You’re for in a world of dirt…Or soil. Get yourself a low-maintenance, erosion-resisting, methane-preventing compost pile at the lake. And guess what? It’s easy. Here’s how to get started.
At home, composting is easy: toss the gunge in the green bin until a truck hauls it away, and just like that, you’ve Done the Right Thing. “So long, apple cores, broccoli stalks, and fish heads,” you say, adjusting your halo. “Don’t bother to write!”
It’s different at the cottage. Without access to municipal composting, kitchen scraps linger for a garbage-day trip to the dump. Meanwhile, your halo gets tarnished (and a little smelly). Landfilling food and organic waste stinks—and not just for the obvious, olfactory reasons. But what’s the alternative? Didn’t you come to the cottage to escape routines like regular waking hours, sorting organic stuff from the trash, and personal hygiene?
“You came to the cottage to get away and relax,” agrees John Watson, the environmental manager for the Municipality of Dysart et al. But “you also want to enjoy nature,” he adds, pushing the environmental sensitivity button that lurks beneath the skin of most cottagers. “The backyard composter or digester is part and parcel of that. You’re taking food waste and bringing it back to nature.” After all, what’s more natural than decomposition, the default setting for all things organic? It’s the Cycle of Life, with future generations of mighty white pines springing from the stuff that’s even now turning brown in your crisper. You just have to close the loop linking fridge drawer to forest floor.
Q: Okay, but here’s my problem—the sorting and stirring and general grossness. Isn’t it a lot of work?
A: Come on, you’re already performing more onerous tasks. (Priming a jet pump, sweeping the chimney, entertaining in-laws.) Composting is an extra routine, but there are perks:
1. Many cottage soils are thin, acidic, and undernourished. (Thanks, glaciers. And you too, acid rain.) Compost can restore them by supplying nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and organic matter, plus helpful soil microbes and fungi. It’s “garden gold,” says Haliburton, Ont., gardening maven and lifelong composter Dianne Woodcock. But even if you’re just sprinkling it in the bush, she adds, it helps your woodlands by building soils that hold moisture and resist erosion.
2 .We throw out about 161 kg per capita of food waste per person every year. It’s obscene on so many levels, but when new dumps cost millions, it’s a financial nightmare for cottage townships. In Dysart et al, composting is “one way we’re trying to make the existing landfills last as long as possible,” Watson says.
3. You could pack green-bin stuff into the car and lug it home, but do you really want a steaming bucket of spill-prone food scraps riding shotgun? “It’s just easier to compost at the cottage,” says Kasper Franciszkiewicz, a Kawagama Lake, Ont., cottager and a teacher of sustainable waste management at Fleming College in Peterborough, Ont.
4. Finally, composting could save civilization, at least as we know it. Methane isn’t just a by-product of landfilled organic waste, it’s also a short-lived but nasty greenhouse gas, 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide during its first two decades in the atmosphere. That means every two tonnes or so of pizza boxes and kitchen scraps are pumping out the greenhouse gas equivalent of a round-trip flight to Paris, just by idling in the dump. Worse still, the planet’s landfills are so full of leftovers that if food waste was a country, not only would it be a lousy tourist draw, it would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions.
5. All this makes composting an easy way to fight climate change, says Erin Moir, a Thunder Bay-area cottager, composter, and the education director with EcoSuperior Environmental Programs. “We’re not asking you to buy a bike and cycle to work. We’re just asking you to take your carrot peelings to a bin in the backyard.”
Q: Can you share a recipe for composting?
A: “Think of it like baking a cake,” says Watson. “You need to add all of the ingredients: the green and brown. Then you need to stir.”
- Plenty of oxygen
Moisture. Aim for 40–60 per cent or as damp as a squeezed-out sponge. “I just pick up some compost and squeeze it,” says Erin Moir. “If water comes out, it’s too wet. If it doesn’t stick together, it’s too dry”
Nitrogen-rich “greens,” including lawn clippings, fruit, and vegetable scraps and peelings
Carbon-rich “browns,” including dried fallen leaves, dried hedge trimmings, even shredded paper, wood chips, or straw
1. Layer greens and browns in roughly a 50:50 ratio. Limit fresh, wet material such as grass clippings to layers six centimetres thick or less. Don’t skimp on the browns. “If you have a big pile of veg and fruit scraps, throw a layer of browns over that right away,” says Kasper Franciszkiewicz. He recommends stockpiling leaves, wood shavings, or shredded newspaper. “The hardest thing about backyard composting is getting enough of the brown material.”
2. Beat to aerate. Stir once or twice a month during the active, warm weather season or when odours occur. (As in baking, the amount and frequency of mixing is a controversial topic. More is usually better, but “to each their own,” says Franciszkiewicz. At his cottage, “we turn it as we can, but we’re not up there enough to turn it every week.”)
3. Allow microbial action to “bake” the pile at 32–60°C for 4–12 months.
4. Test for doneness. Earthy smell? Crumbly, chocolate cake texture? No more hot spots? It’s ready to turn out. Sift compost through a strainer made from chicken wire tacked onto a scrap lumber frame to remove underdone chunks such as corn cobs or woody material. Return uncomposted materials for further “baking.”
Q: That’s the recipe, but what sort of container do I use?
A: That depends on your cottage landscape and the effort you’re willing to put in. And how fast you want to see results.
For the cottage gardener: A classic, DIY bulk composter
Eats: larger capacity for leaves, grass clippings, garden waste, hedge trimmings, smaller amounts of fruit and veggie scraps
Material: you can use pallets, chicken wire or hardware cloth, or commercially available panels
Cost: budget $100 or less and an hour or two, especially if you’re using pallets or making a circular composter out of wire
Time: it can take up to a year to produce finished compost
Pests: offers access to wildlife if food scraps are easy to smell
Notes: it’s handy to have two- or three-compartment units side-by-side “That way one side is ready to use while the other is composting,” says Dianne Woodcock
For the gourmand: A plastic or tumbling composter
Eats: kitchen scraps, some garden and yard waste
Material: usually a darker plastic to attract sunlight and promote solar heating
Cost: expect $200 or less for most units. May be sold at discounted prices by municipalities, waste management agencies, environmental groups, etc.
Time: eight months to a year
Pests: putting hardware cloth underneath may deter mice, but it can still attract raccoons, skunks, and bears
Notes: works well with a bulk composter. The plastic composter handles food scraps, the bulk unit supplies browns
For the naturalist: All-natural vermicomposting
Eats: fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves, some cooked pasta or rice. (No onions, garlic, or citrus, please)
Material: a plastic home housing vermicomposting worms (Eisenia fetida). They nest on carbon-rich bedding and munch half their weight daily. One pound of worms will consume about three to four pounds of scraps per week
Cost: about $250 for a commercially made composter with a half-pound of worms
Time: four months
Pests: nil, when kept secure in the cottage or a garage
Notes: worms require a warm (16–26°C) environment, about 75 per cent humidity, decent ventilation, and feedings ranging from once or twice a week to every two weeks. Beyond that, “you’ll have to take them home or get a worm-sitter,” says Cathy Nesbitt, of Bradford, Ont.-based Cathy’s Crawly Composters
For the indoorsy type: The FoodCycler, a countertop unit
Eats: heats, dries, and grinds kitchen waste into a coarse powder, including cooked foods, meat scraps, small bones, and limited amounts of starchy or wet materials
Material: plastic and metal. It looks very similar to a breadmaker
Cost: in the $500 range to purchase, plus about 10 cents per cycle for hydro.
Time: four to eight hours. “We run it three times a week for two people,” says Haliburton cottager Anne Macdonald.
Pests: nada, since it’s inside
Notes: because it hasn’t been composted, the powder contains nutrients and minerals, but no beneficial microbes and fungi. It can be added to a composter or worked into soil. “It’s not gross,” Macdonald adds. “It reminds me of dry, shredded bark. I have no problems picking up a handful of it”
For the can’t-be-bothered: The Green Cone digester
Eats: up to a kilogram every few days of kitchen scraps, including bones, fats, meat, cooked or raw food. A separate, dedicated unit can be installed for pet waste
Material: a 70-cm-tall double-walled plastic cone over a 42-cm-deep perforated basket. Installation requires deep, well-drained soil and full sun exposure
Cost: roughly $200, plus shipping from compostec.ca. May be available at reduced cost from municipalities or waste management agencies
Time: years. Basically until the basket is full
Pests: the company touts the unit as squirrel-and raccoon-proof and bear-resistant
Notes: generates little or no usable compost—most waste leaches away as water or is broken down and consumed by bacteria, insects, fungi, and plant roots. If you’re intimidated by composting, the cone “is probably your most convenient option, and least likely to attract nuisance animals,” says Haliburton composter and digester-owner Susan Hay. Pet waste should be buried away from gardens to prevent contamination
Q: Composting takes so long. Can I make it faster?
A: Hey, not everything has to be a competition. But if you really want the fastest composter on the lake, try:
1. Chopping, grinding, and shredding greens and browns with a leaf shredder, machete, or even a blender. As long as the pile has sufficient air and moisture, the extra processing offers microbes more surface area for speedier noshing, but make sure there is still airflow.
2. Aerating. Along with frequent mixing, draw air through the pile by layering coarse, bulky items at ground level, building the pile around a perforated PVC pipe or a tube made from hardware cloth, or creating air channels by poking holes in the compost.
3. Keep it warm. Install your composter in a spot with full sun exposure (remember to add water if it gets too dry). If possible, cover your pile with an insulating blanket of leaves during the winter.
4. Add extra nitrogen by sprinkling in a small amount of alfalfa pellets (a.k.a. rabbit feed), or boost microbial activity with garden or forest soil, active compost, or well-composted cattle or sheep manure.
Q: What about bears? Is my composter a critter magnet?
A: With bear-rich communities, including Banff, Alta., and Canmore, Alta., banning backyard composting in favour of municipal green-bin service, conflicts with bears and composters remain “a super legitimate concern,” says Maggie Spizzirri, the Bear Aware community coordinator for Revelstoke, B.C. Spizzirri says diligence—including covering greens with browns and frequent mixing—will reduce the odour that attracts bears. Cottagers in bear-heavy areas can also idle the composter during the run-up to hibernation, when ursines are most active.
“Composters by themselves are not common attractants if they don’t contain enticing items, but they are often hit by bears that are drawn to the property by other attractants,” adds Anita Tamrazi, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
Q: If I can throw disposable diapers in the green bin at home, can I compost them at the cottage?
A: Absolutely not. Disposable diapers “are like puffy, plastic baseballs—the organic material is inaccessible,” says the Municipality of Dysart et al’s John Watson. Some city systems can screen out the non-compostable parts of diapers and process the rest in a system that kills pathogens, but nappies—along with baked goods, meat, grease, and plastics and containers labelled compostable or biodegradable—are beyond the capabilities of what a backyard system can handle.
Q: Are there any cool accessories I can use?
A: Yes! You can geek out with (optional) tools such as these:
1. Compost thermometer: probe the pile’s internal heat for more efficient mixing. Turn to avoid overheating (around 65°C) or when temperatures fall too low (38°C).
2. Compost turner: because a cubic metre of compost can weigh hundreds of kilograms, specialized augur-style tools make mixing easier. “If you have a tool that makes it easy, you’ll do it more often,” says Susan Hay.
Q: What’s the difference? Doesn’t stuff just rot anyway?
A: “Food rots, it’s a natural thing,” agrees Peter Ferguson, a Parry Sound cottager and the chair of the Thames Region Ecological Association. But composting ensures it rots in what Ferguson calls “the right way.” “Aerobic,” oxygen-sucking bacteria, bugs, and fungi transform organic material into a crumbly, earthy-smelling substance called humus. That earthy aroma? It’s a compound called geosmin, the scent of a fungus-like bacteria that’s also responsible for the odour of freshly ploughed soil.
The flip side is the “anaerobic” rot in low-oxygen environments, including landfills, septic tanks, and poorly managed backyard composters. Without enough air, aerobic bugs give way to their sluggish cousins, the anaerobes, who fill with methane and hydrogen sulphide, the familiar rotten-egg smell that wafts from your septic system at pump-out time. If your composter smells bad, chances are the anaerobes have moved in.
Long-time CL contributor Ray Ford still gets a kick out of seeing the steam rise from his compost pile on chilly mornings.
This story was originally published as “You’re in for a World of Dirt” in the Sept/Oct ’22 issue of Cottage Life.