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Compost Happens

February 24, 2012


Jean Persely for NGA with Cynthia Domenghini, NGA Staff

Jean shares some of her ideas to get kids interested in composting:

  • Ask students what happens to blue jeans and t-shirts in the landfills? Can they be composted?
  • Ask for an old cotton t-shirt and/or an old pair of jeans to be donated. Place them at the bottom of the compost pile, or use a smaller piece for a worm bin. Do the students realize they are wearing plants? How long will it take to break down? Have students make guesses as to what will happen to these old clothes.
  • Do you have multiple working compost bins at school? Have a t-shirt composting race with another class. Which class will have a faster compost pile? What causes one compost bin to decompose materials faster than the other? Was one pile being turned more than the other? Take the temperature inside the pile. Is one pile hotter than the other?
  • Consider doing an experiment with a piece of a t-shirt in one pile and a plastic bottle in another. Let the students predict what will happen.

As the wife of an active duty Marine, Jean Persely has made the most of her frequent moves by teaching others to “bloom where they are planted.” Jean has committed to making a positive impact on any community she joins. It was in 2005, that Jean developed a vision to impact a school community by planning the introduction of a garden. In 2006, the growing began and the Atwood Elementary Gator Gardeners were put on the map. Though Jean is no longer the garden coordinator at this site, she keeps in touch with the program and their progress.


The Gator Gardeners hard at work composting.Atwood Elementary is one of ten elementary schools in the L’Anse Creuse Public School District. The “outdoor classroom”, as Jean refers to it, is available to all students on site. There are garden volunteers who work with the teachers to provide a meaningful gardening experience for the students, whether it’s a tour of the garden or an actual lesson. There are teachers who bring the students out to the garden for math lessons and others who enjoy simply sitting under a tree with students to read.

Some of the activities the garden volunteers have done with students include leaf comparison charts with fourth graders and salsa making with the Spanish classes. The art teacher has used the garden to allow students to create artwork in the outdoor classroom. Although the garden is integrated into various classrooms, it is primarily used for the after-school program which includes 25-30 students and almost as many on a waiting list to join.


Throughout the garden development, the Gator Gardeners have been composting. Jean was reluctant to start composting initially because she thought there were so many rules to do it correctly. She didn’t want to begin the project only to find out she had been composting incorrectly and consequently wasting her students’ time. When Jean finally heard what she calls the best advice, “Compost happens”, she threw out the rule book and let nature do the work. Jean is now a Master Composter and recognizes the true simplicity of the process and implementation.

Composting is a simple process with a big reward!The original composting set-up for the Atwood Gator Gardeners was a pallet bin system. Currently they have installed a more permanent structure with 4×4 posts and fencing material. With an understanding of the sometimes “unsightly” appearance of compost piles, Jean’s group chose a location surrounded by naturalized areas. This ensured none of the neighboring residences would have to look directly at the compost pile from their home. Jean recommends to schools who are considering implementing a compost heap on-site to research their local ordinances. By town ordinance, Jean was required to position the compost pile at least five feet away from any property lines.


According to Jean’s experiences, kids and composting DO mix! Jean reports, “The kids were always amazed when we would fill up the compost bins and come back the next week to see how they had shrunk. They wanted to know, ‘Where did it go?’”. That curiosity fueled their interest and kept them coming back for more! They would line up on compost turning days, waiting patiently for their turn. It was amazing to watch their eagerness. They were ready to burst at any moment! The students enjoy all aspects of composting, from loading the bins and turning the piles to screening the compost and spreading it in the gardens.”

Compost encourages questions from students of all ages.Adding compost to your garden is a great alternative to inorganic fertilizers. When the gardeners at Atwood Elementary learned about this benefit of composting they grew in their awareness of protecting our natural resources. According to Jean, “When we would talk about using compost instead of chemical fertilizers, students really appreciated that they can feed the plants with compost. If this site practiced fertilizing through chemicals the students would not be able to help with the process due to safety concerns. Living in the Great Lakes area, conversations often turn to water runoff, leaching, etc. The kids decided they wouldn’t like to swim in water loaded with chemical runoff.” What a great real-life application of the benefits of composting!


Apple cores collected from the middle and elementary school during state testing.Jean used to run county-wide school garden networking meetings on a monthly to bi-monthly basis. The middle school principal, who served on the district’s greening committee, decided to attend one of Jean’s meetings. He was considering offering students a morning snack during state testing. In an effort to support Michigan farmers, the principal decided to purchase locally-grown apples for that snack. Students were so excited and claimed these were the ‘best apples ever’. Jean suggested an idea to make this event an even ‘greener’ activity by allowing students to compost the apple remains. The principal jumped on board turning this into a waste-free snack. Students collected apple cores in recycled plastic grocery bags. Jean and another parent collected the bags from the middle school and transported them to the elementary school where they were layered into the compost pile. The elementary school students were excited to be composting the middle schoolers’ snack.

The following year, students at the elementary school also had a locally-grown snack on test days. This trend has grown to other schools in the district and word is spreading across the state of Michigan. This scenario benefits everyone. The students receive a delicious, healthy snack, the compost pile receives a boost of green material, and the local farmers are being promoted and supported.


The composting efforts at Atwood Elementary don’t stop in the garden. The garden coordinator offers to provide a worm bin for each classroom that wants one. Everything is provided. The teacher can choose whether he/she wants a worm bin that is completely assembled, or just the parts along with a garden educator who will come set up the bin with the class while teaching about the process of vermicomposting. Students in each class can sign up to have the job of “worm bin maintenance” for the week. At one point, Atwood Elementary had 13 classrooms with functioning worm bins. They even dubbed one teacher, “Worm Queen”. The garden educators return as needed to answer questions and help maintain the worm bins.


While Jean has moved on to grow gardeners in another location, Sandy Paratore has continued the gardening tradition at Atwood Elementary. She reports, “It is not hard to get the garden kids involved with composting. They love to take ownership and they value the information they gain while in the garden. The enthusiastic spirit in this outdoor learning space continues when the students go back into the classroom. They share their passionate interest in the garden with their classmates and their teacher.” With this kind of enthusiasm for gardening good things are bound to continuing growing at Atwood Elementary.


Jean is an Advanced Master Gardener and Master Composter with Michigan State University Extension (MSUE). Jean started a garden program at her children’s school, literally from the ground up. Grants were written, fundraisers held and donations sought. The program quickly became a resource for other area schools. To meet demand, Jean created a local school gardening network to assist others in creating gardens. Currently, Jean assists MSUE with the development of a teacher garden training series. Jean is also serving on the 2011-2012 KidsGardening Advisory Board.


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