Composting…and Other Down-to-Earth Solutions

This article was originally found on the Emmie Oddie website
Updated in June 2015 by the Manitoba Association of Home Economists

Composting and its alternatives are ways we can reduce the amount of materials sent to the landfill.

Making use of food scraps and yard waste at home is easy and rewarding. These materials, also called organic wastes, make up one-third of annual household waste and, in summer, can be half of the garbage we produce!

Finding ways to take care of your own organic wastes benefits you in many ways:

  • by improving the soil in your yard and garden
  • by reducing the amount of your taxes spent on garbage collection and disposal
  • by extending landfill life and reducing environmental problems caused by landfills

Your food and yard materials can indeed become earthly riches. The techniques outlined here all restore organic matter in your soil. This is important in terms of soil structure, water-holding capacity and fertility.

There are a variety of methods for handling organic waste. They vary in their ability to deal effectively with specific materials:

Grass Clippings Leaves Green Plants Dried Plants Food Waste Wood Chips
Grasscycling *
Mulching * * *
Sheet Composting * *
Trench Composting *
Composting * * * * * *


Here is the “How To” of these methods:


Leaving the grass clippings on the lawn when you mow is one of the easiest ways to recycle. Lawns respond well to this treatment if you do the following:

  • adjust the mower to leave a 3″ ( 7.6 cm) blade of grass
  • mow to remove a half inch (1 cm) clipping
  • keep mower blades sharp
  • cut grass when dry
  • water deeply and only when needed

You can use any lawn mower that allows the cutting height to be adjusted. Mulching mowers leave finer cuttings and blow them into the turf. Many manufacturers produce kits for converting conventional mowers into mulching mowers.


  • no heavy bags of clippings to handle (also saves time)
  • reduce nitrogen fertilizer needs by 25% after two years
  • taller grass reduces evaporation
  • does not add appreciably to thatch layer, especially if a mulching mower is used
  • a safe way to handle herbicide treated clippings


  • more frequent mowing
  • clippings on lawn surface for a day or two if a mulching mower is not used
  • lawns still require a good raking in spring to remove dead grass and thatch (this material can be composted or used as mulch)


Mulching is a simple and effective way to re-use some yard wastes. Mulch is a layer of material on top of the soil to slow evaporation, control weeds and protect against temperature extremes.

A mulch may be applied for a season (summer or winter) or as permanent cover. Organic mulches, like grass clippings, leaves and wood chips, break down slowly and become part of the soil.
Organic mulches work best if you:

  • use a 4″ (10cm) layer and replenish when necessary
  • apply them to moist, weed free soil
  • when applying in the spring, allow the soil to warm first

Grass clippings:

  • can be used fresh or dried
  • good summer mulch around vegetables and annuals
  • use herbicide-free clippings (wait at least three mowings after chemical application before use)

Autumn leaves:

  • can be used as is or shredded by lawn mower
  • use as a winter mulch around cold sensitive plants
  • use as a summer mulch around annuals

Wood chips:

  • use as permanent mulch under shrubs and trees
  • makes a good “no mud” surface for garden paths


  • avoid mulching in slug prone areas

Sheet Composting

This is a fancy name for the common practice of tilling or digging leaves and other plant materials into garden soil in the fall. It is a great way to replenish the organic matter in vegetable gardens. Tilling the materials in during the autumn allows them to break down before spring planting.


  • limit the amount of leaves you till in to about a 4″ (10 cm) layer
  • corn stalks and squash vines need to be shredded first
  • extra nitrogen fertilizer or manure may be needed in the spring if decomposition is not complete.


Trench Composting

Trench composting is a technique that allows you to recycle your summer food waste and build up the fertility in a selected part of a vegetable garden. Set aside space in the garden, dig a 15″ (38 cm) deep trench, add food scraps when available and cover with 8″ (20 cm) of soil. Next year plants like corn, squash or cabbage are planted on the compost trench.


  • cover the open trench with a stout board to avoid accidents or dig a new hole for each batch of kitchen scraps


Compost is “ready to use” organic matter for your soil. It is dark, crumbly, and sweet smelling, and is made by arranging a mixture of materials in bins or open piles. Making compost does take more work than some of the other methods described in here, but if you know how to do it, it is a simple, no odour process.

The extra effort has benefits: it can handle many types of materials in one system the end product is moveable and can be placed where needed materials can be added throughout the year.


The composting process needs a mixture of materials that are high in carbon (C) and nitrogen (N). Carbon sources are sometimes called browns and nitrogen sources are often called greens.

Nitrogen sources:

  • Kitchen scraps: raw or cooked fruit & vegetable wastes, coffee grounds & filters, tea bags, egg shells, bread, pasta
  • Green plant material: green grass clippings (herbicide treated clippings can be safely composted), fresh plant material (trimmings, weeds)
  • Agricultural manures: cow, horse, sheep, chicken

Carbon sources:

  • Dry, brown plant material: leaves, grass, dead plants, straw
  • Wood products: wood chips or sawdust (very high in C, slow to compost)
  • Paper: strips of newsprint can be used when nothing else is available (slow to compost, better to recycle it)


  • Meat, bones and dairy products (create odours and attract animals)
  • Fat and oils (hard to break down)
  • Sawdust from treated wood (toxic materials)
  • Diseased plants, weeds with mature seeds, persistent weeds
  • Pig, dog and cat manure (parasite transfer)

How the composting process works:

Bacteria and fungi are the main workers in a compost pile. Usually these tiny creatures are already on the compost materials when we put them in the pile. Your compost pile will work well if you can supply the following things:

  • Water – Composting materials need to be kept as moist as a damp sponge. In Saskatchewan, this means that we have to add water on a regular basis.
  • Food – Bacteria need a balanced diet:
    • brown materials that contain lots of carbon, like dry leaves, dry grass and straw
    • some fresh or green materials rich in nitrogen such as green grass clippings, fresh plants and food scraps The basic recipe is: 3 parts brown to 2 parts green.
  • Oxygen (air) – When bacteria have access to oxygen, as well as moisture and a balanced diet, they break down material faster, give off enough heat to kill seeds and don’t create bad smells. Add air by turning the compost with a fork.
  • Particle size – Bacteria work faster if their food is in smaller pieces. Take time to break up plant stocks and other bulky items as you add them. Woody materials will only compost well if they are shredded.
  • Soil – Small amounts of topsoil or finished compost help absorb odours and add more compost creatures to the pile.
  • Pile size – Compost piles work better if they are at least a cubic meter in size, but don’t worry if you don’t have that much at the start. Materials can be added gradually.
  • Shrinkage – One of the big surprises in the composting process is how much your pile shrinks. Finished compost has only 1/4 the volume of the starting mix.

Making a pile:

Open piles or single unit bins are common choices for beginning composters. The method that follows works well in either case. It is easiest to start when there are lots of materials available, such as during spring and fall cleanup.

Start with a 6″ (15cm) layer of coarse material, like plant stems, that are sturdy enough to create some air spaces at the bottom of the pile or bin. Add a 4″(10cm) layer of high nitrogen greens and a shovel full of soil. Cover with a 6-8″ (15-20cm) layer of high carbon browns. Add water until all materials are damp, then mix the top two layers with a fork. Add greens as they become available and then mix in the browns, soil and water.

Compost made this way should heat from bacterial action in a few days. A hot compost works faster and kills weed seeds.

Stirring the top layers weekly and adding water if needed will keep a hot pile going. After three months, in warm weather, material at the bottom of the pile should be cool, dark, crumbly and ready to use.


Small compost piles freeze over the winter. Fortunately, as soon as the pile thaws out in the spring, the composting process picks up where it left off in the fall.

Compost bins

Using a bin is a tidy, space-saving way to make compost. Bins come in many sizes and shapes; they can be purchased or built. When building or buying, there are several things to consider:

  • ease of use: adding material, turning,
  • harvesting size: amount of material you have to process
  • appearance
  • cost
  • skill required to build or assemble
  • aeration balanced with concern for moisture loss
  • ability to keep animals away from contents


  • Single plastic unit – a common choice for beginning composters. It handles a modest volume, is relatively inexpensive and easy to assemble, and keeps most animals out of the compost.
  • Three unit bin — a good choice for compost enthusiasts and/or those with large yards. It handles larger volumes, allows ease of use and is usually built on site.

Be sure to place your bin in a convenient shady spot. Avoid making bins from pressure treated lumber; it will contaminate the compost.


  • save your leaves and other high carbon materials for use throughout the year
  • add water when the pile gets dry
  • collect kitchen scraps in a small lidded pail and add to the outdoor compost every day or two
  • cover food scraps with a layer of leaves or soil to avoid odour or insect problems
  • keep adding food scraps throughout the winter and mix in leaves (or other browns) and soil in the spring or freeze food scraps in bags or large lidded pails and add in spring
  • moist piles that have never heated will still compost, but at a slower rate and weed seeds will survive
  • multiple compartment bins allow for complete turning of a pile and let you have piles in several stages of “cooking”.


  • Smelly – Turn compost materials with a fork and add some high carbon materials (like leaves and straw) and soil.
  • Dry – Add water until contents are as moist as a damp sponge
  • Pile is moist but has never heated – Mix and add some high nitrogen materials such as grass clippings, manure or a small amount of nitrogen fertilizer.
  • Mice – Set traps. Review the avoid list for kitchen scraps. Consider using a more animal resistant compost bin or switching methods for food scraps to trench composting or vermicomposting.


Compost is ready for use when it is dark, crumbly and sweet smelling. Harvesting a completely composted pile is fairly simple – just shovel it into the wheel barrow. A single unit bin may pose more challenges. Here the finished compost is usually covered by unfinished material. If the bin can be removed from the pile, this is usually the easiest option. Set the empty bin in a new spot, turn the unfinished material into it to continue composting, and harvest the finished material.


Compost is an excellent soil amendment. It can be used as it emerges from the bin or screened for a finer product. A screen made of half-inch wire mesh works well.

  • dig a 2″ (5cm) layer into garden or flower beds in the spring or fall
  • use as a surface mulch around established plants
  • rake a thin layer of screened compost into your lawn – after aeration is a good time
  • screen and use as an ingredient in your potting soil mix
  • make compost tea by placing compost in a mesh bag and placing the bag in a pail of water for several hours. Use the tea to water plants.

Other Sources of Information:

Mark Cullen and Lorraine Johnson. The Real Dirt. Penguin Books, 1992.

Deborah Martin and Grace Gershuny, Ed. The Rodale Book of Composting. Rodale Press, 1992.

Sara Williams. Creating the Prairie Xeriscape. University Extension Press, University of Saskatchewan, 1997.

Source: The Saskatchewan Waste Reduction Council

Updated October 2020