Chemistry of composting does a planet good
Of the nine principles of Florida-Friendly Landscaping, principle number seven is "Recycle."
体育在线365Of course, it would be unspeakably amazing if forgotten kids’ toys sitting out in the yard could – all by themselves and completely effortlessly – become park benches made from reconstituted plastic boards. OK, don’t hold your breath waiting for that, but do think about how amazing it is that grass clippings, tree/shrub trimmings, fallen leaves/branches, and vegetable scraps from the kitchen can and do turn into beautiful, sweet-smelling, humus-rich, full-of-microbial-life dark brown compost in a matter of weeks or months with almost no effort at all, causing the plants they affect to almost glow.
体育在线365It's complex chemistry that you can witness without ever needing to understand it, this return to essential elements that enliven and enrich the soil; carbon, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, iron, magnesium, etc.
Did you catch the word "carbon" in that last sentence? Creating great fertilizer is a wonderful reason to compost your food scraps and recycle your yard debris, but there’s another reason that isn’t at all obvious, but nonetheless vitally important, especially if you don't want to watch the coastlines continue to creep inland and don't want to live in a world where category five hurricanes the size of Texas become common rather than being a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Cutting back on fossil fuel emissions is only part of the solution to climate change. The other part of it is to find ways to sequester carbon.
体育在线365Perhaps you remember from your time in school that there is a geologic period called the Carboniferous (hint: it's before the dinosaurs lived)? It's the time period when terrestrial plants diversified and flourished. Imagine ferns, club mosses, and horsetails as tall as trees growing in extensive warm, humid swamps, and you get the idea.
When plants grow (and die) in swamps, partially decomposed plant matter that is full of carbon settles in layers, creating the “muck” that is at the bottom of the swamp. This partially decomposed plant matter is called peat, and is a defining characteristic of forested wetlands. Peat moss is a kind of moss that grows in thick layers on top of itself and gets the name because it is especially good at creating peat.
体育在线365During the Carboniferous, forested swamps and peat bogs were common the world over. This geologic period earned the name Carboniferous because over time, those ancient swamps and bogs pulled huge amounts of carbon out of the air and sunk it all into the soil. Eventually, that sequestered carbon/sunken peat was covered in layers of rock, changed composition, and became oil, natural gas, and coal. In other words, fossil fuels are the remains of the plants of the Carboniferous.
体育在线365Because the process of creating peat is very much a process of sequestering carbon, during the 60 million years of the Carboniferous Period, the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere dramatically dropped, from 1500 ppm to 350 ppm, and the temperature of the planet dropped accordingly. By the middle of the Carboniferous Period, the average temperature of Earth was 12 degrees cooler than it had been at the beginning, matching pretty much exactly the climate we all grew up in.
体育在线365But now we humans are actively reversing this; when we started burning coal at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we began returning carbon that had been locked in the soil since the Carboniferous back into the atmosphere.
Not every ecosystem is as good at sequestering carbon as a peat bog, but every ecosystem does it. As every plant grows, it pulls carbon out of the atmosphere, holding more and more carbon the larger it gets. There is no comparison between how much carbon a tree holds compared to a lawn. Moreover, every time a leaf breaks down into soil, its carbon returns to the soil. The deeper and richer the topsoil, the more carbon it contains. The more plants you have growing in your yard, and the larger they are, the more carbon your yard has sequestered.
体育在线365Now, in all fairness, we have an awesome local government, and our county does compost the yard debris that people leave on the side of the road. But it takes a lot of fossil fuel energy to get it out to the place where it is composted. If you recycle your yard waste at home, you can create 100% efficiency for yard waste recycling.
Moreover, our county does not compost the vegetable scraps that get thrown in with the regular garbage. If you put your vegetable scraps into the garbage, they go to the transfer station on Gum Road and then from there they get driven 85 miles to a landfill in Jackson County. True, the carbon is buried and therefore sequestered, but there is no oxygen in a landfill. Decomposition without oxygen leads to the production of methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas.
体育在线365Besides, those scraps never get the chance to help other plants grow and make a prettier yard for you that will sequester more carbon. It's easy to do it right. Leaves can go into beds under a group of trees; branches and trimmings can be piled up in an out-of-the-way brush pile or layered almost invisibly under shrubs; grass clippings can be left on the lawn or put into a compost pile, along with all vegetable scraps.
Compost piles do not take much work, just a little attention at the right times. It is true that they can get kind of messy and smelly and full of creepy crawlies if you don't bother with getting your carbon-to-nitrogen ratios right. If that’s the reason you’re not currently composting, you can still compost, you just need another way to do it.
Here in Tallahassee, for a nominal fee, there is a small company that will come to your door to pick up your vegetable scraps for you and give you ready-to-use compost in exchange. If you search for "compost pick up service, Tallahassee" you will find their contact information.
Store-bought fertilizer is powerful stuff, but it can't activate and enliven the soil like compost can. Compost contains literally millions of living microorganisms in every cubic inch. In contrast, chemical fertilizer is well, dead. It can supply the necessary elements, but that's all it can do. When it comes to recycling yard waste, grass clippings, and vegetable scraps from your kitchen, it’s all beneficial, it's all win-win, and it's 100% recycling all the way down to the elemental level.
One last thought, are you one of the people who thought that the March for Science was a great idea, but you wondered what it actually accomplished? If you will convert part (or all) of your lawn into forest and take up recycling all your kitchen waste and all your yard waste, turning it all back into soil, you will become a global warming activist who is making a difference. And you will be making a difference every day.
Karen Rose is a professional gardener, Master Naturalist instructor, and a Master Gardener volunteer with UF/IFAS Leon County Extension. For gardening questions, email the extension office at AskAMasterGardener@ifas.ufl.edu.