We asked local gardener and Goat columnist Jean-Ann Berkenpas to tell us about her approach to composting. She replied and included some information about other people in the community who have done some pretty neat things with their compost—including a compost-heated sauna.

Do you compost and why?
Yes I do compost, primarily to replenish garden soil and create an environment for healthy plant growth. I do not add chemical fertilizers or pesticides to the garden, and so compost is important to add nutrients and carbon back into the soil. I see the topsoil as a living community, filled with microbes, fungi, invertebrates and insects. Composting is an important part of organic low-till gardening practice that supports a diverse balanced garden ecosystem.

There are other reasons to compost too. It allows me to turn farm, yard and household waste into a useful product. Composting small branches and wood chips also reduces the amount of seasonal burning we do.

My neighbours have some interesting composting projects in progress too. Laurel McKirdy built a large compost pile of sticks, branches, grass clippings, and yard and household waste last spring. Then she put a few clumps of dirt in it and planted four or five squash plants into the dirt. She got about twenty squash from it in the fall. She also goes out of her way to add amendments like comfrey, yarrow and stinging nettle. (See photo below)

Laurel McKirdy and the compost pile she used as a squash bed last summer to grow over 20 squash. /JEAN ANN BERKENPAS

David Carson, who owns MVS Wood Products, is using chipped wood waste in a variety of useful ways. One of these is his compost-fired sauna. Last fall he built a large aerated pile of wood chips, with a water line coiled throughout it. As the wood begins to compost, the heat generated should be enough to heat the water in the buried hose, which he has plumbed into his handmade cedar sauna. A compost-powered spa! He started it a bit late in the year for it to reach temperature over the winter, but once it gets going, the temperature in the pile should reach 50-60C.

David Carson, Mike Berkenpas and Laurel McKirdy working on building a wood chip compost pile lined with water pipe. This will be used to heat David’s homemade cedar sauna. /JEAN ANN BERKENPAS
Work in progress last fall on David Carson’s compost heater for his sauna. /JEAN ANN BERKENPAS

What’s your favourite part of composting?
I like that there are many ways to compost, and some of them are low effort.
In the duck pen I use the deep litter method, which involves adding to and raking the litter instead of frequently changing it. This helps the litter in the pen to compost in place (the pen has a dirt floor). It doesn’t stink and twice a year I clean out a garden-ready amendment.

Another easy method is raking all the fall leaves into a big pile in the corner of the yard, and then just leaving them to break down. In a year or two I have some nice leaf compost to add to the garden.

When I am building new garden beds I lay brown cardboard and then pile up a layer of branch clippings, topped with grass clippings, leaves, spent mushroom sawdust (sawdust that has been used previously for growing mushrooms) and other yard waste. Then I top it with a layer of finished compost or topsoil and plant into it. The materials underneath break down slowly and every year I add a little more compost on top. This is a great way to build soil if yours is poor, or if you don’t have access to a lot of finished compost at the start of the season.

Why should other people compost?
In addition to the benefit of compost in the garden, composting is also a good way to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills. Pest problems associated with composting can be mitigated by using secure commercial composters with lids, adding brown amendments like cardboard and wood chips, and turning or tumbling it regularly .

Any tips or tricks?
Larger piles will compost more effectively than small ones. To get sufficient heat generation to kill weed seeds the pile should be about the size of a squared pallet.