaret: Again. Yes.
Daryl: Yes. And then I can harvest pit Number 2 sometime in the summer. So it’s just like a bin system, except you’re digging the pits. And what can happen is if you realize, “Oh my gosh, this pit’s way too big. I don’t need to do 4 by 4, I can shrink it,” so you shrink it. Or it’s like, “I just don’t have… I’m running out. I’m filling it too fast. Make it bigger.” And so it’s a little bit more flexible than building the bins, when once you build it, you’re kind of stuck with whatever size that you…
Margaret: Yes. And then they rot. [Laughter.]
Daryl: And then they rot.
Margaret: And then they rot.
Daryl: Yes, and then they rot.
Margaret: Yes, yes. Now do you chop stuff? I see a picture in the book where you’ve mentioned a couple of times like that you might put newspaper or you might put junk mail in or whatever. Do you shred that stuff or tear it up or…
Daryl: Oh yes. Oh yes.
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Daryl: And that’s really sort of the main thing that anybody who’s composting needs to understand is the smaller the pieces, the faster it breaks down. It’s just surface area. And so don’t throw a whole apple in your composting pile, chop it up a little bit. I know some people who they really go to town on it, they put it in their food processor [laughter], they put their stuff in the food processor.
Margaret: Wow. That’s a lot of work.
Daryl: Yes. I’m not going to do that, but the smaller the pieces, the better. So I shred my any sort of junk mail and things like that. And that goes in or I tear up the newspaper print or if it’s big hunks of cardboard, you really need to kind of tear that up and kind of break it down a little bit.
Margaret: And I was just curious after reading the book, it’s what’s your… Because you cover a lot of different subjects. Do you have a particular passion? Was there a favorite? Is there a favorite thing you like to teach the most in this whole curriculum?
Margaret: Or about the book. Your favorite part.
Daryl: I pretty much… I’m really, I like to stress that whole gardener’s intuition idea, because then that gives people permission to get out there and garden, and that’s how you learn how to garden is by gardening: by doing it. But really one of the most important lectures and really I think what I might consider one of the most important chapters in the book is the one about soil. And we will kind of…
Margaret: Yes, that’s what I thought from reading it. Yes.
Daryl: Yes. And we were just talking about composting. And really what ends up happening is the answer to everybody’s gardening question when it comes to soil related issues is typically, “compost.” Whether you’re adding compost to improve fertility, adding compost to improve water-holding ability: compost, compost, compost. But until people really, truly understand the importance of building a good healthy garden soil, they are always going to struggle in the garden. And so that’s that first step, because the roots and the shoots—you’re just as…
Margaret: Balance them, baby. [Laughter.]
Daryl: Yes. You’re just as in charge of those roots, so give them somewhere happy to live. And so really for me it’s about the soil and it’s kind of funny because when I took soil science at the university, I did really badly in it. I almost failed that class because I just, I couldn’t wrap my head around it and then it turned out to be this thing that’s like the most important thing. Yes.
Margaret: That’s your thing.
Daryl: Yes. Yes.
Margaret: Well, that’s what I thought. That’s what I inferred from reading the book, and it’s “The New Gardener’s Handbook: Grow a Beautiful and Bountiful Garden.” Thank you so much for making the time and I hope we’ll talk again soon.
Daryl: Oh, thank you Margaret. I would love to talk again soon.
enter to win ‘the new gardener’s handbook’
I’LL BUY A COPY of “The New Gardener’s Handbook” by Daryl Beyers for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:
What is your composting method, and how’s it going? Planning on making any changes?
No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like, “count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Good luck to all.
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
(Photo credits: All photos and illustrations from “The New Gardener’s Handbook,” except photo of Margaret’s compost pile. Used with permission.)
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