Are you part of a green trend that's on the rise? Twenty-seven percent of Canadian households composted their waste in some way in 2006, up from 23% a decade earlier. But a large part of this number reflects Canadians sending their compostables (approximately 51 kilograms each year) away to the increasing numbers of centralized facilities cropping up to process the organic waste–a costly and unnecessary shipment given that composting can be done at home with greater benefits to you and the environment. “It’s all too easy to use the garbage or the odious Green Bin to handle food scraps,” says Mike Nevin, composting coordinator at the non-profit food advocacy group, Foodshare but a backyard composting system is one of the smartest ways to reduce your carbon footprint.
Creating compost means helping natural micro-organisms do their work turning organic matter (like food scraps and yard waste) into nutrient-rich soil material. Composting can reduce the amount of household garbage by as much as a third, and the compost is ideal for home gardening and landscaping. While it seems like magic, you don’t need to be an experienced horticulturalist to make compost. Ultimately, says Nevin, “the most important thing is to want to compost.” Get out there now–here are a few essential tips to get you started and get your compost mix just right.
Find the right place
In theory, food scraps would decompose if you tossed them into a big hole you had dug in the ground…but this would only lure the neighbourhood raccoons in for a midnight feast. You’ll get much better results if you instead create a well-managed scraps pile that allows for aeration (letting oxygen in) and promotes healthy microbial activity. Home composting units are cheaply available from most municipalities but you can also simply fence off an area of your yard with some scrap lumber and some heavy gauge wire that will keep animals from getting in. Be sure to pick an area where there is plenty of sunlight and good drainage, which will allow the materials to break down faster. To get started, Mike Nevin offers some step-by-step advice:
1. Turn the soil in the location where you’re going to position your compost bin/pile.
2. After placing the composter on the newly turned ground, cover it with a layer of sticks and branches. This will allow for air movement and drainage.
3. Now add the “ingredients.” Food scraps should be chopped up (not more than about an inch or so in size) and try to use more or less equal volumes of food scraps, or “greens” (like fruit and vegetables, crushed egg shells, tea bags, coffee grounds with filters) and "browns" (i.e. garden waste such as leaves, dried grass and plant clippings, nut shells, wood chips, old potting soil, even shredded egg carton/newspaper or cardboard). Top the pile off with some garden soil to help speed up the start of the composting process.
Finding the right mix
Alternating food scraps with “browns” will provide micro-organisms with the right mixture of carbon (from matter that is brown and dry) and nitrogen (from matter that is wet and green, such as fruits and vegetables) for them to work effectively. You won’t see composting happen where you can see it, it happens under the surface. This means you should bury the scraps you add regularly to your pile, not just toss them on top. Be sure to avoid adding oil, meat scraps, fat or bones to the pile as this will create strong odours and even attract hungry critters. If smells become intense then there’s likely too much wet “greens” in the mix, and not enough air circulation (creating rot rather than healthy compost). Try adding more dry “browns” to get the balance back–but if the problem is there’s no changes, make sure there’s a good amount of worms, slugs and earwigs in there at work (source YouGrowGirl.com).
Keeping it going
Compost should be turned once every week or two during the summer. Use a garden fork or shovel to continuously move the raw material towards the centre of the pile where the composting activity is happening. Keep in mind:
• Moisture is also essential to composting. Compost should be about as damp as a well wrung out sponge so if it looks too dry, add water and stir. If it seems too wet, add dry material and stir.
• Creating great compost can take from two months to two years, depending on conditions, and requires regular attention so consider planning a two composter system whereby you use one composter for the first summer and then begin filling the second composter around the end of July to be ready for the following year.
Ready for use
After several months you’ll see the pile transform and see rich earthy humus as you turn it over. Mike advises to screen the material to give you breathtakingly gorgeous compost and make you the envy of your friends. To do this simply put the material through a sieve with a mesh of approximately 1 cm (widely available at garden and hardware stores, or you can even use a milk crate). Toss the big lumps back into the compost to keep micro-organisms in the mix and to keep yet-composted scraps buried. Add your new nutrient-rich soil materials to flower beds or containers and watch your garden thrive! For more info on composting in Canada, visit the websites of the Composting Council of Canada and Environment Canada.
Do you have a composting story or question? Leave us a comment below!
With research by Tasneem Virani.