Making Compost for Ourselves and Our Garden

Since the advent of organic waste collection, many people have stopped making compost at home. They find it too complicated to separate plant organic matter from animal matter, which attracts unwanted animals to their home composter. In general, they’ve had bad experiences with raccoons or skunks, and it’s much easier for them to put everything in the brown bin and pick up compost from their municipality during the free annual distribution. Most gardeners, however, continue to compost their garden waste at the end of the season, as it’s often too bulky to put in the brown bin and doesn’t attract animals.

I think it’s a real shame to do without kitchen waste in the compost, as it’s a very nitrogen-rich material that balances the carbon/nitrogen ratio and speeds up the composting process, especially if you have a lot of dead leaves to compost.

A Few Basic Principles

To make compost quickly and easily, you need:

  • A balance between “green”, moist matter (rich in nitrogen) and “brown”, dry matter (rich in carbon): about half and half. Always cover your kitchen waste with dead leaves or sawdust. If there’s too much brown material, it will take longer to decompose.
  • Air: composting is an aerobic process. Without air, it putrefies, which can smell like rotten eggs. Aerate your compost from time to time with a fork, which also speeds up the process.
  • Moisture! Too many people close their compost bins tightly at all times to keep out animals. Consider watering the compost or removing the lid when it rains.
  • Volume: a large compost heap will decompose faster than a small one. But if you’re not in a hurry, that’s not a problem. However, a small pile won’t generate the heat required to destroy weeds, disease, etc.

Tips for Keeping Animals Away

To avoid attracting animals, avoid:

  • Leftover meat and fish, including bones;
  • Dairy products, including cheese;
  • Leftover cooked foods, especially bread, pizza and cakes;
  • Leftover corn (very attractive to raccoons!).

Also, install your composter on a mesh screen with a mesh size of 1 cm2 (1/2”). Rodents will break their teeth on it.

A wire mesh under the composter will discourage rodents.

Think carefully before adding weeds to the compost heap that are in the process of going to seed or even at the end of their flowering cycle. This way, you’ll avoid the problem of their seeds germinating in the garden when you later use the compost you’ve produced. A well-assembled compost heap will warm up quite a bit. After a week at 55°C, most weed seeds are dead, but it takes a month at 63°C or more to kill the most resistant. Most common weeds actually produce seeds that are fairly easy to kill and will die at relatively low temperatures. Never add plants with aggressive rhizomes like quackgrass or bindweed to compost! For more information, see: How to Kill Weed Seeds in Compost.

How Do I Make Compost at Home?

I accumulate my vegetable kitchen waste in a small stainless steel container on my countertop. To absorb excess moisture, I place two layers of newspaper in the bottom, and empty it every 2 or 3 days into a standard domestic composter right next to my house, well hidden behind a shrub. I immediately cover this material with a bit of dead leaves, RCW or sawdust, which I store in a second bin right next to the previous one. This avoids the odours that attract animals.

I have 2 composters next to each other. The one on the right is really for composting, and I store “brown” material in the one on the left to immediately cover kitchen waste.

I put animal waste in a small compostable bag in the freezer until the day before brown bin collection, and as I don’t have much to put in it, I can often wait a month before putting my brown bin out to grass.

ALso, I have a homemade double composter, right next to my vegetable garden, where I store vegetable scraps all summer long. I don’t put grass clippings in there, as I’m obviously doing grasscycling, so there are no unpleasant odours.

Handmade compost bin.

In Autumn

Around mid-October, often after the first frost, I make a large compost heap by mixing my garden compost with my kitchen compost: I create a sort of lasagne that heats up and rapidly diminishes in volume under the action of bacteria. If I have time, I turn the pile before winter.

In Spring

When the thaw comes, I turn the big compost heap again to aerate it and add the kitchen waste accumulated over the winter. Yes, you can’t stop composting in winter! But you have to put the compost bin as close to the house as possible. If it’s too cold, I store my green waste in large 5-gallon buckets with lids in my garage and, if it warms up, I add the contents to my composter. If you don’t have a garage, you can store the buckets on a balcony or in an easily accessible place near your house.

Of course, in winter, you could also do vermicomposting or use other technologies, but perhaps I’ll tell you about that another time.

When it’s time to plant my winter squash, at the beginning of June, I have a magnificent pile of half-decomposed compost that the cucurbits love. I subdivide my pile to plant zucchini, cucumbers and winter squash in a scoop of ripe compost on top of each pile. This year, as a bonus, I got a beautiful pumpkin that grew on its own from an undecomposed seed.

Using Compost

After harvesting my squash, I add the residual compost to my vegetable garden and cover it with mulch before winter. The cycle is complete and brown bin management is minimal. However, I still pick up free mature compost at the ecocenter in the spring, because I never have enough for the rest of my garden!

Butternut squash seedlings.
Squash growing on a compost heap.

After harvesting my squash, I add the residual compost to my vegetable garden and cover it with mulch before winter. The cycle is complete and brown bin management is minimal. However, I still pick up free mature compost at the from my municipality in the spring, because I never have enough for the rest of my garden!

Edith Smeesters is a biologist and a pioneer in ecological horticulture in Quebec. She has given countless conferences and workshops and written several books on the subject for over 20 years. She founded and has been president of several environmental organizations, such as Nature-Action Québec and the Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. She was a key figure in the creation of the Pesticide Management Code of Quebec, which has been in effect since 2003. She has received several awards for her involvement in the environment and is a member of the prestigious "Cercle des Phénix".

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