How to - Techniques

Compost basics

Laura Langston
Photography by
Tai Kim McPhail

Turn kitchen scraps into food for your garden

Turn the pile weekly and water as needed. The mixture should feel like a wrung-out sponge to the touch. If you can squeeze water from a handful of material, it's too wet.

Finished compost should be dark brown, loose and crumbly (not powdery), with no weeds, and it should have a sweet, earthy smell. It's generally ready to use between four months and two years from when it was started. Why such a wide gap in time? Because compost piles are forgiving. Even when you neglect it, don't get the ratios quite right or make your pile a little too big or small, the materials always eventually break down-like magic.


Some Canadian cities have implemented green bin programs that allow residents who have curbside collection to put out organics (fruit and vegetable scraps, paper towels, coffee grinds, for example) for separate collection along with garbage and recycling. The material is diverted from landfills and is instead turned into reusable compost. Halifax and Edmonton have green bin-type programs, as has Toronto and some of its suburbs. “In the same way the blue box program has swept the nation, I see the green box program as the way of the future,” says Geoff Rathbone, director of policy and planning, waste management services, City of Toronto. “Certainly in the next few years, I expect the entire Golden Horseshoe area of Ontario to be on board.” And he believes the program will spread as cities look for ways to cope with overflowing landfills.


  • Do chop compost materials into small pieces, which break down faster.
  • Do cover food waste with soil or dry leaves to discourage flies.
  • Do cover compost piles in winter and prolonged periods of heavy rain.
  • Do not add meat, bones, grease, pet waste, diseased plant materials or lawn clippings that have been sprayed with chemicals.
  • Do not compost rhubarb leaves-they contain chemicals that may be toxic to organisms in the soil if the leaves haven't fully decomposed before you use the compost.
  • Do not add invasive plants or weeds with persistent root systems or seeds (weeds in flower are fine).

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