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Written by Jeff Shimonski, BT Contributor   
June 2018

Composting helps your garden grow

IPix_YourGarden_6-18’ve been composting the food waste from my kitchen for years now. By food waste I mean everything from the preparation of the meals, with the exception of meat or dairy products. I do include egg shells, bread, all of my coffee grounds, and quite a bit of the compostable cardboard that comes with all those small boxes from things I order online.

My composter is a four-level vermicomposter, meaning there are earthworms in the compost that expedite the decomposition of the organic matter. It takes a while to accumulate enough compost for planting since the majority of all the vegetable and fruit waste is composed of water, and all this evaporates, leaving just a small amount of food stock for the worms to eat and pass through their tiny bodies. The amount of compost you produce will depend on how much food stock or waste you have. So it may take time to accumulate the compost, but eventually you’ll have enough to be growing your favorite plants in it.

I’ve been composting for the past four decades, beginning at Parrot Jungle, where we had a licensed composting operation. We used all the finished compost in our plant nursery and in the landscape, and we produced about 20 cubic yards of organic waste a month. But this wasn’t food waste; it was from the landscape, and it saved us not only the cost of sending all this waste to the dump but also the cost of buying potting soil for the nursery.

When I take out the seeds from fruits or vegetables, I don’t toss them in the garbage -- I add them to the compost. They’ll eventually germinate and add further vegetable matter to the compost.

I noticed many years ago that when we’d have germinating sausage trees in our compost pile, many of the seeds would germinate really well after going through the heating of the compost cycle. We used to have hundreds of sausage tree fruit a year since we hand-pollinated the trees on the property. We ended up with lots of sausage trees in our nursery. If they haven’t been removed to accommodate the fancy new construction, some of the sausage trees at Jungle Island are seedlings that came from the Parrot Jungle nursery.

The photo that accompanies this article is from one of my cherry tomato plants. These cherry tomatoes germinated after being composted. I finish my compost after mixing it with sand -- about 50 percent sand and 50 percent compost -- and store it in a large open bin until I need it. This storage allows the compost to break down even further. The cherry tomatoes germinate while in the storage bin.

I transplanted them, and they are now growing in 20-gallon nursery pots on wire trellises. They’re about five feet high.

I’m growing quite a few different vegetables and fruit. One cultivation technique that my tomatoes and other plants benefit from is being planted under taller plants. My tall palms and papaya accomplish this. They let in a diffused bright sunlight but will still protect the plants from overheating and wilting at midday and in the afternoon, when the sun can get pretty hot. Also, if it rains and the sun comes out immediately afterward, the leaves don’t burn.

These cherry tomatoes are quite delicious. Some mornings when I walk through the garden to see what grew overnight, I eat them right off the plant. I’m thankful that none of the local birds or other animals that frequent my property eat tomatoes. The birds are a problem with my black mulberry. The fruit are red and taste bitter before they ripen, but they’ll turn black almost overnight and become very sweet. It’s always a race with the birds to get to the ripe fruit.

Before I accumulated my finished compost, I tried buying bags of compost at the local giant hardware store. Almost everything I planted in this compost died. The compost needed to break down further, and I had to add lots of sand to keep the composted soil from retaining water and causing the roots to rot. It turned out better to pour the bagged compost into open bins, as I do now, and wait a few months before using it on the plants.

I really enjoy walking out in my garden every morning to see new things. Since I’ve been spreading tree chipping mulch throughout my garden for years now, I have built up a pretty good layer of topsoil. My sweet potatoes are really kicking in with all this rain, and I’ll be harvesting quite a few tubers of this vine in the fall.


Jeff Shimonski is an ISA-certified arborist municipal specialist, retired director of horticulture at Parrot Jungle and Jungle Island, and principal of Tropical Designs of Florida. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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