National Composting Conference


By Jim Hole

In September 2000, Edmonton hosted the 10th annual National Composting Conference. The focal point of the conference was the Jekyll and Hyde nature of compost. So, how do we turn liabilities like dead plant matter, lumber mill waste, and manure into a manageable resource?

Climbing the C:N Tower

Delegates at the conference noted that any material to be broken down must be organic; in other words, it must contain the element carbon. Fortunately, all terrestrial life is made with carbon building blocks, so this is never a limiting factor. What can limit your compostable materials, though, is nitrogen, the same nutrient found in many fertilizers. The carbon:nitrogen, or C:N, ratio was frequently discussed at the conference. Unless the C:N ratio is within the correct range, the breakdown of organic matter comes to a virtual standstill. Ideally, the waste that you are breaking down should have a C:N ratio of 30:1.

Sawdust—a waste product many have tried to compost with frustrating results—has a C:N ratio of 400:1. Sawdust's very low nitrogen count explains why it takes so painfully long to decompose. Grass clippings, on the other hand, have tons of nitrogen, and if added to a pile of sawdust they can help to strike the right balance between carbon and nitrogen.

Moisture Balance

Finding the correct moisture balance is the second big issue in composting. In one presentation, researchers from the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Centre in Lethbridge explained the difficulty they faced with composting feed lot manure. Initially, the moisture level in manure is excessive, but after a few short weeks of hot, dry winds, the composting manure becomes too dry for proper decomposition. Whether the compost is too wet or too dry, the breakdown process slows down to a crawl. In back yards, the scale is smaller but the problem can often be the same. Ideally, compost should feel like a moist sponge that's just been wrung out. If your compost is too dry, simply water it. If too wet, turn it with a pitchfork to expose as much of the material as possible to the air.


Finally, remember that compost should never be allowed to get too heavy or dense; this, too, will hinder decomposition. Regular aeration of the compost pile is critical, and easily achieved by turning the pile with a pitchfork once a week.

The Honey Wagon

Fall is a great time to improve your soil with the addition of organic matter. During the spring, the mad rush to get things planted often means that there is precious little time to ensure the soil is in top shape.  Right now, there is a good window of opportunity to add products like SeaSoil (composted fish waste and forest fines) to the garden which improve tilth (soil workability) and increase nutrients for all of your plants.
Growing up on the farm, once the fall harvest had been completed, we would concentrate on building our soil for next year’s crops. And one thing that I could always count on in October, were a few visits from the "Honeywagon".  Now, anyone who has grown up on a farm knows that Honeywagon is just a euphemism for a wagon that carries rather unpleasant smelling manure.
Mr. Raven, a farmer to the north of us had thousands of chickens (laying hens for egg production, to be more specific) and he would have thousands of gallons of liquefied chicken manure that he would spray onto the vegetable fields after harvest. Chicken manure is particularly "pungent" to say the least, but it was terrific stuff for maintaining the organic matter in our soil.
Whenever I would complain about the smell, Dad would always educate me about the importance of maintaining good soil tilth and fertility.

"Besides", Dad would state, "if you have a cold, nothing clears the sinuses better than the smell of chicken manure".
I quickly got used to the "sweet" smell of the Honeywagon at a young age, but as residential houses rapidly expanded toward our property line, I know that the arrival of the Honeywagon early on Sunday mornings wasn’t exactly the best way to kick off Sunday brunch.
But as the saying goes, "You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs". Then again, there wouldn’t be any eggs to break without healthy soil to provide grains for the chickens to eat.

~Jim Hole