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Richie Cabo Designs and Builds New Sustainable O2 Compost System For The NYC Parks Dept.

Daily Plant Masthead

Volume XXVI, Number 5461
Thursday, Jul 28, 2011

Sustainable Parks Spotlight: Leaf Composting

Photo by Malcolm Pinckney

New York City’s 5.2 million trees drop vast amount of leaves on Parks’ grounds each fall. For years, Parks has steadily built its leaf management program to make use of this valuable nutrient resource. Where appropriate, leaves have been blown into natural areas. Instead of removing leaves from lawns, we have begun to mulch them in place. The Parks Inspection Program (PIP) has modified its ratings standards so that leaves left in planting beds will receive an acceptable rating. We have also set up more small composting bins in parks, and have been working with the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) to provide leaves for their composting facilities in exchange for compost.

Parks' inaugural Sustainable Parks Plan sets several goals to increase the efficiency of leaf management operations. The plan is available for download online at; keyword: sustainable parks.

First, we will devote new resources to preserve fallen leaves as a natural nutrient source. By acquiring and distributing new mulching equipment, such as mower blades and decks, it will be easier for staff to effectively mulch fallen leaves instead of raking them. In addition, field staff will have more time to devote to other park maintenance priorities.

Second, we will increase capacity for small-scale composting through training and ongoing communications. How-to-guides, trainings, and classes will be organized to teach best practices for composting across the agency, as well as to share tips, knowledge, and ideas.

New leaf composting technologies – O2 Composters

An exciting goal is the installation of a new O2 composter in each borough. The O2 composters will provide a consistent supply of clean compost for each borough. We spoke with Richie Cabo, Director of the Citywide Nursery, who designed and installed the first Parks O2 composter at the Arthur Ross Citywide Nursery in Van Cortlandt Park, as a pilot program which is planned to expand now citywide.

So Richie, how does this compost system work?

Well, there are three compartments in the bin; each of them has compost cooking at different stages. We mix plants, raw leaves, and horse manure in each compartment, and periodically pump air through pipes laid at the bottom of the bin. The air increases microbial activity, generating heat, plant digestion, and killing pathogens, parasites, and weed seeds. It’s a great system. We don’t have to turn it or anything; it takes care of itself.

What are the advantages of using an O2 composter, rather than traditional composting?

Since limited space is a big problem at Parks, this system is great because it allows you to run an effective composting operation in a much smaller area. Also, we put everything in raw, let the microbial activity take its course, and see quality compost three months later. It’s done without turning anything; the air tubes do all the aeration for you. In the past, we used to have to wait a full year for the leaves to break down by themselves. Now, we get three loads of compost in a season.

How have things changed since you’ve started composting this way?

We don’t have to buy any more compost. Before, we would make our own compost traditionally, but it was a slow process so we needed to supplement by sending a truck out to Staten Island to pick up compost. Now, we sustain ourselves with our own compost. Also, we would need to sterilize the compost to kill any weed seeds and insects. Now, since our compost cooks at such a high temperature, 168F, it breaks down any diseases present, and we don’t need the extra machinery to sterilize it. This composter even kills Japanese Knotweed, which is a notorious problem at Parks.

You run a successful organic nursery, the only one at Parks. What does it take to run an organic nursery?

When you grow organically, you really have to monitor everything carefully. You have to be on your toes at all times. One of our organic methods is that we are constantly rotating our plants, and this is not easy by any means. We do a lot of manual and repetitive work. It would be a lot easier for me to spray everything—but that doesn’t make sense in the long run.

What does sustainability mean to you?

Sustainability is to do things that can keep working for a long time. It’s to do things that make sense and are safe for the surrounding environment and people. Some people do it because it’s in style; I do it because it’s a way of life.

Now online - Sustainable Parks Plan
Learn more about leaf composting in the inaugural Sustainable Parks Plan, which was released on July 11. The Plan ties together the agency's various sustainability-related projects, identifies new opportunities, and sets clear goals to measure and promote sustainable practices. The plan is accessible at:; keyword: sustainable parks.

Submitted by Sustainability Intern Amit Ashkenazy


“The only thing that overcomes hard luck is hard work.”

Harry Golden
(1902 – 1981)

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