• Angela Mouly

Learning To Compost


From left, Ralph and Iris Davies, and Chris Olsen. Photo Angela Mouly

The Vermilion River Naturalist Society shared what people can do with material that is considered waste, and several ways to improve soil health during a composting session on August 11.

“It’s very satisfying to be self-contained,” said Chris Olsen. “I think sometimes people just don’t know how easy it is.”

During a tour of his own yard, Olsen shared how he had developed his property with compost into an English country garden style, continuing to enrich the soil as he goes. He said it never needs weeding and very little watering. Coffee filters, rhubarb leaves, grass clippings, corn husks, egg shells, nut shells, and a monster zucchini will all soon be added to his compost, and he said cherry pits would build soil texture.

“It’s about keeping the carbon on the property. There’s virtually nothing that comes out of my kitchen and garden waste that doesn’t compost, creating very rich soil additives,” said Olsen.

Even though other people’s yard waste is composted eventually, it still travels; but with his composting system, all of the carbon generated in his yard stays there and gets put back into the system.

As admirable as the town’s green program is, he said there are still fees to truck the waste to Vegreville, and there is a hidden carbon cost because the truck isn’t driving for nothing. He said they typically run large machinery rotating the waste allowing aeration and moisture to degrade it into soil additive. It is then bagged and people drive further still to stores to pick it up and put it back in their yard again.

“There is a $2.90 tipping fee each time it’s loaded into the truck. As much as we like to take responsibility and point at large industry, if we take out all of the individual contributors, the environment and our carbon budget is so much improved,” said Olsen. “Composting helps you consume wisely, it helps you see what can be up-cycled or recycled. It’s an appeal - it’s a way of life - it’s taking charge.”

Olsen is a biologist and built his first compost bin out of hockey sticks in 1980. Even as a student, he saw the value in not throwing all of the compostable items away and not having to buy soil that had to be to be trucked in. He said a person can build a single compost bin from two old pallets cut in half and placed in a square one metre by one metre, and simply move it side to side as it needs aeration. For those who have tried it and given up due to an odour, he said if that happens, it just needs air; it has to be moist so stirring it around can eliminate that.

Olsen’s current three-stage compost bin is approximately 12 feet long, four feet wide and four feet high. Wire mesh along the back allows air to flow in, while removable boards along the front help reduce animals getting at it. A lid helps keep the moisture and warmth in. It’s a continuous process of moving the compost from bin to bin adding grass and moisture.

With his compost, Olsen tries to create a healthy carbon/nitrogen balance. Micro-organisms need nitrogen to create protein and need carbon which provides energy, but they also need moisture and oxygen. Anything green Olsen said is nitrogen-rich, whereas dry, dead leaves in the fall are carbon-rich.

“The green bin has never been used here. I’d like to think in the future people would begin to use and live within their ecological means,” said Olsen.

Cattle rancher, Ralph Davies, brought photos of straw and cattle manure from his corrals and a sample of the soil additive that had been previously composted. Having an organic yard with no use of pesticides, Ralph said they’ve always put the manure on the land in poor soil areas. They used to use it more when they grain farmed and he said he has to stay at it to keep it from getting covered in weeds, but he seemed happy to do so because of how useful it is.

“It has to be rototilled to compost, but it turns out very nice,” said Ralph.

Iris Davis began a worm farm this year that produces Vermicompost (what’s left over). She adds cardboard and egg cartons as well as weeds from garden, lets it marinate to get the heat out and is sunk right into her garden. Then she throws the worms in. Iris uses the worm castings (which hold moisture well) for her tomato planters.

“Vermicomposting was just such a natural thing. With packaged soil we had no idea how it was produced or where it came from,” said Iris.

Some people start for health reasons to keep everything as organic as possible, and they said Vermicomposting can happen in the kitchen closet, some are kept in towers, and they even saw one that looks like a patio end table. Some people overwinter their worms in the garage.

“While the worm farm can be as small as an ice cream pail, it’s better if it is eight inches high to allow three to four inches of material to start, adding food and bedding as you go. An optimum worm farm can have 1,000 adult worms in one square foot of surface area; it would really put out casting,” said Iris.

They encouraged those looking for more information to look online as there are abundant resources available.

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