Home Composting

Many people find home composting not only convenient, but also a simple way to manage household waste more effectively. Composting is nature's way of recycling!

The following is basic information on setting up a home composting unit.

What Do I Need?

There are only four ingredients needed for a healthy compost pile - air, water, nitrogen (green/wet material), and carbon (brown/dry material). We'll discuss each of these in more detail below.

Air

Composting is an aerobic process. This means to work effectively, your compost pile needs to have lots of air. We'll discuss how to acheive this based on which compost container you choose.

Water

Your compost pile also needs to have moisture for the micro-organisms to get to work. The pile should be moist, like a wrung out sponge, but not wet or soggy. To add moisture, apply water evenly to your pile, mixing it as you go. Covering your pile can help retain moisture by preventing evaporation.

Green/Wet Waste

Green waste is waste rich in nitrogen. The micro-organisms in your compost pile use the sugars and proteins in these materials for their food. Green waste breaks down, or decomposes, quickly.

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Green leaves

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Fruit and vegetable peels  (be sure to remove the sticker)

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Grass clippings

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Flowers

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Coffee grounds

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Eggs shells

Brown/Dry Waste

Brown materials are rich in carbon, and slow to decompose. These are the energy source for the micro-organisms.

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Evergreen needles

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Dead or dry leaves

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Brown grass clippings

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Bark chips

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Straw, hay

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Branches, prunings

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Shredded high-grade paper

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Sawdust (limited quantities)

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Coffee filters

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Paper towel

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Bread, cooked pasta, or rice (limited quantities)

 

 

What Should I Avoid?

When first learning how to compost, there are some materials that are more challenging to work with, and these should only be added in small quantities.

Additionally, some of these materials are likely to attract rodents and pests to your compost bin.

As you get more experienced, you can begin experimenting with more of these materials.

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Meat, fish, bones

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Fats, oils, and grease

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Cheese and dairy products

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Diseased plants

There are also some items that should never go into your compost, as your pile will likely not reach a high enough temperature to destroy the harmful pathogens found in these materials.

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Human and animal waste

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Over the counter or prescription medication

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Stems with fungal disease

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Yard clippings with pesticides or herbicides

 

Additional Materials

Compost Bin or Container

There are many options to choose from when it comes to picking a compost container, and it's important you pick the type that's right for you.

Tumbler Composters are easy to use, and can produce a finished product in a short period of time. These composters are available at most hardware stores, and set up is rather straightforward. You can purchase a dual-tumbler system, which allows you to add compost to one side, while curing a second batch. However, once full, these composters can be heavy to tumble, and they let in less air than open piles. To ensure air circulation, simply turn the tumbler 5-6x 3-4 times per week. These composters are great for gardeners who want to get compost quickly and are willing to put in a little extra time.

Single Compartment Bins allow you to add fresh material to the top of the bin, and collect finished compost out of the bottom. These bins are easy to construct, and can be made out of a variety of different materials.  However, it can be difficult to aerate the bin, and the material may dry out more quickly than a tumbler composter. These types of bins are best suited for gardeners who want a slow, low maintenance way of composting.

Multiple Compartment Bins are similar to a dual-compartment tumbler, and you can add fresh material to one compartment, while curing another. These are easy to construct, but are not good options for households with limited space. Depending on the size of the bin, it can be difficult to aerate, and they may dry out quickly.

Free-form Composters are not confined to a set space. These are ideal for households who generate a lot of organic material, such as farms. They are easy to maintain, but can dry out quickly, and may attract rodents or pests.

Kitchen Catchers can collect food scraps over a period of a few days. Once full, the kitchen catcher can be emptied into the compost bin.

Shovel and Pitchfork

Unless you choose a tumbling composter, you will need to "fluff" your compost pile to enhance air circulation. A pitchfork is ideal for aerating your pile, as it will penetrate layers and make it very easy to turn.

A shovel is a great tool for removing finished compost from your pile.

Optional Supplies

  • Compost themometer
  • Compost moisture meter
  • Burlap sack or cheesecloth for compost tea (described below)
  • Sieve or mesh box to filter out large or partially decomposed material from your finished compost
  • Compost activator. A new compost bin will be sterile and won't have a reserve of microbes needed to break down your material. Compost activators can be purchased from a local hardware store, or you can sprinkle in some finished compost into your new pile to kick-start the process.

Let's Make Compost!

Unless using a tumbler composter, start with a layer of branches on the bottom. This allows air to circulate from below.

Make alternating layers of "green/wet" and "brown/dry" material. An ideal ratio is about 2:1 Brown to Green. This means you should have at least twice as much brown material as you do green!

Check on your compost every few weeks to monitor for odour, moisture levels, heat, and pests. We'll discuss each of these in detail below.

  • If necessary, add water so that the mixture is like a wrung-out sponge. It should be damp, but not wet. Covering the pile helps retain the moisture.
  • Turn the pile with a shovel or pitchfork at least once a month to enhance air circulation. The more often you aerate the pile, the quicker you'll have compost.
  • You can continue to add new materials as they are available, but this will slow the compost process. Dual compartment bins allow you to continue adding compost to one compartment, while letting the other compartment cure.
  • Adding smaller materials to your pile will speed up the composting process. Consider shredding yard waste and cutting food waste into small pieces with a food processor. The more surface area the micro-organisms have to work with, the faster your material will decompose.

Depending on the type of composter bin you have, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years to produce finished compost. The material should appear soil-like, with a fine, crumbly texture, and an earthy smell.

What's Wrong With My Compost Pile?

Symptom Treatment
Sweet odour Your pile is too wet and doesn't have enough air. Turn the pile and add dry material. Make a layer of branches at the bottom to improve drainage.
Rotten egg odour Your compost pile doesn't have enough oxygen. Turn the pile regularly.
Ammonia odour Your pile has too much green material. Add dry material.
Pile is dry Moisten the pile so it is like a damp sponge. Covering the pile will prevent evaporation.
Pile is damp or warm only in the middle You don't have enough material in the pile. Add more material at a 2:1 Brown to Green ratio. Consider covering the pile with a tarp to retain heat.
Compost process has stalled Your pile is too dry. Add green material, moisten the pile, and aerate.
Pile is attracting pests Cover the pile, and avoid adding food that will attract pests such as meat and bones or animal waste. Bury food scraps in the centre of the pile.
Finished product is too coarse Some material takes a long time to breakdown. Use a sieve to remove large items, which can be added back to your pile.

 

How Do I Know When My Compost is Ready?

Finished compost will have a fine, crumbly texture and will smell like a forest floor. Below are some easy ways to determine if your compost is ready.

Plastic Bag Test

Fill a re-sealable plastic bag with compost, and squeeze all the air out of it. Let the bag sit for up to a week. If there is any air in the bag or your compost smells rotten, then the microbes are still working and your compost is not ready.

Jar Test

Fill a jar halfway with compost, and add water to make it soggy. Seal it tight, and let it sit for one week. After a week has passed, open up the jar. If it smells earthy, your compost is ready. If it smells rotten, your compost needs more time to cook.

Germination Test

Fill two containers with moist soil, and another two containers with moist compost. Add 6-8 seeds of a fast germinating plant, such as radish, to each container. Cover the containers with plastic wrap to keep them moist. After seven days, count the number of seedlings in each container. If the compost germination rate is significantly less than the plain soil germination rate, the compost is not ready.

Uses for Finished Compost

Top Dressing - add directly on top of existing soil in flower-beds and gardens, at the base of trees and shrubs or rake into the lawn after aerating.

Mulch - place a thicker layer of compost on top of the soil to help condition the soil and retain moisture.

Planting Mixture - use as a soil conditioner when planting or transplanting flowers, shrubs and trees. Fill the hole by mixing equal parts of soil and compost material around the root ball of the plant, tree or shrub you are planting. 

Compost Tea - Use cheesecloth as the "teabag" and fill with one litre of compost material. Tie at the top, then place the "teabag" in a garbage can full of water. Allow to steep overnight, then use the resulting "tea" to water household plants and outside gardens.

Composting Resources

Composting Resources

There are numerous books, guides and courses on maintaining a home compost. Consult the St. Albert Public Library or go online to a number of gardening or environmental websites.

For further information on home composting, the City of Edmonton offers "Compost Doctors". Visit their Composting website to learn more or contact:

Phone: 780-496-5526
Email: compost@edmonton.ca

Grass Cycling

Grasscycling (or Mulching)

What is it? Simply put, grass mulching is a method of cutting grass where clippings are left on the lawn, resulting in mulch. Grass clippings are an excellent source of nitrogen and can reduce the need to fertilize by up to 25 per cent. Grass clippings also conserve moisture in the lawn, reducing the need to water as frequently. And lawn mowing may require less time since there is no need to bag and dispose of the clippings.

GRASS MULCHING WILL NOT:

  • Cause thatch to build up in the lawn. The primary cause of thatch is roots, stems, rhizomes, crowns and stolons. These plant components decompose slowly within lawns.
  • Spread lawn diseases. Lawn diseases usually develop due to improper watering and fertilizing.
  • Make your lawn look untidy. The secret is to cut the lawn frequently so that clippings are short enough to fall between the existing blades of grass. Short clippings will decompose faster than longer clippings.
  • Require a special mower. Most mowers can be used for grass mulching. Simply remove the bag and adjust the blade to between 2.5 to 3 inches or 60 to 75 mm. If your mower does not have a safety flap that covers the bag chute, retrofit kits are available for most mowers from local retailers. DO NOT USE your mower in an unsafe way!

TIPS FOR MOWING YOUR LAWN:

  • Cut the grass when the surface is dry
  • Keep mower blades sharp
  • Cut to 1/3 the length of the grass at any one mowing - between 2.5 to 3 inches or 60-75 mm. This keeps clippings short
  • Cut your grass frequently - as much as once every four or five days during active growing season, and reducing to as little as once every seven to 10 days when growth slows. If your lawn gets too long, consider double-cutting. Be sure to make the second cut perpendicular to the first

Remember

Composting and grass cycling are two excellent ways to manage yard waste, reduce waste volumes and help the environment. They're easy, inexpensive and convenient.


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Last edited: April 30, 2020