Greenprint: Using Compost to Fertilize Gardens

Spring fever has officially set in and naturally, one of the things on many people’s minds is gardening. We recommend incorporating “gardener’s gold” as you prep your plots this year: Composting can help you save money while also reducing waste and improving the quality of your soil. As you work on cleaning up your yard, you can add the materials to a compost bin and toss in your organic food scraps – they’ll naturally decompose to create a nutrient-rich fertilizer that will help you grow healthy plants.

There are many benefits to composting:

  • Reduce landfill waste. Nearly 30 percent of the garbage that is sent to Michigan landfills could actually have been composted.
  • Decrease the amount of greenhouse gases produced by food waste sent to landfills.
  • Improve soil quality by adding compost to gardens.
  • Reduce the use of chemical fertilizers.
  • Save money – use your own compost instead of purchasing fertilizer from a store.

How to compost at home:

  1. Choose an area in your backyard with good drainage and shade.
  2. Start the pile with a layer of twigs or mulch as a base.
  3. Add a thin layer of “green” materials, e.g., fruit and vegetable peelings, grass clippings or weeds.
  4. Cover with a layer of “brown” materials, e.g., dry leaves, twigs, paper or straw.
  5. Moisten your compost pile.
  6. Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5.
  7. Turn the pile every four to six weeks.

*Avoid placing meat or dairy products in compost.

You’ll be able to use the compost in your gardens in three or four months. If you’d like to speed up the process or don’t have room for an outdoor compost pile, you can purchase a batch-style composter for under $100 at most hardware stores. These bins can be placed on decks and take up less space in your yard.

For more in-depth information on the benefits of composting as well as detailed instructions on how to compost, you can refer to and

We’re breaking down organic matter at the Detroit Zoo on a much grander scale! More than 500 tons of waste is generated annually by the animals that live here. So, in order to reduce our ecological footprint and move closer to reaching our goal of becoming waste-free, we constructed an anaerobic digester on Zoo grounds. Anaerobic digestion is a process by which plant and animal materials are broken down, producing a methane-rich gas. This renewable energy will be used to power the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo, saving us $110-120,000 a year in energy costs. By diverting manure and food waste from the landfills, we are also reducing the greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change – methane and carbon dioxide – in the atmosphere. The remaining nutrient-rich material will be used as compost to fertilize the gardens throughout the Zoo’s 125 acres.

Next time you are at the Zoo, check out our new sign detailing the anaerobic digestion process and contemplate the impact of keeping 55 wheelbarrows of manure each day out of the landfills!

Join us on our Green Journey and begin composting this spring! Take a look at the many other steps you can take to help us create a more sustainable future by downloading our Shades of Green guide.

– Rachel Handbury is the manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the award-winning Greenprint initiatives.

Education: Humane Horticulture with Children’s Village

For more than six years, the Detroit Zoological Society’s Berman Academy for Humane Education has led a gardening program with Oakland County Children’s Village that helps to instill reverence and respect for wildlife and wild places with the 12-17-year-old boys residing there. Children’s Village provides a safe, structured environment for youth that includes secure detention, residential treatment and shelter care services. While there are approximately 16 to 20 teens that participate in the garden program at any given time, the resident population changes regularly, so we’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of boys through the course of this program.

The boys implement the garden from start to finish, and I work right alongside them with Claire Lannoye-Hall, a DZS curator of education. We incorporate a number of projects throughout the year, in addition to cultivating a fruitful harvest. A lot of emphasis is placed on how we can humanely interact with the wildlife that we find in and around the garden, which includes implementing measures that humanely deter wildlife from eating our cherished produce. For example, we’ve built a fence, made wind chimes out of discarded DVDs, and used cayenne pepper flakes to discourage the resident groundhog from nibbling on our plants. The young gardeners learn to avoid some conventional deterrents that are not humane, like predator urines for example, as the urine is often harvested from animals that reside on fur farms in deplorable conditions.

While this program mainly takes place in the summer months, we still visit the boys on a regular basis throughout the rest of the year. It’s important for us to have a consistent presence – for the boys to know that they can depend on us showing up. One of our favorite winter projects is making fleece toys for dogs that reside in local shelters. After the boys finish, I deliver the toys and take pictures of the dogs having fun with their new playthings. The boys take great delight in seeing the pictures and knowing they’ve brought some joy to these pups. Another project we’ve done for the past few years is making Valentine’s Day cards for pediatric patients at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, using pressed flowers from our garden. It’s quite heartwarming to see how thoughtful the boys are when crafting their messages and designing the cards. Our projects are often centered around being kind to others, as there’s research that shows when you’re kind to someone else, it helps to foster empathy within.

One of our favorite projects is our photography project in which the boys take pictures of the garden and surrounding area. It’s amazing to see them take a picture of a bee resting on a sunflower that they’ve planted from seed or a tiny tree frog climbing on the side of a raised bed that they made with their own hands. There’s a lot of delight and wonder that comes from observing nature from behind the lens of a camera.

As you can imagine, our garden program is always one of the highlights of my week. I look forward to see how it continues to unfold in years to come.

Lisa Forzley is the humane education manager for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Berman Academy for Humane Education.