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Can You Compost Correspondence?

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Q. Mike: I bought a papershredderfor my office paper, bills, etc., and it occurs to me that theshreddings mightmake a good mulch for my vegetable garden instead of the costly salthay I usenow. It also seems like it might be a good Fall leaf compostreplacement in midsummer when all we have is green things to put into the pile. However,one ofmy co-community-gardeners thought that the inks used to print the billsmightbe toxic. I am also thinking of shredding all the tablet paper that Iuse to writeproposals (ball point, pencil and felt tip writing) and paper from myink jetprinter (color and black & white). What do you think? Are any ofthesethings toxic?
           Thanks—I love your show!
                       --Charlie Evers;
QueenVillage Community Garden; Philadelphia

A. Ah yes, tis the seasonof manyregrets about missed leaf snatching opportunities last Fall. This iswhy I harpon you poor people all October and most of November to collect andshred everyprecious Fall leaf you can find! AND to steal all the SPBs (StoopidPeopleBags) put out with the trash; those poor unconverted souls may befoolishenough to throw away compost's most essential ingredient and the secondbestmulch known to man—but don't you be so foolish as to let the DeadliestGardenSin of Fall—Pride—prevent you from rustling and wrestling the bags intoyourtrunk so those sanctified storehouses of carbon may be freed to pursuetheirmanifest destiny!

You'renot"trashpicking" when you perform this ecologically-correct service!You're theRed Cross of Deciduous Rescue!  Think about it—without yourblessedintervention, those poor leaves would probably go into a—gasp—landfill,sharingspace with lids from old cat food cans and headless Barbie dolls(no—its NOT apretty picture!) or be torched in an incinerator, their normallypleasant smokesullied by the less than wholesome smell of a poor unwanted old blackand whiteGameboy melting away. Forget your needs,Charlie—do it for the leaves!

Sorry.Anyway, that IS your long-term solution, and an easier one than you maythink,considering your situation. You, Charles, have gone above and beyondour meagerrequest for a name and some pitiful indication of the gardener'slocation(hemisphere, Greenwich time zone…) and indicated that you toil in acommunitygarden in addition to naming your city in your inquiring email. ThisFall, Iurge you to organize your fellow 'plotters' to gather up all the leavestheycan find and horde them at the garden over winter for mulching andcompostingcome Spring.  Perhaps assign spotters to shine The Leaf Signalagainstmoody clouds when they find a neighborhood whose streets are lined withSPBs;then the group can clamber into The Leaf Mobile and rescue thosemineral-richtreasures before they fall into the pitiless maw of the trash truck 

Butfornow, stick with the salt hay.

First,itis premium material.  I generally recommend that people buy balesof strawfor compost and mulch if they're out of leaves. I WOULD say salt hayfirst, butI don't want people getting bummed out when they can't find the stuff.So ifyou've got a source, buy it! See if your fellow community gardenerswant to goin on a big purchase—then maybe you can get a better price on a groupdelivery!

Second,paper is, sadly, problematical.  Let's take direct mail (which youprobably call junk mail, but I don't because it paid my mortgage themany yearsI was Editor-in-Chief of dear old ORGANIC GARDENING magazine). Thereare issueswith the inks, with the coatings used to make the slick paper allbright andshiny and slippery, and with the paper itself—which was likely bleachedandtherefore contains some amount of dioxin 

Samewithshredded office paper. No two papers are alike, and some are bleachedwithdioxin-creating chlorine. And while recycled paper is, I believe, aboon to theenvironment in many ways, it may well have been chemically treated towhiten itas well 

Asyou canimagine, I have lots of gardens to mulch. And I get LOTS of mail. Itake it allto the local recycling center, where I am told that Marcal turns itintonapkins and the discreetly named "toilet tissue" (every once in a whileIwonder if I'm using one of my old columns).  I don't use it formulch orcompost and have really never been tempted. (And yes, even I sometimesrun outof leaves by August. I buy a bale of straw.)

Now,if youwant to use some shreddings to mulch flowers and other strictlyornamentalplants, go ahead. Just don't use that ground for edibles.

ButI wouldnever consider paper for compost making.  Forget the possiblecontaminants; there's no nutrition in shredded paper! Being a tree isso longin their past, its barely a dim bulb memory to those processed sheets.I knowthat many people compost so that they can avoid tossing their kitchenwasteaway, but the REAL value to your GARDEN comes from the LEAVES! Thatkitchen waste is largely just food for the organisms that will breakdown theleaves and release the incredible storehouse of nutrients within. Youcancompost leaves all by themselves and get an excellent compost.  Asthoseof you who've made the mistake know all too well, if you try andcompost greenwaste all by itself you get yucky slimy green waste.

Recyclethepapers.  Mulch with your precious salt hay and be happy you canget it.The rest of you out there, settle for straw if you can't. (Just makesure it'sNOT hay; those seedheads will make your garden a weedy mess!) Or, ifyou knowsomeone with an herbicide-free lawn, collect their driedclippings—they're the#1 Best garden mulch! And if finding leaves for proper compost makingseems anendless chore, use a worm bin to change your kitchen trash into gardengoldinstead. Those little wigglers produce the only fertilizer that'sactuallyBETTER than compost!


©2004 MikeMcGrath

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