Composting for beginners made easy

Composting for beginners made easy
Gardening enthusiast Jeff Shatford teaches Jericho Bjornson the science of building a balanced compost of wet and dry organic materials at Fort Smith’s Seedy Saturday fair on March 24.Photo: Meagan Wohlberg.

Budding backyard gardeners could save money and help the environment by adding a simple composter to their yards, according to Shannon Ripley, an environmental scientist at Ecology North.

Expensive fertilizers are easily replaced by installing a backyard composter and taking the time to add food scraps and organic yard waste to it said Ripley. It not only returns nutrients to the environment, but also provides a relatively cost-free fertilizer for gardens. Costs are limited to a bit of time and either building materials or a plastic backyard composting unit.

“It’s something that if people do it at home, it’s free. It’s something we can do for ourselves and our community,” Ripley told the Journal.

Ripley said interest in composting is growing in the Northwest Territories – from backyard composters, to community gardens, to centralized composting services (like those available in Yellowknife).

According to Ripley, 40 per cent of what people throw in the trash consists of organic material that could otherwise be used for adding nutrients to soil for crops. Instead, organic waste ends up in landfills, where the nutrients are lost, she said.

Food scraps and other organic household and yard waste can be turned into a valuable resource as compost, she said.

To build or to buy

To build or to buy – that is the question. Yellowknife’s Sombe K’e Park is playing host to a backyard composter sale every Tuesday in June from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Hay River recently had a backyard composter sale. Composters are also available from various stores throughout the NWT.

Buying a ready-to-go composter makes it incredibly easy. They can be set up in a matter of minutes. Building a composter is not difficult and can be done with little more than old pallets and either wire or a tarp strung over the top (to keep wildlife out), Ripley explained.

“Even if you’re remotely handy, you can build your own,” she said.

One of the simplest do-it-yourself designs uses pallets as walls with removable boards at the front to access composted material, Ripley said. Composter design can be as simple or as complicated as desired.

Getting started

Composters can be installed anywhere in a yard, but Ripley recommends finding a convenient place that gets plenty of sun. Composting works best when it is warm.

A good starting point when the composter is installed is to line the bottom with a layer of dried leaves and branches to create a carbon base, Ripley said. As organic material is added, there should be a 50/50 mix of green matter (such as vegetable food scraps) and dried brown matter (dried leaves and paper). An equal mix of the two provides the carbon and nitrogen needed to keep the composter at peak efficiency.

Ripley noted that composting is a very forgiving process. An easy way to check if it is working is to check for warmth. The Yellowknife centralized compost got as warm as 50 degrees Celsius in the middle of winter, though a backyard compost pile will not get that warm.

Composting is fairly easy, as nature does most of the work. Ripley encourages people to try it. Composting is critical to local food production. It returns nutrients to the soil, improves soil structure and improves soil water retention.

Top Left: The easiest way to compost is to create a pile in a warm, sunny spot in the garden. Bottom left: Using chicken wire to form a bin is an alternative choice when composting. Right: A composting bin made with pallets.

Photo: and

Top Left: The easiest way to compost is to create a pile in a warm, sunny spot in the garden. Bottom left: Using chicken wire to form a bin is an alternative choice when composting. Right: A composting bin made with pallets.

Backyard composting tips

1) Aim for a 50/50 mix of green (vegetable/fruit scraps, coffee grounds, green grass clippings, flowers) and brown (dried leaves and brown grass clippings, pine/spruce needles, paper/cardboard, sawdust, straw) organic waste.

2) Put meat, fish, bones and dairy in the garbage. They will make the composter smelly and attract animals to it.

3) Avoid adding chemically-treated or painted ash, sawdust or wood.

4) Feces and diseased plants will do more harm than good.

5) Too much fat, oil and grease slows down the composting process.

6) Add water on occasion to keep it about as damp as a wrung-out sponge. If it gets too wet, add a little sand.

7) Turn the compost pile periodically to reintroduce oxygen.

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