Replay Episode 57: Composting in the Suburbs | Long Island, NY |Peter Ramos

Peter Ramos has been gardening on Long Island’s temperate climate for almost 20 years, and has learned many methods for being effective and efficient with a busy family life. He’ll share successful strategies for creating healthy compost, planting perennial beds that look beautiful and enhancing the landscape and some trials and tribulations of growing trees.

Tell us a little about yourself.

Live in the suburbs about 30 miles, a little over an hour from New York City on Long Island, kind of the opposite of the Peter you talked to yesterday who lives further out on the island, so your classic suburb, part of a sort of development area, we’ve lived here almost 20 years.  So I live here with my wife and 2 daughters. And you could reference the interview you did with our mom on episode 10 and you could get two perspective growing up on Long Islands. I like you were very influenced by our parents, both my wife and I love gardening alot.

I could talk about how they influenced me to doing a compost pile. Growing up we did that, and when of the first things we did when we first moved in, I’m not gonna say I did it right away, but after a couple of years, we were lucky enough to have a little area behind the garage which was out of site, cause it’s one of those things where everyone has to make those decisions.

If they’re doing a compost pile, like where am I gonna put it?

Cause it’s not the super most attractive thing, so where am I gonna put it, do I have to worry about smell, or anything and animals. And I was able to find this area, I put it behind the garage by the fence. The first one I bought this border type fence, and I put that in the ground, and I carved out between a 4’x8′ area. It’s like 2’ or 3’ wood slats, the kind of thing you put around the garden, like a white picket fence, rolled up. I don’t know how else to describe it, but a border fence. That was the first go around. That lasted many years, then we remodeled the house, it got neglected, there was like debris on top of it, and it sort of got away from us. So then last year, I was finally able to get it going again, basically the second round, I was able to find some 2x4s and cut those up and put those into the ground and use some chicken wire up. So these are different ways of attacking it.

Add lime

I guess you can use some lime if you get smell, but we never had smell. Because we have a dog, we have a fenced in yard, which probably also helps. People think – the suburb we live in, we get raccoons, and possums, you get squirrels & rabbits, etc, because we have a cat and a dog, we never have too many problems with pests or occasionally we get a squirrel who I guess attacks certain things.

So in the decision you have to think about where am I gonna put it and how am I gonna contain it? So there are things I always talk to people about. Do you want to put it behind some shrubs, where is a good spot maybe that is gonna be tucked away? It’s not the most attractive thing for people to look at. We’ve been lucky that way. And also, in terms of building it, I was lucky to have some found things around it was really easy to do, and now we’re very excited about it again!

Do you want to share what you put in it?

Pretty basic. All of our vegetable scraps from our food prep, we do a lot of cooking. Through spring, summer, into fall, go dormant for the winter.  We add egg shells, coffee grinds, tea, tea bags, then of course we try to do as much, grass clippings, obviously the grass that’s cut we put in there. Then we do that throughout that period, then we reach that point, where we get in the fall, and just cover it with leaves, let it sit through the winter, then come the spring you turn it over and you’ve got it to use. And that’s basically it and it works out pretty well.

The things we do the most any more is planters on the deck, my wife uses it that way, that it’s been really successful. We’ve had some really nice flower parts that way.

By then, the following year, it’s become dirt. It really breaks down we’ve discovered, some things take longer to break down, like avacado skins, especially also corn, corn husks, take longer. Most of it breaks down pretty quickly.

Do you cut up the corn husks etc to make it easier?

No, not really but I do smash up things like pumpkins, watermelon rinds. Break it down and create like a mush, you want things to break down sooner then later.

It is one of these things that, I don’t want to claim I’m any kind of expert, I’m just saying it does work, from experience. You have to tend to it, you do have to do it regularly, turn it every couple of days otherwise it clumps up.

But turning it takes what 2 minutes?

Mmmm. It takes a little bit more. You definitely have to do it at least once or twice a week. If you want it to break down sooner then later? If you want the grass clippings to break down, you have to do a couple of inches deep at least. I use a cultivator, it’s a four pronged, garden tool that has like those prongs, 4 sharp pointy, but it’s got that curve, it’s like a hoe, but its got these prongs.

I don’t use a pitch fork, I did that for year, and then I realized that this cultivator really breaks up the grass, and breaks up the dirt and moves it well, even if your just moving it back and forth. It’s one of those things you kind of have to do like semi-regularly.  If you want to get the most out of it, it does need to break down.

Add Water

It needs water. It needs moisture to break down, if you let it dry out again, it’s kind of wasting,  it will just become dirt, dirt, If you want it to be really nutrient rich, keep the bugs in there, I love as the year goes on, you see more and more earthworms. As I go out there now I see that there are more and more earth worms, but they need the moisture. It’s the kind of thing, when your’ e going out to put your food in there. When I take the food scraps out, I take some time tome the dirt around. It kind of accomplishes it that way. It all depends on how big your pile is. Mine’s about 32 sq feet, so there’s a bit there. You can divide it up and do more at some points, or do 1/2 one day, or another, or 1/2 one week, or another.

The great thing is then you get this great amount of dirt, it’s just a little bit of work to get some great dirt! The philosophy is it’s one more thing you’re not throwing out, and its also adding to your garden and you’ve got this great dirt!!

Go back to what herbs you go.

Our strategies, we’ve worked over the years to be a little bit more of a  “lower maintenance garden”, but it’s proved at times unmanageable, so we say alright, we’re gonna cut back a little. So when it comes to herbs we’ve really got it down to mint and basil. And we’ve got some ornamental oregano growing. We do different types of mint. but like I said over the years I’ve done almost everything. Those are the ones I’ve found that we really enjoy.  Basil for us is just a staple which we love using it throughout the summer for the different things. Mint, is such a great thing to have to put in drinks.

There’s just generic mint.  There is peppermint you can get peppermint and there’s speramint, we have this Chocolate mint, there’s a generic mint. What was one of those other mints, you go to the nursery you can find all these different types of mint. It’s pretty hardy, if anything it can be hard to control, it starts growing, like into the grass and whatnot, it’s like anything else, you need to pay attention to it. It’s worth having.

What’s your favorite drink?

Different, it’s good with rum, lemonade, ice tea. It’s good to have, it’s refreshing, and again it’s good to cook with. There’s lots of good recipes, Middle Eastern things, you can grind it up and use it as a marinade.

Let’s get back to …

You can still have a great garden. We’ve gotten away from the vegetables. We used to do the vegetable gardens, we just found – A at the end of the summer, we didn’t want to go out and weed it, and a lot of times it would just fall into disrepair. So now we’ve just worked on…

We just try to focus on different things, have a lot of variety, have a lot of color, and different things, make it so it’s a little less maintenance. Because we love to garden, it’s one of those things, with our busy lives.

Very event orientated to, it’s a State Park, they wanted to create a CSA, so they are leasing it out to this non-profit, so she found it a fascinating idea, my wife she is excited to be participating in it, another part of the park we’re contributing to, and we get these fresh vegetables,

If you’re into planting a big garden, if you live in the suburbs, and you want some fresher organic vegetables.


Perennials are just great, one of the perennials, I particularly love, is an iris bed, and they produce flowers, they’re seemingly pretty hardy.

We’ve done lots of hosta’s. Come in different colors, some have big leaves,

Like irises you can split them, and they spread like crazy, they’re another one of these really hardy plants. Some produce a leaf that’s really like quite large, big. There might be a flower, big sort of a low plant. They’re great.

My wife does a lot of other different cone flowers, not really wildflowers, whatever they’re called – snowballs? Hydrangeas? The other one, I’m forgetting the name of it. So we’ve moved towards a lot of that stuff. The pots that we grow on the front of the house, she will put annuals in. The kids will have school sales, flats of annuals so her way of supporting the PTA and other organizations etc, is buy the annuals from them, which gives the deck other colors. We do some grasses, ornamental herbs, day lilies all sorts of things that add color and variety to the garden that make it a little more manageable.

Do you put wood chips around or any of that stuff?

I find a lot of people will buy mulch, or do wood chips, thinking it’s gonna prevent weeds, and mulching because you still have to weed your beds as some point. If you fill it up with some of these plants, hopefully it gives less chance for weeds to grow. Im not a big fan of that stuff because it’s like putting a bandaid on, and it’s not gonna eliminate the weeds.

Did you want to talk about trees at all?

I love trees, I think it’s really important to have trees on the property, over the years, for every tree that we’ve taken down, we’ve managed to put one in.

It’s been important to me to try a variety fo trees, I love to have them around. It’s always disappointing when a tree doesn’t make it, we’ve had some different ones, fruit trees, or non-fruit trees, but for what ever reason they don’t make it.  They’ll be scarred, or they didn’t last through a winter.

Do you want to tell listeners what winter’s are like?

Classic NE winter’s and last decade we’ve had a lot of wet winters with a lot of snow. so every winter you always have wonder what’s gonna make it, what’s not gonna make it? The harshness of it can do some damage so I think that adds to what’s gonna survive and what’s not. So we try to put a lot of trees in.  We’ve had to take out some big trees, but sometimes that’s part of the fun, trying different types.

One that we’ve most been most proud of is growing some shrubs and then shape them into a trees. You have to really prune it, so lots of shorts appear.

One’s a dogwood shrub that we’ve shaped like a dogwood tree, you sort of pick one stem, and it just grows and grows and cut those that grow around it, and you just keep cutting the others back, and all the other shoots. One sort of exciting, it’s been classified as an invasive plant, but it’s such  great tree.

It’s an Autumn Olive, it produces and absolutely gorgeous flower in the spring and the bees, it gives the bees a ton of nectar, and its again important listeners to your show probably know the importance of bees, one way we’re making sure in our neck of the woods to make sure they are getting pollen.

We feed the birds in the winter time, we don’t feed them in the spring and the summer time, we have  a deck, we want to keep it cleaner, it might be a bit of a thing for them.

What do you feed your birds?

Generic feed that we get at the hardware store.

What kind of birds do you get?

Mostly sparrows and chickadees, fun to see what interesting juncos, finches, it’s fun to see the occasional passing by the ones that migrate, like warblers…

Everyone can have even if they feel like they don’t have the time, if you just put a little bit of effort, you can have a great variety of things, you always have to put some work into it, you shape it the way you buy and the things you put in,

if you want to spend your time, you can have a really nice garden with flowers and trees and work it so you can still enjoy it and not have to spend a lot of time doing ti.

Final question-

if there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?

I wish more communities I m not the most vocal about it, but I wish more communities would the trees that they are replacing, I guess again.

In my opinion it would be great to see communities that they’re replacing that they’re cutting down, if a tree dies of old age, if there is a storm, or when in our neighborhood, when they put their sewer in, the oak trees, maple trees, classic big , the ones that convert CO2 into oxygen, they’re now into the 60’s and 70’s being cut down for different reasons,

other communities make sure they replace them with the same types of trees, it’s great that they are being replaced with something, t’s important they provide the shade, and all the benefits you get with older bigger trees.

I wish we would have bought a community trees,

There’s a road near us that they cut down because of the sidewalks, they cut down these big trees, and out of fear these big trees down,

the effect

Do u have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?

For those that haven’t done it, I think you’ll ifnd how great it feels just to get your nands dirty, once you do it watching it grow through the whole season  it’s such an awesome feeling and to see the process, I’ve always found it to be so inspirational!




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About the author, Jackie Marie

I'm an artist and educator. I live at the "Organic Oasis" with my husband Mike where we practice earth friendly techniques in our garden nestled in the mountains of Montana.

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