This week is International Compost Awareness Week. Much of what we throw away in our garbage or put out as yard waste could be recycled right on our own property. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates about 30% of what we discard is food scraps and yard waste; organic materials like banana peels and coffee grounds, that through the help of beneficial critters, turns into nutrient-rich soil. Composting these materials divert them from landfills, adding another way we, as conscientious citizens, can reduce our carbon footprint. Methane, the byproduct of the decomposition of organic material in landfills, represents 50% of landfill gas, it is 26 times more potent than carbon dioxide and a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emission. Because methane can only be produced in anaerobic (absence of oxygen) conditions, composting offers a far superior alternative, because the microbes that exist in landfills cannot exist in the presence of oxygen.
What is Composting?
Composting is the natural process of decomposition and recycling of organic matter through the aide of beneficial micro and macro-organisms. Organic matter is composed of living plant roots and the organisms that decompose plant and animal residue in varying stages of decay. Centipedes, millipedes, beetles, earthworms, nematodes, pillbugs and other critters grind and chew material into smaller pieces. While soil fungi and bacteria use enzymes to chemically breakdown that material.
Two types of materials are needed for this process: green or wet materials, which are rich in nitrogen; and brown or dry materials which are rich in carbon. The soil organisms function best when these materials are used with the appropriate ratios. A desirable ratio is 1 part greens to 2-3 parts browns. Some examples for green material are kitchen scraps (excluding meat, dairy, fats or oils), grass clippings, green leaves, and farm animal manure (not pet waste). And brown material such as fallen leaves, twigs or small branches, shredded newspaper or cardboard rolls, paper towels and napkins.
Seaweed is a great addition to a Keys compost pile since it is high in nitrogen and readily available. It is recommended to rinse the seaweed to leach salt residue. In Key West, there are also several places that offer free manure (donations welcomed). Key West Mounted Police Patrol volunteers collect the horse manure and process it to be able to be used by the community. Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Animal Farm also offers manure. Both would be excellent additions to the compost pile.
Wait There’s More!
Not only does composting keep these materials out of landfills, but it is extremely beneficial for our plants and soil. Adding compost improves the physical structure of soil. The soils of the Florida Keys have very minimal water and nutrient holding capacity, which means fertilizers and irrigation tend to leach straight through the soil profile and into our waterways. However, the addition of compost not only improves that ability but also provides greater drought resistance through the more efficient use of water, reducing the need for irrigation, which is very expensive in Monroe County. It also provides essential plant nutrients, and that reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. Compost is a great source of nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, in addition to some micro-nutrients.
Compost also increases the biological diversity in our soil. Soil is a living ecosystem. A large community of organisms produced through nutrient cycling and energy. A teaspoon of soil can potentially contain millions of fungi, bacteria, nematodes and insects that play vital roles in that ecosystem and aide in nutrient availability for plants. Research suggests that increased micro-organism activity creates a better plant root environment and also helps suppress plant diseases and pests.
Helpful Tips To Get Started:
- Choose a site in your yard that makes it easy for you to maintain your pile, such as close to your garden or near a water source.
- Smaller is better. Chop material into smaller pieces to speed up the decomposition process, especially plants with large leaves like Seagrape. Use a lawn mower to break apart palm fronds, or eliminate them all together from your pile. Crush egg shells. Often egg shell remnants will remain in finished compost and can be unsightly.
- Turn often. Turning compost will stimulate microbes, add oxygen and help to reduce weed seeds. It will also keep unwanted pests away.
- Do not add dairy, fats, fish, meat, oils or pet waste. These items can attract pests and harbor disease.
If you live in a small space or don’t generate much waste, try vermicomposting (composting with worms). This is best done in shady locations since worms won’t thrive at temperatures above 90 degrees. Worm bins can be located on screened in porches or even balcony’s and it’s a fun activity to do with kids.