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Composting 101: How to start making what South Florida gardeners call ‘black gold’

Zarron Brown, a former U.S. Marine, in his garden at his home in Miami Gardens. Brown is part of FIU’s new farming outreach program, designed to help veterans launch second careers or expand careers in agriculture.
Al Diaz
/
The Miami Herald
Zarron Brown, a former U.S. Marine, in his garden at his home in Miami Gardens. Brown is part of FIU’s new farming outreach program, designed to help veterans launch second careers or expand careers in agriculture.

Compost has lots of “green” benefits, reducing waste in landfills, cutting emissions and growing bigger, healthier plants. But the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only 3 percent of household waste gets composted. Here's how to start composting.

There’s a reason gardeners in South Florida call compost “black gold” and why many of them produce it in their own yards.

“I find composting empowering; you don’t have to wait on anyone,” said Lanette Sobel, an owner of the commercial compost facility Fertile Earth Worm Farm in Homestead, who hosts workshops on at-home composting.

Compost has lots of “green” benefits, reducing waste in landfills, cutting emissions and growing bigger, healthier plants. But the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only 3 percent of household waste gets composted.

Zarron Brown was introduced to at-home composting after Sobel invited him to one of her composting workshops. Now, he uses compost to enrich the soil in his Miami Gardens backyard and recently started adding worms to the mix.

“It’s because of Fertile Earth I’m getting my hands dirty doing this,” Brown said.

READ MORE: If you’re worried about the environment, consider being composted when you die

Andy Jo, founder of the residential pick-up service, Soilmate, said his business has experienced “an explosion” of demand from Miami-Dade residents as concerns arise about how much of a different that commercial recycling efforts makes.

“Composting is not this new great thing,” Jo said. “Recycling has become mainstream but ineffective. Compost is not mainstream but is very effective.”

“Composting is not this new great thing. Recycling has become mainstream but ineffective. Compost is not mainstream but is very effective.”
Andy Jo

Here’s your primer on how to start composting:

What should go in?

Compost is created by layering carbon-rich organic materials called “browns” like, leaves, mulch, twigs and paper with nitrogen-rich materials called “greens” like fruits, vegetables, eggshells and coffee grounds. Switching between browns and greens powers the microorganisms to eat away at the pile — but make sure to toss double the amount of browns to greens in.

One beginner’s tip: anything that was a plant can be composted at home. The EPA suggests keeping meat and dairy out of your at-home compost pile because it could attract bugs and animals.

How does it work?

As the food scraps and organic material start to break down, the temperature of the pile rises sometimes up to 160 degrees. To speed up the process, turn the pile once a week. You know it’s finished when it’s dark and crumbly. If done right, it shouldn’t smell at all.

What to put it in?

You can get started with reusing an old fish tank, dresser drawer or Rubbermaid bin. But if you’re looking for something fancier, there are countless options of bins to purchase. Plastic and aluminum countertop or under-sink bins go anywhere from $20 to $40. Larger bins that hold 100 or so gallons and rotating tumblers sell for a few hundred dollars.

For an easy start to worm composting, Sobel suggests stacking two bins and poking holes through the top bin. Excess moisture known as “worm tea” will drip down to the bottom bin. She suggests keeping at least 10 inches of compost material inside to keep the worms alive in the South Florida sun.

There are also commercially sold bins specifically tailored for worm composting. They come with layered trays and a spout for “worm tea.” Worms are surface feeders, so the layers in the bins entice worms to come to the surface where the food is and harvest from the bottom tray where the finished compost is kept.

Worms or not?

Worm castings, AKA worm poop, are a natural fertilizer that enhance plant growth, flowering and even fruit production. Two popular worms to use for composting are red wigglers and manure worms.

Remember that worms hate light and thrive in a dark, moist environment. Worms need bedding like soil, woodchips and newspaper strips that provide air, water, and food. Soaking the newspaper is one way to add moisture if things get dry. If done right, the worms will double their population size every 90 days.

But you’ll need to keep them well fed or they’ll move. So add fruit and vegetable peels (especially watermelon and avocado), egg shells, tea bags and coffee grounds.

Mariah Hamalainen pays about $20 a month for Compost for Life to pick up her food scraps every couple of weeks at her home in Coconut Grove.
Mariah Hamalainen
Mariah Hamalainen pays about $20 a month for Compost for Life to pick up her food scraps every couple of weeks at her home in Coconut Grove.

Don't want to do it yourself?

You can also set aside material for others to compost.

Compost for Life services all areas of Miami-Dade and some areas of Broward. Their website says that since October 2020, they have diverted more than 2 million pounds of organic waste from landfills.

“I lived in other cities where it was the standard so that was one reason we wanted to look for alternative services since Miami didn’t offer one,” said Mariah Hamalainen, a Coconut Grove resident who pays about $20 a month for Compost for Life to pick up her food scraps every couple of weeks.

Between pickups, she puts scraps in a bamboo countertop bucket with a biobag inside. When it gets full, it’s dumped into her her hot pink Compost for Life bin on the front porch.

“My husband was like why are we keeping this bucket outside for everyone to see, and I said, that’s the point, I want people to see and to encourage them to do it!,” Hamalainen said.

Another option is Soilmate, a local startup that does weekly and biweekly pickups in Miami-Dade for around $20 a month. Jo, the founder of Soilmate, said they work with local businesses like flower shops too.

The Miami Beach Botanical Garden has a North Beach compost hub that offers free 24/7 drop offs. Finished compost is available for purchase in the Botanical Boutique and Garden Center.

Want to learn more?

Gardeners from the University of Florida host on-going Zoom workshops hosted by the Miami-Dade Public Library with step-by-step process of how to compost. The next composting workshop is Saturday, Jan. 27 at 2 p.m.

If you can’t make that one, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is hosting a $10 class on the basics of composting food scraps and yard trimmings on Jan. 13 at 10 a.m.

More information on at-home composting can also be found on the EPA website.

Ashley Miznazi is a climate change reporter for the Miami Herald funded by the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Family Foundation in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Ashley Miznazi |Miami Herald
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