Composting, Community, and Growing Food on Haida Gwaii

Winter Swiss Chard colours. PC: CHN/Rhonda Lee McIsaac

Rhonda Lee McIsaac

Resilient and colourful winter kale sprouts from the garden beds covered in eel grass mulch in early December. Gathered in amongst the raised garden beds at the Skidegate Health Centre, a group of community members stood shivering, eager to learn the basics of composting. “We’re so glad you chose to be here on a Friday afternoon to learn about composting,” says facilitator Chloe Clarkson, composting champion and the Health Centre’s gardener.

Clarkson and Natalie Elizabeth, co-facilitator and gardening enthusiast, shared the basics of composting to those new to gardening and those with an appetite for more information. Elders and youth came from all over the Islands and talked about the plants and vegetables they have grown. Potatoes, beans, peas, strawberries and even sunflowers are all hardy staples that grow well on Haida Gwaii. All of these plants and vegetables are large producers that benefit from good compost.

All that you need to start composting is an enclosed two section home built compost bin with removable slats or a prefabricated compost bin. The compost bin also needs to keep the rain and rodents out, it has to be easy to use and allow for turning, aerating, and harvesting of the completed compost. “You want your compost bin to be close enough to the house to make adding your organic matter easy, but also far away enough to keep pests away,” advises Clarkson. 

Clarkson says that, “rats shouldn’t hold you back from composting.” Keeping the balance of green and brown organic materials is likely to keep them away. Most will stay away as long as there is no fat or grease, meats, or unrinsed egg shells in the compost bin.

A mixture of organic matter with water and oxygen are the basics needed to start a compost.

Over time, heat plus carbon dioxide and millions of microorganisms digest the organic matter and the end product is a nourishing compost that replenishes soil. It takes 6-12 months for most organic matter to break down.

Compost workshop participants. PC: CHN/Rhonda Lee McIsaac

Greens and Browns

Fruit and veggie scraps, fresh grass clippings, fresh (non-carnivorous) animal manure, coffee grounds, and seaweed are all great “green” additions to the compost bin. Layers of carbon rich brown materials, such as dried fallen leaves, chipped wood debris, shredded paper, sawdust, and dry grass clippings balance out the compost and make it a healthy and welcoming place for beneficial microorganisms to live. The green and brown materials should be layered equally in the compost bin.

The benefits of a finished compost process are great for any garden. Completed compost will look dark and crumbly, it will have an earthy smell and soil like appearance, and it will have settled heavy into the bottom of the compost bin. Any organic matter not fully decomposed can be sifted out and added back to the compost pile. The compost material can be added to your garden beds adding much needed nutrients back into the soil as a mulch or top dressing and rich filler for transplants.

“Composting is easy,” if you do some extra reading on composting methods and dedicate yourself to the process, states Clarkson. “Composting allows for community resiliency and local food security,” she says.

At the end of the workshop, the hosts gifted spring bulbs.

Hardy winter kale in the garden beds. PC: CHN/Rhonda Lee McIsaac

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