Composting 101: Backyard Composting

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Backyard composting is an effective and environmentally-friendly way to manage the organic waste that households produce.

It helps to reduce pollution, our carbon footprint, and disposal costs, while also improving the environment and keeping organic matter in the ecological cycle.

And did we mention that it'll reduce the need to store (increasingly) smelly garbage indoors until garbage collection day?

What You'll Need
Kitchen food scraps
Dry (brown) material

Your compost bin works through the power of bacteria -- all you need to do is create the right conditions for the bacteria in the bin to thrive, and they will produce rich, earthy-smelling compost using just food scraps.

Bacteria need three things:

1) An equal mix of carbon-rich ("brown") and nitrogen-rich ("green") material.

For every bucket of kitchen scraps or lawn clippings, add an equal volume of fallen leaves or paper products. Always cover "green" material with a 3- to 4-inch layer of "brown" material.

2) Oxygen

Oxygen-loving (or aerobic) bacteria transform organic material into compost without producing bad odours. Add oxygen at least once a week to your compost using a pitchfork or strong stick or a special aerating tool. The more you aerate, the faster you will have finished compost. If the contents of your compost bin get too compacted, anaerobic bacteria will ferment your food scraps, creating ammonia, or rotten egg, odours.

3) Moisture

Without water, living organisms die. The contents of your compost bin should be moist like a damp, wrung-out sponge. The fresh "green" material you add to your bin will usually provide enough moisture; however, if your bin is in the sun, you are using a lot of dry "brown" material, or if it is a particularly hot outside, you may need to water the contents of the bin to keep the bacteria and other decomposers alive.

What do I need to compost?

These 10 easy steps will get you composting in no time!

1) Choose a flat, partly-sunny area with good drainage.

2) Purchase a compost bin -- you can get one from your municipality or from a store -- or build your own rodent-proof compost bin. Keeping a lid on your bin will help keep out rain and wildlife. The ideal size for a bin is one cubic metre; this will help the bin retain the heat it generates.

3) Create a 6 to 10 cm base layer using straw, leaves, or woody brushy material to promote air circulation.

4) Alternate layers of "green" and "brown" materials.

5) Whenever you add a layer of food scraps, top it off with a layer of "brown" material, about 5o to 8 cm high. If you use only "green" material (e.g. kitchen scraps), your compost will likely be wet and will break down more slowly.

6) Mix the contents of your compost bin every week or two. This allows air into the bin and helps the bin to heat up again so that the contents decompose faster.

7) The moisture content of your compost should be damp like a wrung-out sponge or dishcloth. Only add water if the contents of the bin are very dry after mixing.

8) As your pile of compost shrinks, continue to add layers of "green" and "brown" materials until the bin is almost full.

9) Your compost will typically be ready after 2 to 3 months, though ageing the compost for an additional 1 to 2 months is recommended.

10) Harvest your compost when the compost at the bottom and centre is decomposed, full of healthy worms, and moist. Dig out the compost with a shovel. In a commercial bin, use the door at the bottom of the bin. If you built your own bin, move the top layers aside and dig the compost out from the centre layers.

Nitrogen provides the protein for bacteria to grow and multiply, while carbon provides the energy that bacteria need to do the work of composting.

Click here for a list of "green", "brown" materials, and other compostable materials.

For more on aerating your compost bin, click here.

Tip: To ensure you have plenty of "brown" material throughout the year, collect dry leaves in the fall in an old garbage container and use them as needed.

Whether you're an avid home gardener (cheap fertilizer!) or just looking for a way to use those food scraps, if you have some yard space to spare, keeping a backyard compost bin can be a good way to reduce garbage going to our landfills while also producing a valuable resource.

Metro Vancouver

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