It's a warm sticky morning in late August when we meet Juliane Miklos in her backyard garden oasis just outside of Miami, Florida. The land is teeming with tropical wildlife. Birds, butterflies, cats, and bees dance around Juliane in the grassy quarter acre lawn where almost-ripe fruits and medicinal herbs are growing. We're here to share a cup of coffee and get a primer on the art of composting, our first stop on a journey in search of new opportunities for reducing waste as a company and in our personal lives.
Juliane is a gardener, herbalist, and medicine maker who fell in love with tending to plants after spending two years volunteering with "WWOOF," a global non-profit organization linking curious students with organic farms to promote cultural and educational experiences. Hungry to grow after returning home, Juliane began converting her backyard into a garden in the winter of 2016.
Just four years later and that same backyard is now a burgeoning food forest and medicinal garden of bananas, papaya, mango, lemongrass, soursop, sweet potatoes, moringa, tulsi, and more. Juliane's success is equal parts geography, years of experimentation with traditional farming techniques, and reverence for the natural world.
"The plants have honestly been one of my greatest teachers, the direct experience from working with them has been life changing."
Building a home garden for the first time can be daunting, especially when working with an area that hasn't been treated in awhile. Juliane encourages starting out by focusing on building up and nourishing soil, and that's where compost can be a great ally. Compost is recycled organic matter (whole foods, paper, wood, animal droppings) that has broken down into nutrient dense "humus" acting as a soil conditioner, fertilizer, and natural pesticide. Not only is composting a simple way to keep food waste out of landfills (where it releases methane greenhouse gasses due to the lack of proper oxygen needed to decompose), it's also a low cost way to get your land the nutrition it needs to assist with plant growth, and can be used for erosion control, land and stream reclamation, wetland construction, and as landfill cover. For compost to work effectively, it requires the correct ratio of carbon to nitrogen based materials (more on that later), oxygen, and water. A bit of human maintenance is also required; turning it every so often keeps oxygen and moisture levels right. Below Juliane guides us through the process of feeding healthy soil microorganisms with the remnants of our daily bread.
Simply put, for a healthy compost pile (or bin) you want an even ratio of brown to green parts. Brown, carbon rich things, tend to be dried up or lifeless for a while. Things like cardboard, fallen leaves, pine needles, hay, paper, woody stems from trees all fall into the brown category. Brown bits help to aerate the compost and make sure it's not too wet. If you're pile is smelly and super moist you need more brown stuff! I recommend searching neighborhoods for this, as folks are always bagging up leaves and putting them on the curb. Sunday is my favorite day to go leave foraging. I look for leaves in clear trash bags so I can see all the way through.
Green, nitrogen and mineral rich things, tend to be wet and or recently alive or growing. Things like food scraps, weeds from your garden (before they've gone to seed), fresh plant leaves ('chop and drop' plants like Mexican sunflower or Vetiver grow a lot and need to be cut back every few months so these are perfect), seaweed (I routinely go collect sargassum from the beach, rinse it and compost it), eggshells, coffee grounds, and animal poop are all considered green. I'm a pescatarian and save fish bones and crustacean shells to make soup stock and then will compost the remains. I wouldn't recommend composting fresh meat or fish scraps because that will attract animals and be quite smelly.
You can compost however and wherever you'd like and are able to, especially in the Sunshine State. If you live elsewhere, I would recommend the sunniest spot that also gets a lot of rainfall. I personally love to compost within banana circles because the banana plants are heavy feeders, meaning they require a lot of nutrients to fruit. I like to think of composting as feeding my plants and Mother Nature. Just like we, as humans require healthy food with a wide range of minerals, vitamins, proteins, fats and carbohydrates, so does the earth.
If you're composting in a pile or container to use in the garden, you eventually want to stop adding new green or brown components to it, to let it break down for 2-3 months. It's nice to have 2 or 3 designated composting areas because of this exact reason, so that you're rotating through where you are giving back to the earth.
For acid loving plants, mainly my Gardenia bushes but if you grow Goji Berries or Blueberries they might also appreciate this, I leave an inch or two of coffee leftover if I'm making coffee in a French press, and water the plants with the liquid and grounds! Alternatively you can make a cup of coffee strictly for your plants, 1 tablespoon of ground coffee per cup of hot water and water your plants with that.
Note, if you are asking yourself, why waste the coffee and just not give the spent grounds only? Once you brew the coffee grounds, the acid and nutrients of the coffee are being released into the coffee. The spent grounds are devoid of a lot of the minerals and acids that the plants want! It's a really lovely way to establish a relationship with your plants, giving them a cup of coffee is a beautiful act of love. I try to do this on a bimonthly basis, so every other week!
Both the plant and plant loving community of Miami and Florida has had such a big impact and taught me so much. Thank you to all my teachers, Julia Onnie-Hay Sanchez, Paula Diaz, Monique Renee, Garene-Olivia Narcisse & Emily Ruff & Maggie O'Halloran of the Florida School of Holistic Living, who have instilled and inspired me with a love of the green world.