New Leaf: The importance of composting

By Lindy Almony |

Composting: I have always know it is a valuable system, but I did not know exactly how it works and how beneficial it can be. I possessed some knowledge — put a pile of leaves and other organic materials in a bin, and it will eventually decompose — but I wanted to learn more.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans produce 251 million tons of municipal solid waste annually and 30 percent of that is compostable.

Just in case that was not clear: 30 percent of our waste could be eliminated and be turned into a valuable soil amendment!

According to, an online compost guide, items such as leaves, grass trimmings, manure, food waste and clean paper break down through a biological process which creates compost. Some compost can take years to break down, but with proper care, it will become a valuable resource for home gardening, agriculture and horticulture. It will also keep certain compostable materials out of landfills, which will reduce our environmental footprint and keep the Earth happy and well.

The compost guide reports that composting typically requires four things to work properly: carbon from brown and dry items, nitrogen from green and wet items, oxygen and water. These materials create microorganisms that break down organic matter to produce compost.

The Massachusetts Guide to Agricultural Composting said that water is needed to dissolve organic materials and maintain activity when compost becomes too dry. Moisture, as well as nitrogen, is added through wet items such as fruit and vegetables peels/cores. Rainwater and water from dish rags, wet clothes or sponges may be collected to add moisture. Urine also happens to provide a great source of moisture, nitrogen and heat to the compost pile.

As the matter breaks down, microorganisms generate heat as they decompose organic material, according to the online compost guide. The heat helps improve soil structure and also eliminates unwanted bacteria from the pile. If the compost becomes too cool it must be turned to provide oxygen and to bring newly added material into contact with microorganisms. Compost may be turned with a shovel or a pitchfork.

I spoke with one St. Augustine man who has kept a compost pile in his backyard for 20 years. “I do a lot of gardening and yard work, so it is great to have a self-sustainable system,” said Rich Elliot.

Elliot said he adds mostly grass trimmings, leaves and other yard materials to his pile. To help speed up the compost process, he said these items should be shredded, chopped or torn into small pieces. Elliot also adds food scraps to his pile, including fruit and vegetable peels from his homegrown garden. He warns however, “Keep the food scraps buried, or else the critters will get them.”

One particularly interesting fact Elliot shared was the benefit of compost in Florida soils. The soil pH level, which measures the amount of acid, tends to be high in Florida soils due to the shells and sand. A chemical compound in the shells makes the pH level high, which can cause difficulties for some gardening. Elliot suggests adding coffee grounds to the compost pile, which will help neutralize pH levels and enrich your soil. “Sabal Palms [Florida’s state tree] especially benefit from the addition of coffee grounds into the soil,” said Elliot. And we have got to take care of our state tree, right?

There are three main compost methods that I researched through The type of compost system you create may depend of the amount of maintenance you wish to keep on the pile, how quickly you would like your materials to decompose, and also what type of materials you want to compost.

First, there is aerobic composting, which requires a large supply of oxygen. Waste such as grass clippings or other green material, are high in nitrogen and will grow bacteria that create high temperatures (up to 160 degrees). Aerobic composting needs to be turned every few days to keep temperatures up and oxygen in the system, according to the website. It is therefore considered high maintenance composting. This system will allow organic materials to break down quickly, and is not prone to smell.

The next system of composting is anaerobic composting, which requires no air. This system of composting is low-maintenance and a very gradual process. It basically requires you to throw waste into a pile, wet it, cover it up and wait a few years for it to decompose. There will initially be aerobic bacteria in the pile, but once they have used up the air, the anaerobic bacteria will gradually replace them. Anaerobic composting creates an awful smell, but will decrease as the aerobic bacteria die off.

Red worm composting, or vermicomposting, requires medium maintenance and is most beneficial for composting food waste. The website states that this system uses worms in addition to microbes and bacteria to create a rich soil amendment.

According to, “Red worms can consume organic material equivalent to their body weight each day to produce castings equal to 75 percent of their body weight each day.” These castings contain eight times as many microorganisms as their feed. This turns into a natural fertilizer and promotes healthy plant growth.

Since composting can be a long process and require some maintenance, it may not be a viable option for many Flagler College students. Students who will soon be moving from St. Augustine, or are dorm-dwellers, may not be able to keep a compost bin or pile, but they could surely contribute to one. Some Flagler College students have made an effort to implement a compost system on campus, and with a bit more awareness and collaboration the system could be a real success.

Until then, the City Sprout organization has a compost system that anyone can add to, just down the street from Flagler at the Lincolnville community garden. Just an apple core here and some grass clippings there, and we will be on our way to a more environmentally friendly and sustainable campus.

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