As a gardener, you probably have mixed emotions about Boise’s new citywide composting program.
First, there’s anticipation. Finished compost will be provided free to customers? Where do I sign up, right?
Then there’s trepidation. Uh, this mass-produced mystery mulch will come from material tossed into carts by fellow Boiseans. (Yo, neighbor! You can’t compost dirty Pampers!)
Catherine Chertudi feels your pain. As Boise’s environmental programs manager — aka “trash queen” — she wants to see the city’s composting program succeed when it launches this summer. A gardener herself, she also comprehends the palms-rubbing allure of free, finished compost.
Chertudi is candid about the black gold that should be available for pick-up starting in fall.
“It won’t be organic,” she says, “because we don’t know where it all came from.”
However, it should wind up being a beneficial soil amendment with all sorts of uses.
“We don’t think there will be any issues using it on your landscape,” Chertudi says.
Vegetable gardens? That might be a whole ’nother can of worms.
“We don’t know yet,” Chertudi says. “Because we don’t even have a product yet to test, we have to be somewhat cautious about what we tell folks. So we’re going to err on the side of being cautious until we have real compost.”
The composting program will come with a learning curve. Well-meaning Boiseans — not to mention knuckleheads who don’t care — will chuck improper stuff into carts.
The city and its waste-collecting contractor, Republic Services, will be diligent about teaching folks, Chertudi says. They’ll even reject materials.
“Our goal is that we’re going to do such a great job educating our customers that they’re going to be a great compost contributor,” shes says, “and that we will have very low levels of contaminants.”
Yard waste undoubtedly will be the chief component in compost carts. If certain weed killers find their way into the city’s compost, they could harm veggie plants such as tomatoes and potatoes — not to mention sensitive flower varieties. Persistent herbicides such as clopyralid can linger. It only takes a concentration of a few parts per billion to damage plants, according to the U.S. Composting Council.
Because Idaho restricts persistent herbicides to commercial use, those shouldn’t make their way from Boise yards into the city’s compost, Chertudi says. “Thereotically,” she adds. “It is a residential-only program, and that is partly to try to reduce that kind of risk in what we might collect. We want to do this right. We want to do the very best we can.”
After materials to be composted have been transported to Twenty Mile South Compost Facility, they will be inspected. Obvious contaminants will be removed. The compost will spend a minimum of 100 days being turned in wind rows. Temperatures of at least 140 degrees will kill weed seeds and help break down other substances. Afterward, compost will be screened to remove big bits.
Finished compost will be tested. “Very well-tested,” Chertudi says.
When compost is transported back to Boise for distribution, customers will be given those test results. That’s when veggie gardeners will get the yay or nay.
“We want to make sure that the product we create is safe, and folks will know exactly what they’re getting,” Chertudi says. “And the value of it and the use for it. It will be in plain English.”
I’m cautiously optimistic. Still, I can’t help being spooked.
Three seasons ago, I added horse manure to my garden soil. It was provided by a nice woman just outside Boise city limits. I found her on Craiglist.
She meant well. But she failed to mention that her pasture had been sprayed with herbicide the prior spring. “By the county,” she told me later. My potato plants emerged from the soil and quickly gnarled. My tomato plants twisted and even died after transplant. It was a soul-crushing disaster. It’s taken three seasons for my soil to normalize.
Chertudi listens to my sob story. But she remains hopeful.
“We aren’t taking any materials from Ada County or from any commercial facility,” she says. “Some of the states around us have actually banned those persistent herbicides. Idaho has not. So we are well aware of the fact that they are allowed to be used in Idaho. But they are restricted. They are not allowed to be used on residential property.”
What’s to stop a homeowner from using old chemicals they got somewhere else? Or from buying chemicals online and having them shipped to their homes?
Maybe I’m paranoid. As Chertudi says, the city’s finished compost will be meticulously tested.
If you’re a gardener and want to be 100-percent safe? Keep composting at home. Add that to your garden. Use free city compost in other parts of your yard. That’s the nice part about Boise’s program. You can continue to compost kitchen scraps for home use but toss other organic matter into the compost cart.
Chertudi owns a wood chipper. She plans to stop spending hours chipping wood that she can toss into a compost cart now.
“I’d rather garden,” she says. “I’d rather go pull weeds than do that!”
Chertudi intends to keep a small compost bin going at home.
“My garden is organic,” she says. “I’ve never used any pesticides or fertilizers on it other than llama manure and my own compost. I want to keep that going as an organic garden.”
But if you’re like me, and not an organic gardener? And the city’s testing indicates that its compost is safe for vegetable gardens?
I’ll probably try it on a small section of veggies — and hold my breath.
Gambling in Boise usually involves a trip to Jackpot. I’m heading over to the city’s compost distribution site instead.
Where to get free compost
Boise hopes to begin offering free compost in fall, according to environmental programs manager Catherine Chertudi.
The Boise City Forestry Division at 4969 W. Dorman St., near the Idaho Humane Society, will be open year-round. The West Boise Water Reclamation Facility at 11818 Joplin Road, below Hewlett-Packard, also will be open year-round — but it might provide compost only on scheduled dates. Neighborhood compost distribution events also are planned.
The city might be able to load compost for customers at permanent sites, but neighborhood events probably will be bring-your-own-shovel affairs.
“What we might do is bring it to a neighborhood park, dump it on the ground — first-come, first-serve,” Chertudi says. “Load what you need.”
More information is expected this summer. Learn more at curbit.cityofboise.org/composting/compost-collection-overview.