Compost piles require four things; a source of Nitrogen, a source of Carbon, water and air.
Nitrogen (aka “greens”)
Nitrogen is found in anything that is green and/or wet. Think kitchen scraps, fresh cut weeds, fresh cut grass clippings and even human urine. Nitrogen is akin to stepping on the gas, as it speeds up the rate at which your compost pile decomposes.
Carbon (aka “browns)
Carbon is found in dry compostable items. Cardboard, newspaper, dry leaves, dry grass clipping and straw. This is important to keep your compost pile from becoming too wet and turning anaerobic.
When a pile turns anaerobic it smells bad, but so long as you have enough Carbon, then your pile will smell earthy and like the floor of a forest. Add more carbon than you think is necessary and always have bagged leaves available next to your pile so that you are able to add a handful after every addition of Nitrogen.
For a compost pile to decompose there must be a certain amount of moisture involved. Remember, food scraps are loaded with moisture so if you have a lot of food scraps you may not need to add any additional water.
Ideally, the contents of your pile should feel like a wrung out cloth; damp, but not soggy. You want to encourage the aerobic (oxygen dependant) microbes in your pile if you plan to use the end result on your food garden.
Air is essential for keeping your pile at the right temperature as well as at the right moisture level. You can achieve an air-filled pile by having holes in the sides, top and bottom of your bin, by adding sticks to your pile to provide spaces, or bulky items such as wood chips or cardboard chunks. Sticks, in all honesty, will drive you crazy when you try to turn your pile, but it is a thought for those who aren’t interested in turning the pile.
The best way to add air is to turn your pile, and to do so as frequently as possible. Monthly at minimum. Having a second or third compost pile will help with this as you can novel out the contents from one bin and as you are adding it to the next bin over you are actively turning the pile and can adjust the Carbon/Nitrogen ratios as you go.
Top Tips from a Compost Lifer:
Put your pile somewhere close to your house so that you don’t have to make any grand efforts at getting to it in the back alley, or at the far end of your veggie patch. If it is accessible, you will use it and maintain it more often. You will also be more motivated not to let it go anaerobic (stinky) if it is closer to your living space.
Chop everything to help speed up the process. The more surface area that is available, the more access the microbes will have to your scraps and the faster the pile will heat up and biodegrade. Consider buying a machete to keep next to your pile along with a tree stump to use as a chopping board. This can be very therapeutic, or a great job for a child with lots of energy!
Add some garden soil, and more than you think is necessary. Your native garden soil will have all kinds of beneficial microbes that will help to speed up your pile. If your soil is more or less dead, therefore not adding any new microbes, add it anyway. In Calgary we have high clay content and this clay helps to hold onto valuable minerals making your finished product more mineralized.
The more different items you can add to your pile the better. Try all kinds of different ingredients, and don’t be scared to try new things; egg cartons, sand from your child’s sand box, egg shells, coffee grounds, or your neighbour’s lawn clippings
Have fun with it and feel the thrill as you turn your garbage turns into garden gold!
I saw a ladybug crawling around my backyard yesterday. I enjoyed the sound of an intense bird yelling; yes, it sounded like it was yelling its song. I smiled at the soft drip, drip sound of the snow converting into valuable moisture for my garden.
It’s official! Spring is here, both technically and physically!
I turned my compost and was amazed that it was loose enough and not still frozen in a heap. This is surely a sign of active biology in my pile, which is always my goal.
I then emptied some bags of leaves onto my vegetable patch that I had saved from last fall for just this purpose. These leaves will keep the ladybugs snug until they move out in earnest. They will also feed and protect the microbes and worms I am so intent on protecting and growing in my soil.
I then tried to dig in, as the soil looked damp and loose. Spring in Calgary can be a slow process however, and I came up with a “thunk” sound and a sore wrist instead. The ground is still frozen. So, what to do when spring is in the air, but you can’t yet plant in your backyard bed?
Start some seeds indoors. If you have already started your tomatoes, they may even be ready for a pot upgrade.
Once seedlings get their “true” leaves they are ready to transplant. If you haven’t already started , now is the time to seed some leafy greens to give them a head start. By seeding them indoors now, you will be ready to eat them by May.
By stretching the season you certainly provide yourself and those early spring critters, such as ladybugs, a boost until the soil is ready to dig.
Get that Pro Mix potting soil out of the garage, or go purchase some from the nearest garden centre and get that kale, chard, parsley or lettuce started!
If you’d like to learn more about starting seeds, sign up for Grow Food Calgary’s program. Register.
While most of you were having a great date night on Friday, Chelsie Anderson, the Natural Gardener and I were on a fascinating tour of the Hop Compost facility in Calgary.
Kevin Davies created Canada’s first inner-city compost facility, Hop Compost, right here in Calgary (expanding to Vancouver and Toronto.)
On Friday, Kevin graciously toured ten gardeners through his facility and thoroughly explained all the steps involved with converting mostly restaurant food waste into compost: garden gold.
He shared some of the problems with creating a viable composting business. When he began, the closest composting facility was an hour outside the city. Delivering waste to the facility and bringing finished compost back to the city required up to four hours of driving! The environmental impact was not acceptable to Kevin.
Kevin explained that NIMBY (Not in MY BackYard!) is a real concern for composting facilities. It’s about smell.
The “Hoperation” uses technology to manage the process and virtually eliminate odors. A sophisticated computer system measures heat, moisture, oxygen, even pH, via probes in the huge “cookers”. As required, the ingredients are churned with giant electric motors.
There was almost no smell. In fact Kevin said we were smelling the food waste in the bins ready to go into the next batch.
The final product is rich, brown, fluffy compost awaiting delivery to gardens across the city, where it will feed your soil and the micro-critters (as Chelsie calls them), the farm hands.
When asked his advice for home gardeners, Kevin said without hesitation, “worms!”
He said worms produce consistently, high quality compost with minimal effort and are ideal for home gardeners.
Compost is an integral component of the Natural Garden. Worms and worm farm receptacles are available from Chelsie Anderson
Learn more at Grow Food Calgary, starting Earth Day, April 22 at the Calgary Zoo. Register.
We are delighted that Kevin is one of Grow Food Calgary’s experts.