Turn your scraps into soil

Kim Gabel digs worms, literally and figuratively. She prizes her little red wiggler earthworms so much that she keeps them in a box in her kitchen where they will be the most comfortable — and the most productive.

An environmental horticulture agent for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the Monroe County Extension, Gabel practices vermiculture, a form of composting in which live earthworms turn kitchen waste into a rich soil enhancer for gardening.

“They’re working for me, that’s for sure,” Gabel said. “One pound of worms will turn 65 pounds of garbage into garden compost in 110 days.”

Were Gabel not feeding her kitchen scraps to the worms or composting them by another method, she would have to throw the scraps into her trash bin. From there they would be loaded into trailers, along with tons of food waste generated by other Keys residents and businesses, and hauled to an incinerator in Broward County.

Also trucked to the mainland and incinerated each year are tons of yard waste from the Keys — waste that, in the past, was turned into mulch and kept on the islands to enrich the soil.

More than 17,500 tons of yard waste were hauled out of the Keys in fiscal year 2007 at a cost of over $1.3 million.

Until 2004, Monroe County recycled yard waste by processing it into mulch and providing it to residents free of charge. But then the Department of Agriculture asked county officials to discontinue the mulch program because it could help spread citrus canker, a damaging bacterial disease. The county complied with that request, and began trucking yard waste to the mainland for incineration.

Since citrus canker and another pesky problem — the pink mealy bug — still pose a threat and can be passed on through infected mulch, the county has no plans to revive the free mulch program.

That’s why composting is so important, Gabel says. Composting and vermiculture help reduce the costs and negative environmental impacts of transporting and disposing of vegetable waste through incineration. If more people and businesses composted, she said, fewer trucks would have to make weekly 200-mile treks to the incinerator, and the waste could be put to better use enhancing our own backyards.

Gabel said one look at a hammock is proof of the benefits of composting.

“The hammock areas are a natural composting system where heat, rain, insects and microorganisms break down matter to create soil,” she said. “The more we can recreate that system, the better, because our soil here is high in alkaline. But plants thrive in a more neutral, more acidic soil.”

Gabel says composting can be accomplished by creating a pile (or filling a specially prepared bin) with layers of chopped brown matter — newspaper, fallen leaves, palm fronds, twigs, and tree mulch — combined with layers of moist, chopped green matter like pruning waste, grass clippings and vegetable kitchen waste.

Meat, dairy products, grease or oil, pesticides, and pet waste should not be included in the compost heap. The right temperature and moisture level must be maintained to keep the pile healthy, sweet smelling and productive, and the mixture needs to be aerated occasionally by being mixed or “turned.”

Composting takes time. But Gabel said it’s worth the wait because the resulting decomposed material can be used to support plants and other life that’s vital to a healthy environment.

“With my own soil at home, I actually had earthworms living in it,” Gabel said. “Well, until (Hurricane) Wilma came along and washed them away.”

Gabel said composting would be a great project for business owners (especially those owning restaurants and grocery stores) wanting to make a positive environmental impact. She’d even like the schools to start doing it – imagine how much compost could result from all the broccoli discarded at school lunchrooms in Monroe County.

But for small households like hers that do not create a lot of kitchen waste, Gabel said vermiculture may be the way to go because it requires less green matter than regular composting. She said it costs about $70 for a small family to purchase the supplies necessary to get started. All that’s needed is a bin, an instruction booklet, and a couple of pounds of live worms.

Since the worms cannot tolerate extreme temperatures, Gabel keeps her bin in her kitchen where she can better control their environment and also have easy access to them for feeding. She said odor is not a problem unless the wrong type of scraps are put into the bin or it is overloaded.

Gabel doesn’t worry about the worms attempting a breakout since they prefer to live in the dark. And why would they want to leave? She provides them with a comfortable bed of shredded newspaper and all the food they can eat, and they reward her by processing her kitchen scraps and newspaper into worm castings — otherwise known as worm poop — that she uses to make rich potting soil or topsoil that serves as a gentle, slow release fertilizer for her plants.

Gabel said she feels good about making her own soil and using discarded mulch rather than buying it ready made. And she is satisfied that she’s doing her part to reduce the tons of yard waste that have to be transported off the islands and incinerated.

“It’s best to take what we’ve generated on our own property and use it on our own property,” Gabel said. “Mother Nature has provided us with these free materials and we need to use them, not just throw them away.”