SWALCO & Collaborators “Dig In” with Compost Project

SWALCO & Collaborators “Dig In” with first actions steps of a Pilot Project to Promote Compost Use and Divert Food Scraps

By Merleanne Rampale, SWALCO

In August, 2020, SWALCO (Solid Waste Agency of Lake County, Illinois) was awarded a Community Compost and Food Waste Reduction pilot project grant from the USDA and NRCS. The primary goal of the grant is to assist local government with projects that develop a stronger, more vibrant circular economy for managing food scraps and other organic material. The two year project includes a compost to farmland/community garden, demonstration study, development of a stronger community gardening network, market development for final compost product, and enhanced education efforts to increase participation rates for food scrap collection programs in the commercial and residential sectors.

Since its inception, SWALCO has focused on developing and implementing programs and initiatives to divert materials from final disposal in landfills, while educating members, residents, businesses, and institutions within Lake County on how and why to be better recyclers, composters, and environmental stewards. The grant that has been awarded to SWALCO will be carried out with the help of a variety of collaborators and includes plans to hold on-site demonstration days and virtual education programs for the public, gardeners and others, along with other educational and outreach efforts. Results from this project will be shared with anyone interested locally, throughout the State and beyond.

Collaborators involved in the project include The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, the Lake County Farm Bureau, our local U of I Extension and SWALCO’s 43 member municipalities, in addition to the agriculture and garden sites where soil research and demonstrations are planned. These sites include: Golden Oaks Farm, the Lake County Forest Preserves and Prairie Wind Family Farm, and three community gardens that are managed by the Eden Restoration Project, Lake County Forest Preserves Green Youth Farm, and the Vernon Hills Park District Community Garden.

Compost Demonstration in Lake County

One objective of the project is to demonstrate that compost derived from landscape waste and food scraps can be a valuable product that can be used in agriculture to improve and maintain the health of soils. Participants that reflected the variety of agricultural typologies that exist in Lake County Illinois were selected and included: commercial, largescale farms (growing crops such as corn, soy bean, alfalfa), smaller urban farms with CSAs, community gardens with shared output and community gardens with individual household “rental” parcels.

The demonstration will focus on the impact compost will have on soil characteristics such as bulk density, crop yield, compaction, water holding capacity, organic matter content, and soil workability. Anecdotal, qualitative assessments will be compiled from participants who will be asked to maintain journals during the demonstration period. Soil sampling will occur pre and post growing season to track changes in soil chemistry, nutrient levels, and organic matter content. Data will be taken regularly during the growing season. While compost can deliver some nutrients, in this demonstration it will not be used as a fertilizer. It will be supplemental to a site’s current management practices, so sites can continue business as usual when and where they apply compost. However, with the testing that is included in this demonstration, we hope that participants will realize that they will be able to scale back fertilizer use. To learn more about this project, visit swalco.org. First up.. a look at Vernon Hills Park District Community Garden.


Background: VHPD, a long-time partner and collaborator of SWALCO, and one of three community garden participants selected for the project, has a community garden space near its recently built maintenance facility. It offers plots that residents pay $35 for a growing season. The space was originally a wooded buffer/barrier alongside a rail line. During the grading of the space set aside to be the community garden, the park district found the soils to have a high clay content that could make planting vegetables problematic. Fill was incorporated into the soil profile in hopes that would remedy any potential problems. During the first years, gardeners expressed frustration because very little would grow. Plants were stunted, root crops deformed, soil would dry out to a cement like hardness, and during rain events flooding was a constant problem. Some gardeners resorted to raised beds, created their own channels to address excess water on their plots, and even replaced the native soil with bagged substitute from the local hardware store.

Overview of VHPD Community Garden:

The space prior to the recent construction of the maintenance facility and adjoining community garden was a stretch of trees and thicket acting as a barrier /buffer to the rail line on the other side

Current aerial of the Vernon Hills Park District community garden. 15 x 15 ft plots are arranged in six 2×3 groups.

Water infiltration is poor on the heavy clay soils of the community garden







The Plan: A two inch layer of compost will be applied to the gardeners plots each year, while the park district maintains several plots where different rates of compost, (including no compost), to demonstrate the impacts of these varied rates. The first load of compost was delivered November 4th, 2020, and the reception has been very positive. James Kim, superintendent of parks for Vernon Hills Park District, is already making plans to budget compost purchase for two other community garden sites. The gardeners were responsible for moving compost to their own plots. The park district supplied the gardeners wheelbarrows, shovels, and rakes to facilitate the process.

First compost delivered on November 4th, 2020 

Shank Family gathering their compost