turn to ‘black gold’ in summer
of North Grounds Tim Spencer (left) and equipment operator
Frank Hill take
dirt from U.Va.’s compost
pile on Observatory Hill. The 10-year-old heap is currently
30 feet wide by 30 feet deep and about half as long as
a football field. U.Va. landscapers use the compost as
a soil enhancer and top dressing in every garden on Grounds.
By Matt Kelly
Leaves, an integral part of autumn, are an issue for
the University, which deals with millions of
them every year, starting in November and ending
in the middle
Leaf collection cost U.Va. $197,787 in fiscal year 2003-2004,
almost all of that in labor costs. Once collected,
the leaves are then composted for use
The compost is “black gold, a gardener’s best friend,” said
landscaper Melissa Y. Shirley-Miller, who works the gardens on the east side
of the Lawn.
“It’s used in every garden we have,” she said. “In a hot summer,
no plants die. Amend the soil with compost, and it adds 20 years to the life
of the plants.”
These benefits of compost aside, the leaves need to be
picked up before they kill the grass.
over-seed the lawns in the fall,” said Richard M. Hopkins, superintendent
of landscaping. “If we leave the leaves there more than four or five days,
when we take them up, the lawn is yellow.”
The leaves are collected by hand, with employees raking
or blowing them into piles. Then they are vacuumed
into trucks. The vacuums
reducing them to one-fourth their original size.
The vacuums exert such suction that employees have lost hats and
other articles of clothing to the machines, Hopkins said. One employee
a coat he had
tied around his waist.
Employees try to separate debris from the leaves before
they vacuum, but miss things. Cans and keys have
been vacuumed up into the trucks,
ago, a pistol was sucked up and destroyed by the impellers that
drive the vacuum, Hopkins said.
Once vacuumed and chopped, leaves from thousands of trees
are added to a compost heap that is currently
30 feet wide by 30 feet deep
feet long — about
half as long as a football field — on the back of Observatory Hill, where
it has been accumulating for about 10 years.
which had once gone on a separate pile, is now ground up
and added to the compost heap as well. There
was discussion about composting kitchen scraps, but that idea
rejected because it would have incurred additional regulation.
U.Va. is allowed to maintain its compost operation only
for material collected on site, and the compost
must stay at U.Va. because
it is state property. “The
only way we can dispose of it is through state surplus sales,” Hopkins
This means U.Va. landscapers get to use as much compost
as they want, as a soil amendment for gardens
and as top-dressing
Since the University produces more compost than it
uses, the heap grows every year, which poses
“The pile is so big, we can’t turn it enough to get up the temperature,” Hopkins
Turning a compost pile introduces air into it, allowing
the temperature of the material, through the rotting
process, to heat up. Properly
will reach a temperature of 160 degrees, which kills
weed seeds. Hopkins noted that the compost his department
some active seeds,
grow where the compost is spread.
The O-Hill compost pile also produces its own crops.
Last year, pumpkins grew from the heap; the year
can have a nice garden there,” Hopkins said. “[The compost] will
grow whatever gets sucked up into it.”