We often struggle in coastal counties with gardening due to our poor sandy soils. There is just not enough native organic matter to support much of the plant life that we desire. To have a successful vegetable garden or landscape, a significant amount of rich organic soil with a high capacity in holding moisture is needed. Composting at home is a great way to create this nutritional soil amendment.

So, what is compost anyway? Compost is a dark, crumbly material created when microorganisms break down organic matter. In this case for the home gardener, this is mostly leaves, grass clippings and food scrapes. Converting yard debris to compost has many benefits. It is an environmentally friendly way of reducing solid waste. According to the U.S. EPA, approximately 33 million tons of food waste ends up in landfills each year. Also, it makes great potting soil when mixed with other components like top soil, peat moss and perlite. Compost is an excellent soil amendment for gardens and lawns. It improves the health and structure of both sandy and clay soils. It can be applied on top of soil as mulch, as well.

Two types of materials are needed for successful composting, “brown” materials, which are rich in carbon and “green” materials, which are rich in nitrogen. Examples of browns are fallen leaves, small branches, shredded newspaper, paper towels and paper plates. Examples of greens are vegetable and fruit scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds, grass clippings, herbaceous plants and even farm animal manure. Be sure to keep any seeding weeds, diseased plants and most importantly, nematode-infested roots out of the compost pile. Also, greasy oils and meats are difficult to break down in this process, and may attract animals with its foul odors. After all, we are in bear country!

So, how does this work? Composting is about supplying the microorganisms that do the decomposing with the essentials of life: food, water and oxygen. Microbial activity is affected by the proportion of carbon (brown materials) to nitrogen (green materials) or c/n ratio. The optimum c/n ratio for rapid composting is roughly 30/1.

Building a compost pile is a snap. For best performance, a 3’ x 3’ x 3’ structure will work great. There’s are a variety of materials that can be used. Many gardeners use wooded pallets or even wire baskets as shown in figure 1. There are compost drum products sold at most gardening centers, if you are interested in purchasing a unit instead of building your own.

To fill your compost pile, layer equal amounts of “brown” and “green” materials in 3-4” tiers until you reach at least 3 feet in height (figure 1). Just remember to start with browns and end with browns. For maintenance, be sure to water the pile, but be careful not to over saturate. A new pile of green and brown materials will heat up rapidly, due to microbial activity. A hot pile will often produce steam, but this is nothing to worry about. After approximately a week, the pile will cool. It should be turned at this point. Turning the pile should occur every 1-2 weeks. Following these steps, compost can be produced in 6 weeks. Compost will be ready to use when it is dark brown and crumbly. Also, there’s no advantage to purchasing a compost “starter”. The organic yard and food waste will provide microorganisms with adequate amounts of nutrients to start the decomposition process.

Compost is a wonderful soil additive, especially to our poor, sandy soils. For vegetable gardening and landscaping, add 1-3 inches of compost to the soil surface and mix it to a depth of 4-6 inches. Remember, compost can also be used as mulch. This is a particularly good use of unfinished compost. It will continue to break down, and like mulches, will need to be re-applied once or twice a year.

Composting is a great way to utilize natural debris to create a nutritional soil amendment for many applications. Contact Gulf County Extension Office at 639-3200 for more information.

Supporting information for this article provided by UF/IFAS Leon County Extension Agents Molly Jameson & Mark Tancig. Supporting information can also be found in the UF/IFAS EDIS publication: “Compost Tips for the Home Gardener” by Dr. Sydney Park Brown.

UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.