Backyard Composting

Using a backyard composters is a great way to manage your own waste at home. Leaves and other yard waste, and some food waste can be turned into dark, nutrient-rich, earthy-smelling compost. It's a natural choice!

Each year, we have a limited number of composters to give away on a first come, first served basis to residents of Waterloo Region. All of our composters have been distributed this year. Please check this page in Spring, 2023 for information about our next giveaway.  

Interested in our compost and mulch giveaways? Please go to our Centralized Composting section

Benefits of composting

  1. It turns kitchen and yard waste into dark, nutrient-rich, earthy-smelling material called compost. Compost can be used to improve soil and enhance plant growth.
  2. It allows you to manage your kitchen and yard waste on your own property, and reduces the amount of waste you have to get collected. 

For other benefits, and recommendations on how to use compost, go to the Compost Council of Canada's website.

What can you compost in your backyard?

  • Coffee grounds and tea bags
  • Corn stalks
  • Egg shells
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps (peels, cuttings, cores, rinds)
  • Grass trimmings (dry)
  • Hay, straw
  • Leaves
  • Plant cuttings, pine needles
  • Pumpkins (Take Jack out Back! Remove candles and other decorations, cut up your jack o'lantern and put it in your backyard composter.)
  • Sawdust
  • Shredded newspaper, shredded cardboard
  • Wood ashes (cold)

No meats, fish and bones, fatty foods (cheese, butter, oils), and no dog and cat feces. Put these in your green bin instead.

No diseased or insect-infected plants and no weeds with mature seeds. Put these out for seasonal yard waste collection.

No coloured paper. Put this in your paper products and plastic bag blue box

No grass treated with herbicides or pesticides. No charcoal or coal ashes. No treated wood.

How composting works

A compost pile is really a teeming microbial farm. Bacteria start the process of breaking down organic matter. They feed on plant tissue and are very effective composters. Fungi and protozoans soon join the bacteria and somewhat later in the cycle, centipedes, millipedes, beetles and earthworms do their part.

Carbon and nitrogen from cells of dead plants and dead microbes, fuel the tiny decomposers. Carbon in leaves or woodier wastes are an energy source and nitrogen provides microbes with materials to build their bodies.

How to set up your backyard composter

  1. Check with your local municipality about any by-laws that deal with backyard composting. Some may have rules about where a composter may be placed on your property.
  2. Choose a spot for your composter. An ideal spot is shaded, easy to access, and has good water drainage. If the drainage is poor, a sunny spot is best. 
  3. Choose a composter. Either make your own (there are instructions online) or buy one. Some features to consider:  large top opening to allow for easy mixing, cost, capacity (if you have a lot of food scraps and yard waste, you may want larger or multiple units), convenient top lid (to provide access, prevent pests and weather issues), side aeration vents, ease of harvesting compost (such as a door at the base of the unit), and appearance.
  4. Install your backyard composter. Ideally, remove any grass. Consider digging in or adding heavy gauge wire mesh around the base to prevent animals from digging under the pile. Add a base layer of nutrient-rich material such as composted cow or sheep manure or bone meal.
  5. Set up a kitchen container for your food scraps.
  6. Educate your family on how to use the backyard composter.

How to manage your backyard composter

The composting process requires organic material, moisture and air. Below are ways to achieve a balance of these elements and ensure a productive compost pile:

  1. Layer your organic materials. Alternate "brown" materials which are high in carbon (such as leaves) with "green" materials which are high in nitrogen (such as kitchen scraps and grass clippings). Ideally, have a 3 to 1 ratio; three times as many brown materials as green materials. 
  2. Cut up your organic materials into small pieces to help provide more surface area for micro-organisms to feed on and to compost faster.
  3. Dig in, or bury your kitchen scraps with soil, dry leaves or finished compost to discourage flies.
  4. Keep material as moist as a squeezed-out sponge.
  5. Turn the pile every few weeks with a pitch fork or shovel to mix materials and introduce more air.
  6. Harvest the finished compost. Finished compost should be dark and crumbly. Compost may be ready in a few weeks or six months or more, depending on how you manage your composter. You may wish to screen the finished compost through a one- to three-centimetre wire mesh screen to remove organics that have not completely decomposed. 
  7. Use your compost:
  • For houseplants, mix finished compost with equal amounts of soil and sand to make a light potting soil.
  • Spread a layer of compost (up to 8 centimetres) on flower and vegetable gardens. Mix it in to the soil.
  • Use as top-dressing for your lawn in the spring or fall.
  • Make "compost tea". Place finished compost in a burlap bag and insert into a large pail or barrel of water. Consider letting it steep for a few hours or up to three days (stir once in a while). Dilute with water (approximately 10 parts water to one part compost tea) until it looks like a weak tea. Water flowers, vegetables or indoor plants, and trouble spots on lawns.

A trouble shooting guide for backyard composting


Your compost pile should have minimal odour - only an earthy smell to it.

  • If it has a bad odour, the compost pile may need air. Turn the pile with a pitch fork or shovel to aerate it. Or the pile may be too wet. Add materials such as dry leaves to absorb the excess moisture.
  • If there is a damp, sweet-smelling odour, it means there is a lack of nitrogen. Mix in "greens" such as fresh grass clippings, manure or bloodmeal.

Nothing seems to be composting: 

  • The compost pile may be too dry. Moisten and mix thoroughly until it is as moist as a squeezed-out sponge.
  • OR it's frozen. Decomposition will begin in the spring. Consider insulating your compost in the fall by covering with a thick layer of leaves, hay or straw. (But unless your pile is very large, the insulation will only delay freezing.)
  • OR there is a poor carbon-nitrogen ratio. Add "greens" (kitchen scraps, grass clippings) or "browns" (leaves), as required.
  • Chop up your organic wastes to speed up their composting. Consider mulching leaves with your lawn mower before adding them to your composter.

The compost is too wet:

  • If there is poor drainage at that site, move your composter to another location with proper drainage.
  • Ensure the lid is on to prevent the compost pile from being soaked from rain.
  • Mix in dry material such as leaves, sawdust or shredded wood. 

Insects and other pests:

  • Avoid adding meat, fish, bones, and dairy and other fatty foods to your composter.
  • Bury food scraps immediately. Cover with soil, leaves or other material.
  • Keep the lid on. 
  • Consider installing or digging in heavy gauge wire mesh around the base your composter. 

Can people in multi-unit buildings compost?

Yes - there are options!

First, check your lease/agreement and any by-laws for your building/condominium corporation.

If you are in a townhouse unit with your own yard, consider having a backyard composter.

If you are in an apartment, consider worm composting (vermicomposting):

  • Get a sturdy bin with a lid. It can be made out of wood or plastic. Reuse a foam picnic cooler, or have a strong plastic-lined cardboard box.
  • Make drainage holes and set the bin on blocks with a tray underneath.
  • Add moistened bedding (such as peat moss, shredded newspaper).
  • Add worms. Red wiggler worms work the best.
  • Add food scraps. Ideally, chop up the food well and bury it in the bedding. Rotate where you bury the food throughout the worm bin.
  • Every three to six months, the growing worm population should be divided from the compost and moved to fresh bedding. Harvest the compost and mix in the soil of your houseplants or give it away to family and friends. 

The bin can sit on your balcony in the shade in warm weather, but bring it indoors in winter. 

For more information, check Worm Composting Canada.

What is the difference between a backyard composter and a digester?

Backyard composting is a way to breakdown organic matter with oxygen (aerobic), and digesters are unventilated units that are partially buried below ground and breakdown organic matter without oxygen (anaerobic) in a longer timeframe.

Backyard composters and digesters are available at local hardware and home improvement stores.

Some digesters may be available from pet stores for disposing of pet waste. If you chose this option, here are a few tips:

  • Check with your local municipality about any by-laws that deal with digesters (for example, distance from property lines).
  • Layer in wood chips, sawdust or dried plant material to help the digestion process, and reduce moisture and odours.
  • Pet waste is usually digested within two years. The finished material can be used as a soil amendment and can be spread on lawns. Avoid putting the material on or near vegetable gardens.

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