56 Think Green


RSWLiving - - Features - Free­lance writer Ed Bro­tak is a re­tired me­te­o­rol­ogy pro­fes­sor turned stay- at- home dad. He and his fam­ily live in western North Carolina but va­ca­tion in Florida of­ten.

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

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