In June 2004 when we moved to Florida, I found an out-of-the-way spot on our lot for a compost pile. Since then I've used the most informal method for composting—when I had leaves, weeds, or clipping, I piled them on top. I didn't turn the pile or pay attention to whether the materials were "brown" or "green". ("Brown" materials are carbon-rich items such as dried leaves, straw, and wood chips. "Green" materials are nitrogen-rich and moist; they include grass clippings, weeds, coffee grounds, and kitchen scraps.) I knew composting was happening because the pile stayed the same size for more than 18 months of heavy gardening—approximately 3'x3'x3'.
When we decided that the vegetable garden needed a complete soil replacement, it was time to harvest the compost. I set aside the top layer of recently deposited and un-composted waste and dug into the heart of the compost. The beautiful, crumbly compost smells like the forest floor because of the Actinomycetes—a bacterium that acts like fungus and plays a big part in the rotting process that turns plant materials into compost. (More information on this is in my fungus article.)
The compost doesn't look like any of the stuff that I threw onto the pile. One exception was the Mexican Petunias (Ruellia brittoniana), which had sprouted from little pieces. Their purple sprouts were thick in some parts of the pile. Maybe this is why it's a noxious and invasive weed—it can survive the composting process and live underground for more than eight months. It was tedious to separate it from the good compost, so next time it will be dead and crispy before it hits the pile. The other unwelcome invader was Catbriar (Smilax spp.)—its tough roots had grown up into the pile.
General composting guidelines
I've done some sleuthing for better ways of composting and found some great websites with specific directions, the science, and some projects for kids. (See below.)
Here are the general composting guidelines:
My new plan for composting
I could spend all my time adjusting the compost pile, if I followed all the advice. I could turn it every day, take its temperature to gauge its activity, buy special composting worms, test the acidity, add fertilizer or lime to adjust for misbalances, and more.
I've designed my own simplified plan, because I'd rather spend my time actually gardening:
1) I'll have two separate compost piles: one pile for new deposits and one for quicker withdrawal.
2) I'll try to keep both piles moist during dry weather.
That's it. It should work well, but I'll keep you posted.
Using compost in the vegetable garden
My husband and I dug the sandy soil from the garden bed behind the house to about one shovel deep—to the sprinkler pipes. Some of the manure and mulch we added last year under the plants was evident, but most of it was so sandy, it wasn't working well for our tomatoes (Lycopersicon lycopersicum) or peppers (Capsicum annuum).
I dumped a bunch of dry leaves directly from the yard into each section of the bed. After I stomped them down, it was about a two-inch layer. I then piled the compost (worms and all) on top of the leaves. This added another three inches. Next we added horse manure. We repeated these three layers (without the stomping) until the soil level was about ten inches above grade. I will cover it with a thick layer of pineneedles and leaves to keep it moist and to keep the worms in place. In six weeks when our seedlings will be ready to plant, we'll fill the beds with a mixture of equal parts: composted manure, topsoil, and that sandy soil that we dug out.
The leaves in the bottom will hold the moisture and will decompose into rich soil, too. We're hoping that this dramatic treatment will produce more satisfactory vegetables. The herb garden will get a much lighter treatment, but we'll be enriching that part of the bed as well. Next year we hope to have some cool weather crops—maybe some mustard greens (Brassica juncea), Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris), and Spinach (Spinacea oleracea).
Every gardener needs to compost
Every gardener needs to compost for better soil: whether you have sandy soil, like we do, or clay soil, compost is the answer. Plus it's the right thing to do—our taxes are paying for bigger and bigger landfills to accommodate more and more waste. Composting is not only good for gardens, it allows all of us to live more gently. Let me know about your composting projects.
Resources for further (and more scientific) information:
http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/composting -- EPA's information on composting includes the backyard gardener.
http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/sustainable/slidesets/kidscompost/cover.html -- a scripted slide show for kids.
http://www.compostguide.com -- an excellent and complete resources for all aspects of composting.
http://home.howstuffworks.com/composting.htm -- An easy-to-understand guide for composting. It also includes suggested science projects.
Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t in planting zone 8/9. She's wrote, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," published by University Press of Florida that was released in 2009. Now she's written "Organic Methods for Growing Vegetables in Florida" with Melissa Contreras in Miami. The new book will be release in Feb 2013. You may contact her or read extra details on her articles and other information posted on her website: www.greengardeningmatters.com.