It's Sustainability Month! This October, we'll be profiling FortWhyte staff and volunteers to find out what they're doing to live sustainably.
Kathryn is one of our FortWhyte Farm Composting Gurus - Read on to find out her tips and tricks for successful composting!
Home Composting-Staying sustainable in the cityMy family has always composted even before it was a popular thing. Growing up on the edge of the forest in BC my dad would be fending off the odd bear, raccoons and the occasional skunk that would come and nose around the pile at night! Now at my house in the inner city of Winnipeg I compost all of our kitchen waste while discouraging smaller local pests such as squirrels, yellow jackets (wasps) and rodents. Here are some tips for solving some common issues with home composting and to succeed in making your own sustainable and sweet smelling soil amendments from stinky kitchen cast offs!How to start
Start with a collector of some type on your kitchen counter, filling it with scraps from veggies, dead leaves of house plants, coffee grounds (with filters) and all catches from the kitchen sink sieve but avoiding any meat or fatty substances. You don’t need a fancy container, in fact my mom uses an old soup pot, that she labelled with a marker ‘Compost Only’. This way she can throw it into the dishwasher when it needs a cleaning and didn’t spend big money for a similar metal bin.
At my house we empty our organic waste as needed into a large two bin structure built from scrap wood and wire in the back yard. The bin is situated where it will get sunlight to warm up in winter but not too close to the house to avoid smells and critters. The size is important. Even though I love the idea of the closed and tidy black plastic composter these bins rarely get the heat developing inside that a larger compost bin will generate. The heat accelerates the composing process and can even fry weed seeds! So go for a free option if you have the space and build a bigger bin system using free pallets of mostly the same height and zip tying them together (look online for some great ideas), so you can be off to the composting races.
Bin Maintenance (Tricks and Tips)
Maintenance is the key to keeping things running so here are a few conveniences that I suggest:
I like to keep my bin close to a fence but occasionally (once a year at most) I pull it out to clean around the back of the bin which inevitably gets clogged with spilling compost or leaves or sticks. This clean up also discourages rodents from setting up shop and improves air flow.
The other trick is to poke around in the bin often, so keeping an old broom handle or equivalent in a permanent spot by the bin makes this more convenient. The stick is to literally poke air holes into the pile as well as hopefully disturb any mice trying to set up a home. The more often the pile is disturbed the better. The stick can also be used to break apart large items in the bin or spread grass clippings or leaves. You are trying to increase surface area on organic matter for the composting process to happen. This is the lazy/busy person’s way of turning the pile! If you poke in the pile and add leaves every time you add organic waste then you are well on your way to an active and healthy compost bin. The air in the bin allows the beneficial microorganisms to do their work and avoids the development of anaerobic (smelly) bacteria.
I took the lids off of my bin in order to allow the scrappy neighbourhood cats access to hunt if they chose to. The open bins also means that the compost gets more sun but I do have to make sure the materials are covered with leaves to keep squirrels away since they will happily run off with scraps onto the wires or into the trees above. Thankfully the squirrels seem to forget what they can’t see. Covering your organic waste every time you add it is the way to get into a habit. Maintaining the bins can be pretty easy but it helps to be prepared and make it part of your weekly routine.
Confession: I often steal bags of leaves at this time of year from the sidewalks and back lanes on heavily treed streets to satisfy my compost bin over the winter! These leaves are important as a source of carbon in the bin as well as for mitigating any smells produced from the composting process. Also handy is that I don’t have to buy compostable paper bags since I get to reuse the bags for my own purposes like tree trimmings. Personally I don’t add thick branches to my compost unless I am establishing a Hügelkultur bed! Adding the leaves on top of your kitchen waste acts like a filter absorbing and dispersing odours and also develops the layers of ‘greens’ (organic waste) and ‘browns’ (carbon) blocking the scents and view of the pile from wasps and squirrels too!
In the Fall I clean out a bin, screen and store the collected compost or add it to the garden and start a new empty bin to accommodate and layer in thicker materials at the bottom. The garden contributes easily to this task with all the garden veggie stalks and other perennials cut down for winter being thrown at the bottom of the bin to provide air circulation during the composting process. In my experience it is fairly easy to gather ‘greens’ but getting the compost set up with air flowing and the leaves or other ‘browns’ available before winter is the trick to a successful Spring time compost thaw. I hate having a perpetual lump of frozen solid organic waste in the back yard come spring, but if you layer your leaves or other brown materials in during the winter the compost pile will melt sooner and continue to process come the warmer temps.
When cleaning out the Fall compost I save some of it and screen it once more to bring inside to be finished in partnership with my red wriggler worms. They will live in a large bin in my basement getting the occasional meal of coffee grounds and fruit (things that break down easily) until seed starting time. Then I screen out the worms and mix it with potting soil giving me a large amount of thawed and homemade compost that is ready for seeding early perennials and long season plants in February. If I don’t do this in the fall then I have to wait for my outdoor pile to thaw and it is often much later than is convenient. Since I hate having to buy store compost I do this every year to save the expense and to try to close the loop a little tighter. Talk to us at FortWhyte Farms about buying red wriggler worms for vermicomposting at home!
The finished compost I have turned over and layered, poked holes in and screened all year is then used for starting seeds, spreading on flower gardens, topping up houseplants and filling up raised beds. It’s highly satisfying seeing my waste diverted into rich black goodness rather than sitting in suspension in the landfill. We might be able to do a little more to be more sustainable and home composting is a great way to start!