For the love of composting
By Jenn Watt
Composting in cottage country doesn’t necessarily mean attracting critters.
Several local composting enthusiasts say proper use of a compost bin can eliminate many of the potential problems and create nutrient-rich soil for your garden.
“I have only once had a raccoon take the lid off my composter,” says Suzanne Partridge, a landscaper by profession and councillor for the Municipality of Highlands East.
She has lived in the Highlands for 30 years and before that was in Toronto where she similarly never encountered issues with wildlife in her compost.
Partridge is chair of the Highlands East environment committee, which is in the process of acquiring compost bins to sell at-cost to area residents to encourage composting, which aside from providing the landowner with soil for their garden, also keeps organic matter out of landfills.
Dysart et al has also decided to offer compost bins to residents and other municipalities are in the deciding stages.
According to materials provided by the Municipality of Dysart et al, one-third of household garbage can be composted including fruits and vegetables, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, egg shells and paper egg cartons, leaves, garden plants and grass clippings, in small quantities.
Being an avid gardener, Partridge said she tends to keep her coffee grounds to spread over her carrot plants to keep carrot maggots away. She crushes her egg shells and puts them in the soil around her tomatoes to give them needed calcium.
She said she goes to the landfill about once a month, mostly motivated by the amount of recycling she has – not because of her garbage bin.
Nick Case sifts the soil created through composting. Sometimes, items that you think will break down don’t and need to be removed from the soil before it’s spread. /JENN WATT Staff
Gooderham area resident Andrew von Zuben is also an infrequent visitor to the waste disposal site. He and his wife Kira are homesteaders and run the business Bedrock and Brambles, which teaches skills in self-sufficiency and living more lightly on the land.
“I wouldn’t call us zero waste, but we’re pretty darn close,” he said.
Household waste is “virtually nothing” he said, but adds that the family is frustrated that there’s still unavoidable packaging, like the foil lining under lids or the wrapper on a block of butter.
Because the von Zubens grow their own food, they see compostables as prized resources.
“Anything that’s organic is valuable and needs to go back into the soil,” von Zuben said.
“Kitchen waste isn’t really waste.”
Bedrock and Brambles offers a workshop on building your own compost bin and von Zuben can be contacted to do lessons on-demand with groups looking to learn.
Similar to Partridge, he said he hasn’t had any issues with bears in his composter.
“The whole bear thing: where we are we have bears and we’ve always had bears and bears come visit us all the time. They’ve never ever, ever, ever hit the compost,” he said. The bears are more interested in grain kept to feed the chickens on the property.
Which leads to another point brought up by both Partridge and von Zuben: most people do other things on their properties far more alluring to bears and other critters than keeping a compost bin.
“What people seem to forget … how many people have barbecues? I mean, honestly. So many people barbecue and barbecues get hit all the time,” von Zuben said.
Partridge agreed: “To me, that [barbecues] would be a much bigger attraction and also a lot of people keep garbage in sheds. If the bears wanted it, they would rip that shed to shreds.”
Gooderham area residents Liz and Nick Case live off the grid in a home surrounded by gardens. Near the back of the property they have a three-bin composter built of wood pallets. Organic materials are loaded into the first bin and as the material breaks down, it is moved into the second, where it reduces into soil that can be used on their flower and vegetable gardens. The heap in the first bin, which is about waist-height, will reduce to about 10 inches over time, Nick said.
Liz and Nick Case show the fruits of their labour – nutrient-rich soil created by their compost bins at their property near Gooderham. The pair have been composting “forever.” /JENN WATT Staff
They’ve lived on the property for nine years and before that ran an organic farm on Galway Road near Kinmount for a decade.
They’ve learned along the way what works and what doesn’t. Oak leaves, for example, take a long time to rot. Grass clippings works well.
The Cases don’t see bears or raccoons on their property at all, but they do have plenty of chipmunks and squirrels visiting the bins.
And sometimes they find the composters become their own gardens, creating the perfect foothold for pumpkins and squash seeds to take root.
Liz said one year a giant pumpkin grew on the compost pile. It took three people to lift into the car.
The Cases, Partridge and von Zuben all say that they are relaxed about the ratios of what goes into their compost bins and they still are successful in keeping animals out and creating soil for their gardens.
However, von Zuben said that with more attention to the ratio of green to brown materials going in and with proper management, people can be more certain of success.
“Your greens are your nitrogen-heavy material, so that would be green grass, garden waste, stuff from the kitchen. And it’s usually wet and if you left it out it would smell and rot. And then there’s [brown] things like the most common would be leaves. Leaves, or in our case we have a lot of straw or hay or wood chips or wood shavings and that’s high in carbon. ... 30 parts brown, carbon-heavy materials to one part nitrogen-heavy materials. If you don’t do that, it doesn’t break down quickly,” he said.
Having the 30:1 ratio greatly reduces the smell, which makes the composter less interesting to animals.
For some people, using a digester is a more amenable option.
Digesters can also include meat and a small amount of animal feces. They are entirely sealed and instead of creating soil they create leachate, which can be used in the garden.
If you open a digester, von Zuben said with a laugh, “it smells baaaaaaad.”
“But it’s sealed, so the odour isn’t getting out. Peterborough County, they market the digesters for the northern part of the county [because of bears],” he said.
Dysart et al recommends the following for those composting in the municipality:
• Do not add cooked or leftover food scraps in your bin
• Never compost meat, fish, fats, oil, grease, bones, or dairy products.
• Sprinkle your compost with lime to aid in decomposition and reduce odour.
• It is key that each time you add kitchen waste, cover it with brown materials (dry leaves, sawdust, newspaper or dried grass clippings) or soil.
• Keep compost aerated and properly turned. Add branches, if necessary, to get air underneath the pile.
• Locate the compost bin in an open area, well away from the forest edge, thickets and natural pathways used by bears.
• Better yet, try vermicomposting – an indoor compost system that uses worms to digest the organic material.
Despite best efforts, bears might still raid a compost bin, von Zuben said, especially if you live in an area with a high population of them. But for many people, composting without animal interference is possible.
“There’s two reasons it’s really important. One is the landfill, and making sure we’re not filling the landfill and being wasteful, but the other one, from our point of view is the importance of having gardens, the importance of understanding the ecological cycle, the importance of making sure that food waste doesn’t go to the landfill where it’s dead and [instead make sure] it ends up in gardens and reused to grow more food.”