Dishing Up the Dirt About Compost

A beginner’s guide for turning waste into soil

Dishing Up the Dirt About Compost

Think about what you ate for lunch today. What packaging was your food wrapped in? Did you discard the banana peel in the garbage bin? Learn the why, the where, and the what about composting, along with some easy how-tos.

Our daily consumption habits and food choices produce waste. Food waste, for example, is an environmental concern because it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions when disposed of in landfill sites. We can all play a role in creating a better destiny for waste via composting.

Why compost?

One of the best ways to tackle waste, such as food waste, is to recycle it. Home composting is an excellent example of this. During composting, biodegradable resources such as food scraps and leaves are naturally broken down by various fungi, bacteria, and worms to create a natural fertilizer known as compost.

Composting has many advantages:

  • environmentally friendly
  • energy efficient and cost effective
  • prevents accumulation of food waste and other organic material in landfills
  • reduces reliance on, and costs associated with, municipal organic collection programs

Anywhere, anytime

Composting can be done anywhere, and anytime. If you are a homeowner, you may choose to compost in your backyard, shed, or garage. If you live in an apartment, composting on the balcony or indoors are both good options.

Composting requirements

Composting usually requires a balanced mixture of organic material made of nitrogen (greens) and carbon (browns), as well as water and air. Certain composting methods use only one type of organic material.

Composting mix

Here are some examples of suitable material for home composting:

  • browns (75 percent): wood chips, twigs, dried leaves, newspaper, egg cartons, cardboard, leaf bags, straw
  • greens (25 percent): vegetables, fruits, garden clippings, weeds (without seed), tea bags, coffee grounds

Avoid the following:

  • animal feces
  • oil/fats
  • meat
  • dairy

Tips for composting all year road

Follow these guidelines for composting throughout the seasons:

  • Collect and compost organic waste such as kitchen scraps, even in winter.
  • Maintain the moisture in your pile by covering it up; do not add too much water.
  • Choose an area with partial shade, especially in the summertime.

Getting started

Consider these factors before choosing a compost method:

  • How much space do you have?
  • How much time are you willing to allocate for maintenance?
  • What compostable material do you have access to?

Composting methods

There are many different approaches to composting at home. Read on to find one or two that fit your needs.

Worm composting

This method, also known as vermicomposting, uses red wiggler worms to break down kitchen scraps and other organic waste. In a day, a worm will process up to its own weight in food to produce compost.

To start vermicomposting, you need a plastic bin with holes in the bottom and top, kitchen waste, and shredded newspaper. Red wigglers can be purchased online, or you can get them through specialized programs or events in your city.

Pros
  • low cost
  • can be done anywhere inside the home, or outdoors from spring until fall
Cons
  • fruit flies are a common issue
  • red wigglers will not survive outdoors in the winter (December to March)
Level of difficulty
  • fairly easy

Lasagna gardening

Lasagna gardening involves layering green and brown material to create a bed of compost. If you wish to create a garden bed using this method, the first layer should be cardboard or newspaper to suppress weeds. Continue adding equal layers of greens and browns; water the layers.

Catherine Cook has been practising lasagna gardening for the past decade, and her advice is to do it in the fall for best results. “A lot of the ingredients are readily available [in the fall] and the layers have a chance to break down over winter.” But you can do it in the summer or spring as well.

Pros
  • great for building garden beds
  • effective for eliminating weeds
Cons
  • can be time consuming
  • may take many months to fully break down
Level of difficulty
  • somewhat easy

Four-bin composting

This method uses a four-bin system to compost large piles of organic material outdoors at different stages. You can also use a two- or three-bin system. Start by adding greens and browns to the first bin. When the first bin becomes full, move the material to the next bin, where it will continue to break down. The compost will mature in the last bin.

Pros
  • exposure to air from all sides of the bin speeds up rate of composting
  • quick process
Cons
  • requires quite a bit of maintenance
  • costly to build bins from scratch; can use pallets instead
Level of difficulty
  • challenging but doable

Backyard composting

This composting method is done in closed bins, or as open piles. Backyard composters are typically made of plastic. They can often be purchased from a local municipal department any time of year. If composting using open piles, cover with burlap or plastic to retain moisture.

Pros
  • low maintenance; low cost
  • different variations (bin or pile)
Cons
  • open piles can attract wildlife and dry out fast
  • limited air circulation in bins
Level of difficulty
  • pretty easy

Grass cycling

This composting method simply involves mowing the lawn and leaving the grass cuttings on the ground. According to Kyle Heeley, sustainable waste management project coordinator at the Regional Municipality of York, grass cycling improves lawn quality and reduces lawn care time. “It is a pretty low-effort diversion opportunity that most people could do fairly easily,” says Heeley.

Pros
  • no raking needed
  • grass clippings break down quickly
Cons
  • aesthetically, cuttings may be noticeable for the first day
  • more frequent cutting is required
Level of difficulty
  • super easy

Leaf mulching

This composting method uses leaves. It can be done in an open pile or inside bags; you can use either garbage plastic bags or paper yard waste bags. These can be purchased from your local hardware store.

Punch some holes in the bottom and the sides. Fill the bag with leaves and add some water. Leaf mulching is generally broken down by fungi. Hence, it requires moisture and cool conditions. You can also shred the leaves using a lawn mower and leave them on the lawn or soil, similar to grass cycling.

Pros
  • perfect for small-space composting
  • can be done in the garage or on the balcony
Cons
  • very slow process
  • there is variation in rate of composting for different leaves
Level of difficulty
  • super easy

Item checklist

Consider getting these items to help you compost successfully:

  • compost thermometer
  • moisture meter
  • garden fork

Knowing when to harvest your compost

Compost has completely matured when it has an earthy smell, a dark brown appearance, and crumbles in your hand. Apply to lawns, perennials, and vegetable gardens. It can also be added to indoor potted plants.

If you see signs of recognizable food or many large lumps in the pile, or the compost pile is still warm, the compost is not ready to harvest yet and may need to be left for a few more weeks.

You might also like

Water-Wise Gardening

Mason Bees

Enjoy Spring Early