Autumn is a great time to release your inner compost nerd, which is why I thought a compost workshop would be SUPER FUN! I was hosted by Wildsight at the Cranbrook Public Produce Garden to discuss composting basics and how to become a confident composter.
I have been a compost nerd since about 2013 when I took over Wildsight’s Clean Bin Project, which when completed, evolved into the Cranbrook Composts Project. I provided compost education to most local schools, ranging from Kindergarten to Grade 7, as well as children’s events and organizations like Key City Gymnastics. We also built two beautiful 3-bin compost systems for the public produce gardens in Cranbrook and Kimberley.
The workshop started by discussing the four basic needs of living things: food, air, water, and shelter. If we remember these four needs and maintain our pile accordingly, we should avoid most compost problems. If we think of what we ourselves need to survive, we can apply the same knowledge to the thousands of microorganisms that live in your compost pile.
The shelter is the compost pile. The wonderful critters that do your decomposing live in it; take a shovel full out from the center and you will see all sorts of busy activity. And violent activity too… there is a whole food chain going on in there with primary, secondary, and tertiary decomposers. They eat each other. It is what it is!
Food for the microorganisms come in the form of carbon and nitrogen materials, or “browns” and “greens”. Carbons come in the form of leaves, twigs, cardboard, and newspaper, while nitrogens are veggie and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, and dryer lint. Just as we humans balance our diet, the microorganisms need us to manage that for the best results; there is no “perfect” ratio – I stick to 50/50. Alternate the carbon and nitrogen layers, and always cover your greens with browns to avoid fruit flies.
The microorganisms also need water to survive! If your compost bin is exposed to the elements, it will catch rain and other precipitation. If it is enclosed, you will need to provide the water, especially in summer months. If the pile is too dry, the microorganisms will either peace out or slow down, and decomposition will crawl to a stop. It should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge.
Air comes in the form of turning the pile. I’m a lazy composter, so depending on how fast I want usable compost, I will turn it about four times a year. You can add aeration when you first build your pile by putting a pile of sticks and twigs on the bottom; this adds air flow, and drainage. Adding sticks throughout the pile will add air pockets, and it is a good idea to “stir” your pile to get some air in there.
Once we discussed all of those elements, we had a look at the 3-bin system in the garden to see what kind of decomposition was happening and if we could troubleshoot any issues we saw. The piles were mostly well-kept. There were LOTS of worms and other bugs doing their chomping, and good soil on the bottom. We found the piles were all quite moist, so we added browns and loosened up the contents with pitchforks. We emptied two bins and turned them into one to increase production.
One big issue I discussed was “compostable” plastics. We found a few of these bags in the bins, as well as “compostable” coffee cups. I brought a tube of lotion I found at a hotel that claimed to be “100% biodegradable”. I will likely write another post on this issue entirely, but basically, it’s a load of crap. The compostable bags are only compostable in very specific conditions, which cannot be met in any regular backyard compost. If you are thinking of using the compost soil to grow your own food, steer clear of these bioplastics entirely.
We then talked about ways to use compost soil and did some more maintenance with the piles. It was a beautiful, sunny autumn evening, with some great participants (both human and microorganisms).
Happy Composting, all!
A friend of mine referred me to these awesome fact sheets from the Compost Education Center in Victoria, which include quick info on all things compost, like backyard composting, vermicompost, compost tea, and bokashi bins to name a few.