The Composting Program at the Teaching Garden

The composting program at the Teaching Garden (TG) began many years ago as 3 random piles where garden waste was placed,  but rarely turned over. This original site was eventually moved and renovated to make a more permanent operation. The new bins were made out of pallets and tended by Ed Rishell,  Leslie Paulson, and others at the TG.  The bins that are currently used were made by the Boy Scouts for an Eagle Scout project.  Ed Rishell, who passed away in 2015, mentored several of the volunteers who now work  the composting program: Joe Ray, Bob Carter, Fred Rash, Dave Robison, Larry Lehowicz and Ross Eagles. Ed is also known for his outstanding  bulletins on composting that are published by Virginia Cooperative Extension, and can be found at:

Today’s TG composting program is pretty much a full time operation. Master Gardeners Joe, Bob, Dave and Fred can be found working on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Rain or shine they can be found taking temperatures, turning piles, trying out new things, and chipping large wood pieces into smaller. Of course, this is not their only volunteer projects. Joe Ray, the leader of the composting operation, is the president of the Rapidan Chapter of Trout Unlimited, manages Camp Love for kids affected by cancer, and helps clean up several miles of the Rapidan River each year. You can also find him giving talks on composting to garden groups, Saturdays in the Garden, and at PWC Compost Day.  He is an organic gardener and spends a lot of time outdoors maintaining his property on Bull Run mountain. Dave Robison also volunteers for the Best Lawns program, helps with the MGPW audit, is a neighborhood plant expert, and is a coordinator (with Mary Ellen Farley) for the Dale City Farmers Market. Dave is also a VCE Volunteer for Financial Education. Bob Carter, who is often side by side with his MG wife Harriett, has been a Master Gardener since 2012 and has been at the TG since 2013. Harriet, Leslie Paulson and Bob can also be found at the Juvenile Detention Center helping with the Wildlife Garden. He is an Audubon at Home Ambassador, volunteers at the Fauquier Experimental Farm, Plant Clinics, Manassas Farmer Market, and many more projects in PWC.  Fred Rash graduated in the class of 2014 and spent time with the Compost Team as an intern. You find him also volunteering at ACTS HQ, and at the Dale City Farmers Market. Fred is the Interim Chair for Internal Communications.  Larry Lehowicz and Ross Eagles have also help through out the years and come by from time to time.


The composting area has three initial bins that contain differing textures of materials. Master Gardeners working in the Teaching Garden place their waste in these:

  1. Green material with modest amounts of soil, weeds and unwanted plants, small brown material and leaves. (This can include organic, pesticide free, composted, herbivore manure.)
  2. Stalks, brown material from large plants, small root systems, small woody twigs, dried vines
  3. Large woody material, large stocks and limbs. These are often run through a chipping device to make the pieces smaller and easier to compost. 

    Some of the garden waste that cannot be composted include plant labels, pots, stones, nails, etc.


Material from these bins are layered in 3 ft x 3 ft, minimum,  pile sizes. Water is added as they are built and no activators are added. The recommended ratio of green:brown material  is 3:1 and this material is added in layers.  Organic, composted manure or manure brine from herbivores (llama, alpaca, chicken or cow) is sprinkled every 4 layers, along with some water, and turned into the pile. Horse manure is not recommended because it contains a high amount of urine and salts, which can be toxic to plants. Each compost pile is different because of the materials used, and the volunteers turn the piles accordingly.  The temperature is checked often and water is added if needed. It is important to “turn” the piles often to provide needed oxygen for decomposition. In “hot” composting, the temperature is maintained at 122-140 degrees F and can be completed in 2-3 months.  This temperature is adequate to kill pathogens and weed seeds).  “Cold” composting is kept at temperatures between 77 and 108 F and can take 6 months to 2 years to complete.

After composting is completed,  the material is transferred to another area where it is “cured”. The curing phase ensures the most active phase of decomposition is complete, where the compost becomes mature and won’t harm crops. It is considered mature when it no longer heats up and this phase can take 1 or more months to complete.  The finished product is dark, crumbly with an earthy smell.

Most of the compost generated at the Teaching Garden is used in the sustainable vegetable beds.  The composting program allows MGs to completely recycle weeds and waste plant material from the beds. Combined with organic manure from herbivores, no added fertilizers are needed, soil texture and structure are maintained,  and drainage is optimized.  Healthy soil grows healthy plants!


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