Composting: The Garden's Gift That Keeps on Giving

Imagine a process that transforms your kitchen scraps and garden waste into a nutrient-rich, soil-enhancing marvel. Welcome to the world of composting! This eco-friendly practice, deeply rooted in organic and biodynamic gardening, has been nurturing soils since the time of the early Romans. Fast forward to the 1920s, and visionaries like Rudolf Steiner were championing composting as a game-changer for modern society. Today, we're seeing a composting renaissance, with cities across North America launching large-scale composting programs to manage urban waste. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's dig into the nitty-gritty of composting and uncover why it's the superhero of sustainable gardening.

Historically, composting involved piling manure and plant waste from the fields into large heaps for a year or more. Over time, this organic matter would decompose into a beneficial form that could be spread over fields or tilled into the soil. This process enriches the soil, balancing moisture retention and drainage, and replenishing nutrients depleted by a season of planting and harvesting.

True biodynamic enthusiasts advocate for a layer of well-decomposed compost on the soil surface. This approach invites soil-dwelling creatures and microorganisms to the surface, where they pull the nutrient-rich compost down, converting it into a form that plant roots can easily absorb. By top-dressing only, we can avoid tilling the soil, which some believe is unnecessary and potentially harmful to soil health.

Compost Design

There's a world of composter designs out there, but they all share the same fundamental principles. By stacking organic waste materials in a well-ventilated enclosure, we allow oxygen to permeate the pile, promoting healthy aerobic decomposition. This elevation also prevents excess moisture accumulation, which could hinder oxygen flow and slow down the decomposition process.

The simplest composter design is a porous cylinder made from materials like chicken wire or plastic mesh. As fresh material is added to the top, a mechanism is needed to remove the finished compost from the bottom. Some plastic composters come with a handy door at the bottom for this purpose. These systems are perfect for a small family with a modest garden. However, as your garden grows, so too will your composting needs, both in terms of the amount of material to compost and the demand for finished compost.

Cultivating Your Compost Heap

To maintain efficient aerobic decomposition, your compost pile needs four key components in relative balance:

Carbon: Often referred to as “brown matter,” carbon is typically dry. It can be added to the compost pile through dried leaves, lawn clippings, newspaper, straw, and so on. These materials fuel the microbial action in the pile, generating heat as the microbes break down the carbon matter.

Nitrogen: High nitrogen ingredients, or “green matter,” include wet organic components like kitchen scraps, manure, and spent plant matter from the garden. These nitrogen-rich materials enable microbes to multiply, aiding in the decomposition of the entire pile.

Oxygen: Oxygen is crucial for proper decomposition. Without a steady supply, the decomposition process becomes anaerobic, resulting in a poorly disintegrated, odorous compost. Oxygen is used by microbes to oxidize the carbon in the pile.

Water: Microbes need moisture to thrive. However, too much water can hinder aeration and lead to anaerobic decomposition, while too little moisture can stall the decomposition process.

As bacteria work their magic in the compost pile, they generate a significant amount of heat. This can lead to moisture loss through evaporation and oxygen loss through heating. Regular tending of the pile is necessary for efficient composting. A good practice is to alternate layers of green (nitrogen) matter and brown (carbon) matter. For example, each bucket of kitchen scraps should be topped off with a handful of straw, crumpled newspaper, or other brown matter.

Compost and Composting

As the pile grows, the weight of the top layers can compress the bottom layers, reducing oxygen flow and causing moisture to accumulate. Turning the compost (moving material from the bottom to the top) can promote consistent decomposition. Tools like garden forks can be used to pull material from the bottom of the pile to the surface, improving aeration.

The end goal, of course, is well-rotted compost soil, or humus. This dark brown, lightweight material is rich in carbon and free of large, intact pieces of material. When added to garden soil, humus feeds soil organisms, including earthworms, which in turn improve soil structure and nutrient availability, fostering the growth of robust, healthy, productive plants.

Across the globe, cities are recognizing the value of composting as a sustainable waste management strategy. Vancouver, for instance, has implemented a home compost collection program, estimating that a significant portion of residential waste is compostable. The city has broadened the program to accept a diverse range of materials and is collaborating with private waste collection companies to further enhance its compost management scheme.

Moreover, many municipalities, including Vancouver, are offering composters made from recycled plastic. These composters are a practical solution for urban families aiming to reduce their waste output and produce nutrient-rich humus to enrich their soil. This commitment to reducing landfill waste and promoting sustainable practices is a model that we hope will inspire cities across Canada and beyond. As we all strive for a greener future, composting is a simple yet powerful step we can take in our own backyards.

Boosting Your Compost with Amendments

Adding to the symphony of green and brown layers in your compost heap, other materials can be introduced to enhance the final product and accelerate the breakdown of organic matter. One of the most effective ways to speed up the process is by using Compost Activator on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. Alfalfa Meal can be added to the heap to enhance the nutritional value of the final product. Moreover, the chopped stems and leaves of Comfrey and Stinging Nettle are said to expedite the composting process as they release their own enzymes into the pile. Chopped Yarrow plants are also believed to have this effect.

So there you have it, the wonderful world of composting. It's a practice as old as time, yet as relevant as ever in our modern world. By composting, we not only enrich our gardens but also contribute to a healthier planet. So why not roll up your sleeves, start your own compost heap, and experience the magic of transformation right in your backyard? Happy composting.