56 Think Green
COMPOSTING IS FUN, EASY AND GREAT FOR YOUR GARDEN AND THE ENVIRONMENT, WITH A TIP OR TWO FROM THESE GARDENERS YOU CAN GET STARTED TODAY
These helpful composting tips from gardeners help green thumbs turn waste into nutrients for their gardens.
you use compost rather than fertilizer on your plants? Do you compost much of your kitchen and yard waste? If you answered yes to both questions, then you may well get a “Green Star.” However, if you never tried your hand at composting, learning more about the benefits to Mother Earth and yourself may inspire you to get started.
Composting is the breakdown of organic materials by microorganisms. Nature has been composting long before man came up with a name for it. Things die. They rot. Eventually, they turn into a natural fertilizer that plants can use. This is nature’s way of recycling. Man has been doing some form of composting for thousands of years. But in the 1900s, along came man- made fertilizers. These are chemical products that provided the same nutrients that compost did, but they were much easier to produce and use. Chemical fertilizers were the way to go for decades. But then people ( at least some people) began to wonder if these chemicals were actually good for us. The negative impacts on our waterways were obvious and, of course, remain a major concern in Southwest Florida. There was a push to get back to a more natural way to raise crops and such. Organic foods became the “in” thing. Composting, a natural way to fertilize plants, enjoyed a renewed popularity.
Here in Southwest Florida using compost is especially important. “Florida soils are sandy, low in nutrients and have poor water retention,” points out Ian Orlikoff of EcoLogic, a Naples- based consulting firm that specializes in environmentally friendly approaches to landscaping and gardening.
“Composting can help by providing organic matter that can be added to your native dirt,” adds Martha Grattan, president of the Florida Native Plant Society’s Coccoloba Chapter. “The organic matter breaks down and boosts the nutrient levels; it also makes it easier for the soil to hold moisture during dry times of the year,” she explains. Compost is a truly organic fertilizer. Use it instead of potentially harmful chemicals.
Why should you compost your kitchen and yard waste? Composting is good for the environment because your recycled material will not require landfill space. “You’ll produce less waste,” says Dr. Phillip Marks, vice chairman of the Sanibel Planning Commission and master gardener, who coordinates ecology lectures on the island. “There’ll be less going into the landfill.” You’ll also be producing your own compost. And, it’s just a good thing to do!
Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to start composting at home. First, you’ll need to know what you can compost. Well, you must feed your microorganisms. They like to “eat” nitrogen and carbon. Compost is broken down into “greens and browns.” Greens are a good nitrogen source and usually moist. They include fruit and vegetable scraps from your kitchen and green leaves and clippings from your yard. Browns provide carbon and are usually drier. Browns include older leaves, cut up twigs and branches, and even paper, cardboard and sawdust. Some folks like Grattan add crushed egg shells and coffee grounds with filters. Marks even suggests collecting coffee grounds ( which are considered green as compost) from nearby coffee shops. The ratio of browns to greens should be about 30 to 1.
There are some things you should avoid— animal products such as meat and bones. “These items can attract rats and other unpleasant foraging animals,” warns Grattan. And larger materials, anything over three inches especially if it has some mass to it like a branch or even a corncob, would take a long time to break down. If possible, chop these items up. Marks has a shredder he uses to chop up larger yard materials.
Now, what do you do with all this stuff? In Southwest Florida, it’s warm enough to compost year- round. However,
Compost is a truly organic fertilizer. Use it instead of potentially harmful chemicals.
you should keep your compost out of the sun or it may get too hot. Moisture is also a concern. Compost should be damp but not wet. The compost needs to be covered in the rainy season but occasionally watered during the dry winter. Compost starter mix, which contains microorganisms, can be used to help speed things along especially in the cooler winter months. However, Sue Scott, who spent 15 years working in the environmental field and is now at All Native Garden Center, Nursery & Landscapes, a Fort Myers business that promotes the use of native vegetation, says, “We don’t really need compost starter here in Southwest Florida due to our climate.”
The cheapest method is to just put the compost in a pile on the ground. Alternating layers of material to start with will help the process. You could build yourself a wooden box with the bottom open to better contain and protect your compost. Wire bins for composting can be purchased for under $ 50.
Once your compost collection is together, you need to tend to it to get the best results. Pay attention to the temperature, moisture and oxygen content to keep the microbes happy. “Heat is an important component in composting,” says Grattan. “Ideally the pile should have an interior heat of 130 to 150 degrees.” Use an old grill thermometer to check the temperature. And, yes, there are composting thermometers
Your compost is ready to use when it has a uniform look like soil, dark color and small particle size. “Most of the materials you put in will no longer be recognizable.”
— Martha Grattan, president of the Florida Native Plant Society’s Coccoloba Chapter
for sale. Adding some water or dead leaves will bring down the temperature; allowing it to dry or adding green materials will raise the temperature. Turning it over with a garden fork or similar implement at least once a week helps control the temperature and adds oxygen. It could take 10 to 12 weeks for the material to become usable compost. And you may have to take precautions so animals don’t get into an open pile.
Marks strongly suggests buying a composter. If you’re willing to invest several hundred dollars to start with, you can get a unit that takes most of the work out of the process, produces usable compost much faster and will pay for itself in compost in a short time. Marks has a two- bin unit. One chamber can be left alone to process; the other one can be constantly filled with new material. The unit is on a stand off the ground, which takes care of the animal problems. It’s also easily rotated. Marks flips his over several times each day. This thoroughly mixes the materials, aerates them and controls the temperature. His compost is ready in two weeks, and he generates 12 to 15 pounds of compost a week.
Your compost is ready to use when it has a uniform look like soil, dark color and small particle size, says Grattan, “Most of the materials you put in will no longer be recognizable.” The smell also signals that your compost is ready. It will have the aroma of fresh dirt. This nutrient- rich “humus” can then be used as mulch on top of the ground, mixed in with the soil as an additive or mixed with potting soil for container plants.
What about using earthworms? Scott says, “Earthworms hasten the process and are of course a lot of fun if you have kids.” This is a different kind of composting called vermicomposting. It’s only good for small amounts of kitchen waste. Red wigglers or African night crawlers can be collected or bought. “As part of a process, their castings are considered great stuff for your plants,” says Scott, “but again, you can compost without them.”
If you can’t make your own compost or can’t produce enough to fertilize all of your plants, you can buy Organic Lee Compost from Lee County’s Solid Waste Division, which produces it and sells the compost to the public. According to Keith Howard, deputy director of the Lee County Solid Waste Division, there are only a handful of permitted composting operations in Florida.
In 2009, the county opened a compost processing plant at the Lee Hendry Landfill. “The compost is created by combining yard trash/ waste horticulture with waste water treatment plant residuals or biosolids,” explains Howard. “Generally we are producing over 12,000 tons per year.”
There are many websites out there with detailed instructions on how to compost. Environmental consultants like Orlikoff of EcoLogic are available to come to your home and help design a composting system that fits your needs. As the interest in composting grows in Southwest Florida, it may not be long before a compost service will come to your door and pick up your compostable materials. There are companies around the country that do your composting for you. Not only does this make it even easier to compost, since they can collect things like meat and animal products, they then bring the finished compost back to you.
“Most people like the idea of composting but don’t do it,” laments Marks. He thinks educating the public is the key. “We need to tell them they have the raw materials and it’s not that much work.” Marks only spends about 30 minutes per week, but produces all the compost he needs for his yard.
If you’re still not inspired to get started, take Grattan’s advice: “Composting is fun, easy and great for your garden and the environment.” Composting is important for our future. Do it properly and there will be less waste. We’ll use less fertilizer and the plants will be healthier. And as Marks advises, “Be good stewards of the environment.”
For more information visit the University of Florida’s website: livinggreen. ifas. ufl. edu