It’s International Composting Awareness Week, so we thought it perfect timing to share our love of black gold and everything that goes into making it! Good, rich, organic compost is as good as gold to the organic gardener or farmer, and soil health is critical to environmental resilience. Composting - and educating others about it - is one action you take against climate change!
“The 2019 ICAW theme, ‘Cool the Climate - Compost!’ recognizes the connection between soil health and climate. By composting, carbon captured by plants from the atmosphere is returned to the soil. In addition, the compost, when returned to the soil, provides resistance to drought and disease, adds nutrients, improve its workability and reduce the release of nitrous oxide.” (From the Compost Foundation website.)
Our job as gardeners is to build up the organic matter in the soil, and continue to replenish the nutrients that our plants need to thrive. There is a proverb (of unclear origin - some say it’s Japanese, others Chinese)
“The poor farmer grows weeds
The fair farmer grows crops
The Good farmer grows Soil.”
If you invest time and energy into caring for the soil, you’ll be rewarded with healthier, more nutrient dense food! You can buy good organic compost (though sourcing it can be tricky depending on where you live), but there are so many benefits to making your own compost!
Building a backyard compost:
- Produces chemical free and package free fertilizer
- Costs practically nothing (depending on your system)
- Encourages beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter to create nutrient rich humus full of rich organic matter - incredible soil builder!
- Increases your self-sufficiency
- Diverts food waste from the landfill
- Reduces greenhouse gas (when food scraps rot anaerobically in the landfill, without soil, they produce methane)
All you really need is a spot to build your pile and a tool to turn it with - but the better your system and more intentional your method, the faster your pile will become compost. Depending on your set up, composting can take as long as two years or as quickly as two months!
Your compost pile could be as simple as a heaped pile at the corner of your yard, or even a trench dug in your garden. We do this in the Fall, after the garden has been put to bed and before the ground freezes. Trench composting is a slower anaerobic process, but still a great alternative to the landfill if you don’t want an above ground compost.
A compost pile is generally easier to manage if you contain it with chicken wire, wood, or a covered bin. A single compost bin is fairly self-explanatory - it can be contained however you like. Some regions and municipalities may even provide residents those easy to assemble black or green plastic bins, which heat up well and work great for small spaces.
Microbes love heat and will work much faster to create compost if they are in a warm environment.
Here are four compost bins you can DIY from Treehugger.
Three Bin Composter
If you’re up for a bigger project, and you need a lot of compost, a three-bin composter is a great system for maximum compost production. Lots of gardeners use pallets to build this system, but you can also use three separate compost bins side by side if that’s what you have access to.
Here’s how it works:
- start a pile in the first bin
- when it’s full, turn it into the second bin (thus aerating it really well!)
- start a new pile in the first bin
- don’t add anything new to the second bin - just aerate and water it (if the weather is dry)
- When bin one is full again, move bin two to the third bin, and bin one to bin two
- Start a new pile in bin one again!
You only ever add new materials into the first bin. By the time you’re ready to start another fresh pile, the third bin should be full of awesome compost, ready to use!
Compost Tumbler or Roller
This is basically a barrel or bin that can be rolled around - either on the ground or on an axle - to aerate and heat the compost more easily - at least, in theory. It needs to be built well so that it is easy to turn.
A compost tumbler might be a good choice if you have limited space or a rat problem (they can’t get in!) and also the high temperatures will kill most weed seeds, which is a good thing. You can’t use worms, however, since they won’t survive the heat - so that leaves bacteria and fungi to do the work.
If you’re really short on space and your garden is a balcony or windowsill, you can still compost indoors! You can buy indoor composters, OR you can make one. Apartment Therapy has a tutorial on building an indoor composter that is odor free and fits under your sink.
Vermiculture or Vermicomposting is composting using worms! We plan to explore this method more fully in another Library article, but we simply couldn’t talk about Composting without mentioning it.
Worm castings (worm poop!) is a dang near perfect soil amendment! To make your own worm casting, you need to set up a worm bin system (here’s a great DIY using two totes) add worms to vegetable scraps and shredded paper and let them eat their way through this tasty feast! One pound of worms (about 1000 crawlies) can eat up to half a pound of organic material a day!
A worm compost bin is really simple to DIY and you can source worms from other Vermiculturalists, garden centres, or even on Kijiji! Red Wrigglers are supposedly the best worms for this type of composting. This is such a neat project, especially if you have children in your life.
Cathy’s Crawly Composters is an excellent resource, with videos that demonstrate her neat indoor worm composting system.
Worms are incredible workers in compost systems (except compost tumblers) as they aerate the pile and contribute their castings. If you see lots of a crawlies in your garden, that indicates healthy soil. Thank you worms!!
The basic recipe
The key to making great compost is to feed your pile the right mix of materials. The essential ingredients are food scraps and yard waste; the other important elements are moisture, temperature, and oxygen.
- Green - or wet - materials are high in nitrogen;
- Brown - dry - materials - are high in carbon.
The basic recipe is 2 parts green to 1 part brown, but it depends on the materials you use - you kind of have to play around with it. Wet materials are heavier and you ideally want to achieve a balance of 50/50 by weight.
Green materials are things like vegetable and fruit scraps, crushed egg shells, coffee grounds, fresh grass clippings, plant trimmings, etc.
Brown materials are things like dry leaves, straw, sawdust, dried grass clippings, shredded newspaper, hair & and animal fur, etc.
Do not compost meat, dairy, fats, bones, pet waste, diseased plants (like tomatoes or potatoes with blight!), or weed seeds.
If you live by the coast (we do!) you can access one of the most incredible gifts of nature - seaweed! You can compost seaweed and make a great tea or liquid fertilizer that will give your gardens a fantastic boost.
Accelerate your compost pile
It’s fairly low maintenance once set up, but there are a few things you can do to help it along.
Watering is important. If it seems too dry, water it; if it seems to wet, add more brown ingredients. You can cover your pile or container with a tarp to keep it from drying out.
Aerating is a great way to accelerate your composting, which is to turn your pile with a fork or shovel regularly to increase the aerobic activity that speeds along decomposition. (Another reason why compost tumblers are great!)
Reducing particle size by chopping up ingredients before you add them to the pile helps the microorganisms do their thing and keeps temperatures optimal.
You don’t have to do these things - your pile will break down eventually - but if you tend your pile regularly, you will produce a lot more compost more quickly.
How to use finished compost
- Add it to potting soil for seed starting
- Use as mulch around your perennials, fruit trees, or other plants to retain moisture and keep roots cool and protected in summer.
- Incorporate it into your garden soil to build rich organic matter. The better your soil, the more your plants will thrive and flourish!
- Make compost tea - a natural, organic liquid fertilizer. It’s made exactly the way it sounds! You brew finished compost with water for several days, strain, then use to water plants.
Do you compost? What method do you use? Do you have any tips to share? Leave a comment below!