Make your Backyard Greener
Composting is an easy, inexpensive way to ensure your planting soil is getting the nutrients it needs. Compost and leave and grass mulches improve soil texture, prevent erosion, better hold moisture and encourage healthy plant growth. A healthy yard often means a healthy home – less opportunities for water to seep in through the foundation or stagnate in areas where it could lead to rot.
How to compost is simple. Your local municipality or town site should provide compost bins for a subsidized fee – about $35 for a new bin. If not, they will be available at most home hardware shops or you may locate a gently used one on a sell site such as kijiji. Alternatively, you may wish to craft your own from wood pellets, wire mesh, concrete blocks, plastic or metal. The size of bin you require is up to you and the size of yard you will be contributing grass and leaves from. Keep in mind that compost reduces to only about 10 to 40 per cent of its original volume, so a regular sized bin is most likely adequate for your household.
Place the bin in an area that drains well and receives a lot of sun. Heat helps with the decomposition process, and you do not want for your compost to become waterlogged. Next, start collecting organic waste that can be inserted into your bin.
Do Compost Greens: Nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps such as fruit and vegetable peels and cores, coffee grounds, tea bags, plant debris, weeds that have not gone to seed, tree fruit and evergreen needles.
Do Compost Browns: Carbon-rich coffee filters; dried leaves and grass; dryer and vacuum lint; cat, dog and human hair; wood chips and shavings; straw; newspaper; wine corks; peanut hulls; and bird cage linings.
Do NOT Compost: Meat, bones and fish scraps that take a long time break down and will attract other animals and pests; oils, fatty materials and dairy products that will affect the breakdown of other materials and again attract unwanted critters; pet litter; diseased plants; dishwater and other materials containing soaps or perfumes; or ashes and coals as these are high in sulfuric content and resistant to decomposition.
Composts are not picky; really they just require items that make sense – items that will breakdown fast and organically. This also includes seaweed, bone meal, cotton, felt, algae, dust, wool and other non-synthetic debris.
Like cooking, you will need follow a basic recipe: greens, browns, dirt, water and oxygen. To generate a healthy balance of the essential elements carbon and nitrogen you will need to layer your ingredients as follows: stocky, coarse materials such as rocks and sticks at the bottom to keep the contents aerated, then a layer of browns, a layer of greens, a layer of browns, a layer of greens, and always top with a layer of browns. Browns help keep bad compost insects and pests away but encourage good insects, namely worms, to take their residence within.
Compost will need be kept moist, but not wet. If your bin starts to smell it has probably been over-watered; likewise if it is getting dusty it needs some water. Basically you want the consistency of your compost to feel like a wrung out sponge. You can stir and aerate the heap with a stick, pitchfork or go the fancy gadget route of the Wingdigger.
How do I know when the Compost is Ready?
Compost that is ready to be used has achieved a dark brown, greyish colour, has an earthy sweet scent, crumbles easily and resembles top soil. If you use compost too early, before it is fully decomposed, you could lose out on the essential nutrients. The best way to be sure is to perform a bag test. Simply fill a Ziploc with some of the compost soil, wait a week, open it up and take a whiff. If the bag smells of ammonia the microbes are still active and have not finished their task of breaking down the materials within. Wait a few weeks and bag test again.
Your finished product is called humus and can be used in a variety of growing areas. You can spread compost atop your lawn as a dressing, mix in 1:2 with regular soil in annual beds or around shrubs, use as mulch, in potting-soil, vegetable gardens and on exposed slopes. Just don’t bring the compost material inside to use on indoor plants unless you heat sterilize it to remove insects.
Though nutrient release won’t be as quick as would using a chemical fertilizer be, in mixing compost with soil you buffer its pH capacity, increase its water retention and improve its overall functionality.
Additional benefits to composting include:
- Free organic soil conditioner
- Reduced need to use chemicals and other fertilizers in your yard
- Saves you and the city money
- Saves on landfill space and reduces methane gas – a greenhouse gas – from emitting within landfills, as organic materials lack the oxygenation they require for proper bacterial biodegradation to occur on these sites
- Reduced need for peat in the yard, which is pricey and, if used in dense quantity, can pose a flammability risk
- Thwarts against plant disease (create your own compost tea to effectively treat plant disease too)
- Helps to break down difficult clay soils for easier planting
For a great source of information on how to compost, including detailed instructions on making your own compost bins, testing your soil and using your humus in the right quantities, have a read of the Green Calgary Compost Guide.