Composting in the City

  • Backyard composting isn't quite as inticing a hobby in the wintertime. (Photo by Karen Kelly)

Composting has always been a part of farm life, but a growing number of city folks are trying it as well. The GLRC’s Karen Kelly is one of those city dwellers. And she found if composting isn’t convenient, it doesn’t get done:


Composting has always been a part of farm life, but a growing
number of city folks are trying it as well. The GLRC’s Karen
Kelly is one of those city dwellers, and she found if composting
isn’t convenient, it doesn’t get done:

“So we’re going to put in our banana peels, and the oatmeal that
nobody ate, and I’m going to break some of this up because apparently
it breaks down faster if it’s in smaller pieces. So right now we’ve got,
half a scone, a bowl of oatmeal, some banana peel… ”

It’s just after breakfast and my kitchen is covered with dirty dishes.
Some of the food is heading into the garbage, the rest I’m going
toss into the composter. It kind of looks like a brown garbage can
with a lid, but it takes about half my garbage and turns it back into

I started about a year ago, when I finally got a small backyard
where I live here in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. First, I asked
my friends Connie and Dan how they do it.

“How would you guys describe your approach?”

“Laissez faire.”

“Yeah. It’s really a shame that everybody doesn’t do this because it can
be really easy. Just put it in a box and let it sit there.”

I liked the sound of that hands-off approach, but I was also
wondering what to put in and what I needed to leave out. So, I gave
George Reimer a call. He’s the city of Ottawa’s composting expert.

“ust stick with kitchen scraps, vegetables, fruit scraps…plants that
you have from the gardening season, that type of thing.”

“Okay, okay. So no animal products basically?”


Once you have a good mix of kitchen scraps, leaves and grass, the
best thing for compost is to mix it around on a regular basis. When
you add that oxygen to the microorganisms already in the garbage,
it breaks the waste down even faster.

It’s not as easy as it sounds – especially if you compost in a plastic
drum. Just imagine sticking a pitchfork into your garbage can and
trying to flip over a pile of wet dirt.

So, armed with that information, I asked George if he could take a
look at our progress after our first week of composting. He stooped
over to pull open a sliding door at the bottom of the container.

“Oh, you haven’t got anything in there, have you?”

“Well I did put some things in there…”

“Yeah, you need to put a slab down or dig it into the ground
because obviously something’s gone in there and removed it all.”

“Yeah, there’s no food in there. Okay. All right then. That was
a week’s worth of squirrel feeding.”

“Yeah exactly.”

(Sound of bricks laying)

So, the next day we go to a big box store to get some bricks. We
lay them all around the base of the composter. The squirrels are defeated.
A few weeks later, I see a huge raccoon shuffling across the backyard.
It knocks the top off the composter and climbs in.

We drive back to the big box store and buy some flat, heavy bricks
to lay on top of the lid. We also buy a few bags of fertilizer, of
course because we still have no compost. I think, this is starting to
feel like work and to be honest – I find it disgusting.

(Sound of brick noise)

“So now, it’s even more challenging to do this.”

(Sound of dumping)

“Ewww. A lot of it is sticking to the pot, which is disgusting but
alright. Uhh, brick back up, auxiliary bricks, okay.”

Now that I had to move those bricks, I was less likely to run out
with just the dinner scraps, and we weren’t mixing the compost very
often, either. So, I tried to remind myself of why I started doing this.

For one, it seemed like a shame to throw vegetable scraps into a
plastic bag and send them to a landfill. Especially when landfill
space is so tight that some Canadian cities are shipping their
garbage to the U.S.

Plus, we have a garden, which could use the nutrients from the
compost. According to George Reimer, those nutrients stick
around a lot longer than the ones found in commercial fertilizer.

I knew all that, and yet, on a stinking hot day in July – and the
composter was stinking because we rarely turned it – I officially
stopped. For a while… for six months. Until recently, when my
guilty conscience prodded me out the door with a bowl of kitchen

(Sound of walking in snow)

“We’ve got snow on the ground and a bowl of fresh vegetable
scraps. Umm, interesting. It’s about a third full so there must be
compost under there somewhere.”

Last time I looked, the container had twice that amount in it.
Which makes me think that most of the food has broken down into
something we can finally use on the garden. It gives me an
incentive to start over. Plus, in a few years, I’ll have to compost.

Ottawa will join at least 18 other Canadian cities where residents
are required to throw food scraps into a separate container, and
hey, if all else fails, there’s nothing like a new law to get you

For the GLRC, I’m Karen Kelly.

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