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Backyard Composting

Composting is a method of waste diversion. As with anything related to sustainability, our main goal should be to decrease the amount of waste we produce, and this means wasting less food. However, there are plenty of food scraps that are produced when we cook at home, and I truly believe that cooking dinner is an act of sustainability.

Composting is a great way to dispose of food scraps and waste. Not only does it help to reduce carbon emissions, but it also helps to rebuild soil quality, and gets us more in touch with natural processes, right in our own backyard!

So, what to compost?

Food scraps are the best and most straightforward things to put in your compost bin. Food scraps are the inedible portions of food such as peels, rinds, and husks. These are not to be confused with food waste, which are edible portions of food that are thrown away or allowed to go bad. While some food waste can also go in the compost bin, we have to be more selective here. More on that in a moment. The best thing to consider with food waste is how to minimize it - it is after all wasteful of resources, carbon emissions, land, and money! For more information on food waste, check out this article on Decreasing Food Waste.

Why does composting matter?

Although one may assume that food scraps can readily decompose in the landfill due to the fact that they are organic material, this is unfortunately not the case. Organic material needs oxygen in order to properly decompose. When food scraps are sent to the landfill, they are anaerobically digested, resulting in the production of methane.

In relation to carbon dioxide, a well-known greenhouse gas, methane’s global warming potential is 25 times more powerful. Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas that originates from human activity. Composting works to avoid the production of this harmful greenhouse gas, as well as produce useful nutrients which can be used to fertilize the land instead of dangerous chemicals.

How to start composting in your backyard

While some areas may have commercial composting facilities, many places do not. If your food scraps aren’t able to be picked up and composted by your town or city, you can always create a compost bin in your backyard! The additional benefit of having a personal compost is that you are able to use the finished product in your own garden!

Of course, not everyone has the space or ability to backyard compost but you may still want to be able to contribute to a better environment through composting, so there are a number of alternatives that may be right for you.

Consider using or helping to establish a community composting program, composting service that may be available in your town or city, or the practical solution of vermicomposting which works very well in small spaces, like workplace kitchens, apartments and condominiums.

My first composting system was a vermicomposter in my apartment and it was a gift from my now husband - did he ever know my likes even way back then. It is a bold move to give your partner worms as a gift!!

1. Placing your compost bin or pile

It is ideal to situate your outdoor compost bin in an area that is well-drained and sunny. Your compost bin, whether store-bought or homemade should allow air to circulate as that is crucial to the process of composting. Hardware stores sell a variety of different compost bins, but if you want to compost without buying anything new or plastic, wooden compost bins are another option.

Keep the bin away from your house and other structures to avoid attracting rodents to your home. Some bins are rodent-proof and off the ground; however, having the compost directly on the earth is very useful to infuse the compost with the beneficial microorganisms that do the composting.

2. Composting materials

There are two types of material needed for a healthy compost. “Brown” material, which is usually dry and rich in carbon, and “green” material which is wet and rich in nitrogen. Your green material will be the food scraps that you collect, while brown material may be brown leaves, straw, woodchips from untreated wood, or brown paper. Eartheasy’s guide to composting provides more examples of materials you can compost.

3. Collecting your kitchen scraps

Composting your kitchen scraps is an incredibly useful way to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by preventing organic materials from going to the landfill. Just use a bin or bucket with a lid indoors to collect the kitchen wastes. You can purchase a compost collection bucket like the one I use from Lee Valley Tools that even comes with a charcoal filter so that you never smell a thing, or you can go for a simple metal or plastic bucket with a lid under the sink.

I keep mine in a kitchen drawer right beside the garbage and recycling bins, which are both smaller than my compost collection bucket!

What to add to the compost bucket? While technically everything organic is compostable, we like to stick to items that will decompose readily without attracting rodents or producing foul smells.

From the kitchen add this to your compost:

  • all vegetable scraps (stems, peels, unused portions, carrot tops, etc.)
  • egg shells (great for adding calcium to your soil)
  • coffee grounds
  • tea bags (tag removed) and used tea leaves
  • cooked leftovers that don’t have dairy or meat or fish
  • cooked pasta, rice, grains and beans

From the yard add this to your compost:

  • leaves or even better, mulched leaves
  • green scraps like grass or plant material (be sure to mix it in, and don’t add too much)
  • old garden plants
  • used Halloween pumpkins (without decorations, paint, glue, or wax), chop them up a bit to help the composting process

Avoid these items in your compost:

  • meat, bones, animal fat
  • cheese
  • dairy (yogurt, cottage cheese, milk, etc.)
  • sugar and very sweet sauces
  • animal waste/excrement
  • excess grass clippings (it is better to leave them on the lawn anyway)
  • twigs and sticks
  • anything treated with pesticides or herbicides
  • sawdust from treated wood
  • weeds with seeds
  • live weeds - just leave weed plants in a black garbage bag in the sun for a day or two to kill the plant before adding it to the compost bin.
  • toxic weeds or plants such as poison ivy, giant hogweed, poison oak, etc.
  • compostable take-out food containers that look like plastic - they generally do not break down in backyard systems.

4. How to compost

You want roughly 2-3 times more brown material than green material by volume in your compost bin, which is really easy to do when you collect leaves from the yard in the fall. In a compost bin, it is beneficial to start with a base layer of course materials such as twigs that will allow air to reach the centre of the compost pile. Alternate between green and brown layers in order to reduce unpleasant smells. You can also sprinkle some soil between the green and brown layers to promote decomposition and boost the microorganisms present.

If you are constantly adding new compostable materials and mixing, it can be hard to know when to harvest the finished compost. Bins will generally have a door at the bottom that allows you to check on the bottom of the compost bin to see if it is ready.

When it looks like soil without any evidence of food scraps and smells like fresh earth, your compost is ready! Just remove the bottom layer.

Alternatively, it can be useful to have a multi-bin system to easily allow your organics to fully compost without worrying about having some unfinished portions in the bin. I personally use a 3 bin system consisting of i) current, ii) processing and iii) almost finished.

Contrary to many beliefs, it is possible to compost in all climates - it just may take some adjusting to your local conditions. In dry climates, you will need to check for moisture and may need to add water to the compost. In warm climates your compost will process more quickly, and you will want to make sure to add a balance of green and brown materials and mix frequently.

Be aware that all compost generates heat, and large piles, especially in hot dry weather can even catch on fire! So keep the bins and piles well away from structures, and ensure that it remains moist in hot, dry weather.

In cold climates, like where I am, we do compost all year long! And although the compost bin is black to add heat from the sun and extend the active composting season, the compost does freeze in the depths of winter. This is no problem because as soon as it warms up in the spring the composting activity gets going and happens very quickly as the freezing has helped to break down the organic material and get things started!

5. How to maintain your compost pile

A compost pile should contain moisture but not be wet. Depending on environmental conditions you may have to water your compost manually. In a compost bin, the raw materials are broken down by microorganisms, and eventually, become a rich brown soil-like compost that is full of nutrients. This microbial activity creates heat that is essential to the composting process.

Compost piles need to be aerated manually to make sure the materials are being heated evenly and the microorganisms have enough air to decompose aerobically. Compost piles can be turned as frequently as every 5-12 days. Aerating can be done with a pitchfork or you can purchase a special compost aerator which is a simple metal rod with two metal leaves at the bottom that fan out when the rod is pulled up through the compost.

Compost is finished when the product smells like earthy soil and is the texture of soil, without any remaining visible food scraps. Now you are ready to use your compost on your garden, lawn or even on your houseplants (just make sure it is well composted and smells like soil, not rotting material). Compost is great as it slowly releases nutrients to the garden or houseplants and more importantly, it adds beneficial microorganisms to the soil. There is no maximum to the amount of compost that you can add to your garden or plants.

Backyard composting is a great way to maintain a healthy growing environment while reducing your greenhouse gas emissions. You can feel great about your actions while enjoying the benefits of less waste going to the landfill!

Composting is an amazing way to make a positive impact to reduce climate change, reduce household waste sent to the landfill and build soil, and getting started is easy, but there are still plenty of ways to hone and improve the system that you or your community is using. If you want to delve deeper, perhaps you want to become a trained Master Composter.

No matter where you are in exploring composting, it is an excellent way to make your impact! If you want to discuss amplifying your impact so that you can feel less stuck and like you are really making a difference, I would love to chat with you!


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