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DIY backyard composter

Want the best compost? Make it yourself with this step-by-step guide

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Photos by Chris Muise

It’s not too late to prune and fertilize your garden to ensure healthy soil for spring. For many of us, that means a trip to the garden centre for compost, but starting a backyard composter saves the hauling, and keeps your green bin light.

“We take an enormous amount of food waste from people,” says Kirk Symonds, a regional educator for waste management on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. “Then in the spring, they drive to the store and they buy compost. It seems kind of a ridiculous endeavour, when really, we can be making our own compost.”

Symonds is an enthusiastic home composter, travelling around Nova Scotia to share his tips and tricks under the Divert Nova Scotia banner. East Coast Living asked Symonds to share his tips on building the perfect backyard composter.

1. The Bin


It’s usually taboo to encourage plastic use in waste management circles, but Symonds says when it comes to building a backyard composter, plastic makes sense. Wooden composters will work, but the plastic variety won’t biodegrade.

The style of compost bin Symonds uses here is one you can find at a hardware store for $40 to $60. But whatever style bin you use, make sure you have a lid for moisture control.

2. Gather Ingredients


“Composting is turning old food we don’t want into new food for plants,” says Symonds. “Not only is it food, it’s super food.”

The recipe for the best compost requires the finest ingredients. The main ingredients for perfect compost are water, leaves for carbon, food waste for nitrogen, and sticks.

“When we say ‘food waste,’ we keep it vegan,” Symonds adds. Meat, fish, and dairy will attract animals, and start to smell. If you’re composting correctly there should be no smell or odour.

3. Leaves


Start your bin with leaves. Critical mass is key; a half-filled bin won’t become good plant food anytime soon. Pack your bin with fall foliage.

4. Sticks


Most people remove sticks from their compost, Symonds says. But healthy compost needs them.

“The reason we’re going to take the sticks is that this creates some air,” he says. “The aeration allows microbes room to move, so they’re able to break down the material more quickly.”

5. Food Waste


“Ideally, we want the food sort of to the centre,” says Symonds. “That way, it will make sure that if there are any critters around, that they’re not going to be attracted to it.”

This also helps the microbes break down all the materials evenly. Symonds recommends adding new leaves to the bin each time you add new food waste.

6. WATER


Moisture is also critical, giving the microbes a conduit to work through. “It should be like a wrung-out sponge,” says Symonds.

7. Turn, turn, turn!


The last vital component to good compost is stirring the pot. Symonds says that compost material left to its own devices will just turn into mush, while a compost that is tended to regularly yields the best plant food.

“The more you turn, the more you’re going to get the microbes moving,” says Symonds.

8. WAIT


Composting isn’t a race to the finish. It takes 18 months to two years to create plant food. But don’t use that as an excuse to put it off.

“Any time is the perfect start time,” says Symonds. “We can continue putting stuff in there all year round, if we can access it. It can be a lengthy process, but there’s lots of time.”

There are plenty of reasons to compost, Symonds says: it saves money on buying compost, it saves taxpayers money on collecting compost, and it makes us more aware of our ecological impact. But for most of the people he meets, there’s only one thing that matters – gardeners love the mushy stuff.

“The real carrot here is that gardeners love compost,” he says. “It’s a chance for you to actually get your hands dirty, you get rid of your food waste, and then you get something for your garden.”

Web Extra: Worm Compost

This is all great for homeowners, but what about urban folk who live in apartments? Can’t they get in on the dirty fun?

Yes, they can. With worms.

“If you don’t have space for a backyard composter, worm composting is a great process,” says Symonds. “Worms eat our old food, they poop it out, and then we add it with the compost. And this stuff is fantastic for gardens.”

The process is much the same as above, except in smaller portions. Replace the leaves with paper shavings, and use a plastic storage tote with a hole cut out of the top and a sink strainer put in the hole, so the worms can breathe.

It’s small enough that it can store under a sink, it takes six months as opposed to 18, and it doesn’t create an odour, so anyone can do it. Even if you don’t have a garden to use it on, there are advantages to percolating some home-brewed worm compost.

“If you make compost, and you don’t need it? Somebody’s going to want it from you,” says Symonds, who says worm compost is great for plants and highly valued by gardeners. “There’s no such thing as too much compost.”

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