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Julie Wong
Julie Wong

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Your guide to sustainable home composting

Home composting is an effective and efficient way to dramatically reduce your waste stream at home while doing your part to reduce your carbon footprint. Organic material sent to landfills creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to the negative impacts of our changing climate. By making compost, you are creating a valuable soil amendment that you can use to benefit your landscape, boost plant growth and sequester carbon.

Many types of food waste and yard waste can be composted at home, including grass clippings, tree and shrub trimmings, vegetable garden and fruit tree waste, lawn clippings, autumn leaves, coffee grounds, and fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen. Home composters should not attempt to compost meat, dairy or large amounts of baked goods.
Home composting can be done in an enclosed bin or tumbler, in an easily made bunker, or using a no-fuss pile. The key is to blend your feedstocks to achieve a balance of carbon and nitrogen, keep things damp but not saturated, and ensure adequate oxygen deep in the pile. The microbes will do the rest.

What’s the recipe for home composting?
The four basic ingredients for composting are Nitrogen, Carbon, Water, and Air. The easiest compost recipe calls for blending roughly equal parts of green or wet material (which is high in nitrogen) and brown or dry material (which is high in carbon). Simply layer or mix these materials in a pile or enclosure; chop or shred large pieces to 12" or shorter. Water and fluff the compost to add air. Then leave it to the microorganisms, which will break down the material over time.

Nitrogen

  • Green materials such as grass clipping and landscape trimmings are ideal sources of nitrogen for composting. Vegetable and fruit trimmings and peels can also provide nitrogen for composting. Coffee grounds and tea bags may look brown but are actually potent nitrogen sources. To reduce the potential for pests or odours, avoid meat or dairy scraps and always bury food scraps deep within the compost pile. Avoid pet faeces due to concerns about pathogens. However, manure from chickens, turkeys, cows or horses is rich in nitrogen and can help your compost pile get to proper temperatures, and make very good compost.

Carbon

  • Brown (dry) yard and garden material such as dry leaves, twigs, hay, or shredded paper can provide the carbon balance for a compost pile. Chop or shred large pieces to 12 inches or shorter (thick, woody branches should be chipped, ground up, or left out). Untreated wood chips and sawdust are powerful carbon sources that may be useful if the pile contains excess nitrogen.

Water

  • One of the most common mistakes in composting is letting the pile get too dry. Your compost pile should be moist as a wrung-out sponge. A moisture content of 40 to 60 per cent is preferable. To test for adequate moisture, reach into your compost pile and grab a handful of material and squeeze it; if a few drops of water come out, it’s probably got enough moisture, if it doesn’t, add water. When you water, it is best to put a hose into the pile so that you aren’t just wetting the top. You can also water as you are turning the pile. During dry weather, you may have to add water regularly. During wet weather, you may need to cover your pile. A properly constructed compost pile will drain excess water and not become soggy.

Air

  • The bacteria and fungus doing the hard work in your compost pile need oxygen to live. If your pile is too dense or becomes too wet, the air supply to the inside is cut off and the beneficial organisms will die. Decomposition will slow and an offensive odour may arise. To avoid this, turn and fluff the pile with a pitchfork often, perhaps weekly. You can also turn the pile by just re-piling it into a new pile. Forcing air deep into the pile using blowers, perforated pipes or other means of aeration is one way to reduce the work of turning a pile.

How do I compost?
A well-managed compost pile will produce finished compost in about three months. A less intensively managed pile may need six months to a year. You may want to stop adding to your compost pile after it gets to optimal size (about 1 cubic yard) and start a new pile. This will allow your first pile can finish decomposing.

How to compost food waste?
Food is generally a high-nitrogen feedstock that should be blended with plenty of dry leaves, sticks and twigs, wood chips, sawdust, dried/dead plants, shredded newspaper, or paper from a home shredder, and mixed yard waste. Bury food materials deep in your pile, and always cover fresh food with a thick layer of high-carbon brown materials to keep out rodents and other vermin. Adding a dusting of dirt or unscreened, mature compost will help. If the pile gets too wet or dense with food scraps, it will smell bad and composting will slow down or stop altogether. Avoid meat, dairy, fats and oils and large amounts of carbohydrates like bread and pasta; these can cause odours and are very attractive to pests.


Composting Techniques
Composting can be done with more effort and faster results–or can be done with less labour, which will take longer and may not kill all weed seeds.

  • Hot composting: Compost piles that have the right blend of nitrogen (greens) and carbon (browns), and are kept moist and fluffed regularly, will heat up fast, stay hot, and destroy most weed seeds and pathogens. With faster decomposition, the compost may be ready in 2 to 3 months. Once the pile is fully built, new material is not added, so proper hot composting requires more than one pile.

  • Slow composting: Compost will happen even if you just pile up organic waste, water sporadically, and wait. Since this type of pile won’t get too hot and is turned infrequently, breakdown will be slower and less even. Weed seeds and recalcitrant materials may survive. Worms and other insects, which cannot survive high heat decomposition may be able to live in these piles and help break down the material. Casual composting can take up to a year.

  • Vermicomposting: Composting with the aid of worms.


Home Composting Bins
Composting can be practised in backyards in a homemade or manufactured composting bin or simply an open pile (some cities require enclosed bins).
While backyard composting can be done successfully in uncontained piles, a composting bin can provide benefits such as improving the look of your composting area, improving your ability to maintain temperatures when hot composting and preventing rodents from accessing your compost pile.
Some communities offer free or discounted bins to residents as an incentive to compost at home. A successful program to promote home composting can reduce a community’s cost of solid waste collection and disposal. In addition to bins, some communities offer technical assistance programs, such as workshops or a hotline service, to assist residents.

Bins vary in terms of cost, size, ease of use, and rodent resistance.

  • Hoops and Square Bins: These are usually the least expensive type of bin. Because hoops can be rolled, they are also easier to ship. Some hoops have tops and lids, which help in making them more rodent resistant. Square wire or plastic bins are like hoops except that they usually have supports in four corners, making them a square rather than round shape.

  • Cones and Boxes: These bins are typical of solid construction with lids and bottoms. Some have doors at the bottom for harvesting finished compost. Cone/box-type bins tend to be more expensive than hoops.

  • Stackables: These are box-shaped with sections that come apart.

  • Tumblers: These are self-contained barrels, drums, or balls that rotate for mixing the composting materials.

Typical homemade bins can be constructed out of scrap wood, chicken wire, snow fencing or even old garbage cans (with holes punched in the sides and bottom).

Manufactured bins include turning units, hoops, cones, and stacking bins. Take the time to consider your options and then select a bin that best fits your needs.

What Size?
This depends on the space available to you but ideally, the compost pile should be at least three feet wide by three feet deep by three feet tall (one cubic yard). This size provides enough insulation for the organisms to live. Smaller piles may struggle to achieve sufficiently high temperatures to kill bad organisms and weed seeds. Larger piles can achieve composting temperatures more easily but need more frequent turning to ensure proper oxygen supply.

Can I compost in cold temperatures?
Yes, as long as the compost pile can get hot enough at its core. The colder the outside temperatures, the more volume (bigger pile) you need to generate heat.

Compostable materials go a step beyond biodegradable materials by breaking them down into natural components and becoming a part of healthy soil. Home compostable materials do not require the high heat (over 136° F) of industrial compost facilities to break down.

They can biodegrade in the moderate heat (68-86° F) of home compost piles/bins. The concept of home compostability has come to carry extra weight as many commercial compost facilities are refusing to collect products designed for industrial compost.

How to Tell When you have Finished Compost?
Compost is finished when the original material has been transformed into a uniform, dark brown, crumbly product with a pleasant, earthy aroma. There may be a few chunks of woody material left; these can be screened out and put back into a new pile. You should not be able to recognise any of the original feedstocks. There should be no foul odours.


Troubleshooting a Home Composting Bin or Pile

Symptom: The pile smells bad
Problem(s):

  • Not enough air
  • Too much moisture

Solution(s):

  • Turn the pile if not enough air
  • Add dry materials if too moist

Symptom: The pile will not heat up
Problem(s): Could be one or all of the following

  • Not enough moisture
  • The pile size is too small
  • Lack of nitrogen-rich material
  • The particle size is too big

Solution(s):

  • Add water if dry
  • Build pile to at least 3’ x 3’ x 3’
  • Mix in grass clippings or fruit/vegetable scraps
  • Chip or grind materials

Symptom: The pile attracts flies, rodents, or pets
Problem(s): Pile contains bones, meat, fatty or starchy foods, or animal manure

Solution(s):

  • Alter materials added to a pile; bury fruit/vegetable scraps in the middle of the pile, or under 8" to 10" inches of soil, or compost them in a worm bin.

Symptom: Pile has slugs in it (and so does the garden)
Problem(s): Pile is easily accessible and provides daytime hiding place and breeding ground for slugs

Solution(s):

  • Remove slugs and slug eggs from a pile (eggs look like very small clusters of pearls). Locate compost pile far from vegetable gardens and/or create barriers around pile/garden (for example, traps and copper flashing).

Discussion (6)

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maxine profile image
Maxine

Great article @julie

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julie profile image
Julie Wong Author

thank you.

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maya profile image
Maya Carazas

I wanna compost too but I don't have the space in my apartment. Recycling is not easy either.

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julie profile image
Julie Wong Author

Sustainable living is sometimes dependant on your location and the resources available from your local government. But my recommendation is always do what you can do for yourself / basically you start the movement and then try to get your government and local businesses to get involved. For you Maya I would also recommend small indoor composting containers. Get one that doesn't release too much smell. Also read this site thespruce.com/tips-for-indoor-comp...

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emilie profile image
Emilie Scofield

A really good and detailed guide. thank you @julie

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julie profile image
Julie Wong Author

You're welcome. Please add your own composting experiences and storeis if you have any.