By Tom Carey
With all the talk of the problems associated with global warming and greenhouse gases, gardeners are rarely mentioned as part of the solution. Gardening as a crucial link between mankind and the earth provides many important opportunities to solve these modern dilemmas. Not only by reducing the output of troubling gases, but by reducing the quantities of greenhouse gases that already exist, gardeners help save the world as we know it.
Compost is the foundation to soil improvement for all of our gardening efforts. What is this crumbly, black soil so highly valued? The short answer would be carbon, in a stable but interactive form, created from the decomposition of existing plant materials. Plant debris exposed to sunlight and air will oxidize — essentially burn — back into gaseous carbon dioxide. This is why Florida's dirt doesn't accumulate black topsoil like other regions of the Earth. Through the efforts of bacteria in a cow's stomach, fungus hiding on the forest floor or a slimy earthworm in our compost pile, carbon is stabilized in a form of humic acid (humus).
Mix together billions of microorganisms, trace elements in mineral form, plant fibers and sand and you have compost. Why all these accolades to the gardener? By creating and using compost, its carbon component will be sequestered into the ground to be held in place for many years or centuries. Carbon sequestering on the scope and scale of America's farmland would be a huge step toward lowering greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. At the same time, composting improves the quantities and qualities of our produce in healthful ways, benefiting all of mankind!
Compost, for all its intrinsic values, is relatively easy to create. The four basic components are: chopped up plant material, water, microbes and the pile. Lawn trimming season is upon us as we speak. By backyard composting, municipal waste services save motor fuel and tax dollars by not transporting our landscape debris to the county landfill. The chopped surface areas of plants exposed to the myriads of microbe types present ample opportunities for unseen food chains to flourish. Of course, life requires water, but not too much, as excess moisture excludes oxygen, creating a smelly anaerobic stew. Collected rainwater is a fitting complement to our efforts already under way. The pile assures the critical mass for humus formation so the carbon is not lost back to the atmosphere. Our sporadic efforts at turning the pile accelerate the process as required.
Summer, Central Florida's gardening off-season, is perfectly timed for compost production. Like any recipe, cooking a batch of compost takes practice. Poke, prod, sniff and experience the mini universe baking in the corner of your garden. When autumn arrives, the finished product of our pile will help us on our way to harvesting some wonderful food grown in our garden and the satisfaction of knowing we helped save the world one garden bed at a time!