Eleven Questions You’ve Always Wanted To Ask About Composting

by Heidi Pyper

Michael Nevin and the compost team diverted about 50,000 lbs of organic waste from land fill last year. They also made some of the richest compost you can get your hands on. Read about the ins and outs of the process and how to get a successful little compost operation of your own going. 

Michael: Composting is ultimately a way of reducing waste. When a person composts, first they divert waste from landfills and if you’re a gardener, you’re also creating a high quality soil amendment – which means rich nutrients for your soil. And for anyone in Toronto, FoodShare offers all manner of gardening workshops. There’s a vermicomposting workshop on April 7th  and backyard composting workshop this July. You can sign up to get composting here: bit.ly/fsacademy

Q: Aren’t centralized composting systems like Toronto’s green bin a good solution for waste reduction, why the effort to do it yourself?

A: If you live in an area with a composting system, like Toronto has, you are composting which is better than doing nothing, but the green bin program requires a lot of heavy equipment: trucks, civic labour, driving to dumping facilities and processing, and there’s no controlling what goes into that compost. When you do it yourself, you know exactly what’s going into it, and your carbon signature is reduced.

Q: People shy away from composting in the city because they think it will attract pests : more raccoons, fruit flies… rats. And the smell, what can people do about smell?

A: Good composting practice, means fewer pests and less odour. Coffee grounds are both a good covering layer and a pest deterrent and egg shells are considered good as an insect inhibitor. If you bury and turn your compost properly, and have the right ingredients, it shouldn’t smell.

Q: What would you say is good composting practice?

A: Chop up food items, things shouldn’t be bigger than a finger. Don’t throw a whole melon or carrot into the mix. Help the process along by chopping things up. You also need to have a balance between wet and dry ingredients. By wet, I mean things like lettuces and melons, by dry I mean things like brush: leaves, wood chips, egg cartons, or shredded papers.

Q: I grew up in the country and we just had a compost pile at the far end of our property, you can’t do that in the city. How would someone go about beginning a compost?

A: Either buy or make a composting bin with a secure lid and lock that will keep raccoons out. You’ll want to line the bottom with twigs, brush or straw. Think drainage for the system, and air circulation. Composting requires air and water, but not too much. Too wet and it’ll get smelly, too dry and the decomposition will stop, and the process will die. There is a certain skill at getting it right. But if you start with a porous bottom layer, that’s an important first step.

You need to have a balance, (there’s that word again) of feed stock – chopped bits of organic matter for the bin mixed with a carbon source – tree chips, leaves, shredded brown paper bags or newsprint. Though it is a pet peeve of mine to add top soil to compost mixtures, to get things started and to provide a covering layer to the organic matter a little top soil will help you get things going, and will provide a covering layer in the early days.

We compost everything at FoodShare. If you can eat it, you can compost it. Though, the meat will cause some odour if composted incorrectly. But all you have to do is bury it properly and the breakdown will begin happening right away and there won’t be odour. Perhaps if you’re new to composting and you’re just figuring it out or for a small city backyard compost, leave out the meat until you’ve got a warm and active pile or until you’ve figured out that balance. You can pick and choose what goes into your own compost.

Some people don’t put lettuce with oil or anything cooked in their compost, but as I mentioned, I compost everything. Beginners might consider keeping things simple and only compost fruits and vegetable scraps. It’s really up to the individual. Everything will break down eventually.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes people make when they set out to compost?

A: Dumping and running. People lift the lid and toss in the organic matter and walk away. It’s all about preparation and spending a few minutes to make sure that things are working right. Chop up feed stock, and take the time to bury it once a week.

Failing to get the balance right – Again, too wet and it’ll smell and get slimy, too dry and the micro organisms shut down. Not enough nitrogen. You have to pay attention. Don’t add things like purees to a compost, it’s just too wet and dense and if things are looking really dry give it a little water.

And giving up. Don’t give up on it. You wouldn’t give up on the garden if a plant failed to thrive or if you had slugs. You would figure it out. Keep working with it and it’ll happen.

Q: When do you add compost to the garden?

A: Right now is a good time to add a layer of compost, and then you can do it again in the fall before winter to add a nutritious top.

Q: If you started a compost this week when would you be able to get usable compost for your garden?

A: As soon as you start composting you’re successfully keeping material out of landfills, so there is immediate satisfaction and if you do things right, you should be able to get some usable compost for your fall covering.

Q: What happens to compost piles in the winter?

A: If your compost freezes, you can’t add new material. If you’ve got a south facing wall that you can tuck the compost in and it’s protected from the wind, you can keep it going for longer, but once it is frozen, it goes dormant and you have to leave it.

Q: Do you ever add anything to your compost? Accelerators of sorts?

A: The only thing I add to a compost is a little elbow grease.

I want to keep learning about compost: