Compost, yard waste and lawns are all organic substances, and they all factor "organically" into the city's waste reduction program. Examples of organics include the grass on your lawn, tree leaves, plant roots, stems, blooms and leaves from your garden flowers, fruit or vegetable plantings, hedge or shrub trimmings, and compost itself.
Yard waste collection is picked up every other week, on garbage collection day, from mid-March into December.
For more information on how to participate in the City's yard waste collection service, see your collection calendar. Here are some helpful reminders (PDF, 781 KB) about how to participate in yard waste collection. The City has a policy regarding approved containers to use for curbside collection of yard waste. If you want to use kraft paper yard waste bags, see Frequently asked questions about bags.
Tree limbs, trunks and stumps
This type of waste is not collected or accepted at City's Drop-off Depots if the diameter of the wood exceeds 7.5 cm (3 inches). If items exceed this size, please make arrangements with a private company specializing in handling this type of waste.
Emerald Ash Borer
The Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), a destructive beetle that attacks and kills ash trees, is in Toronto. The regulated area has expanded to include Durham Region in the east, to Essex County in the west, from Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in the south, to Wellington County in the north. It is not harmful to humans and only targets ash trees (not Mountain Ash trees because they're not of the ash species).
Despite the Toronto appearance of the Emerald Ash Borer, a beetle that attacks and kills ash trees, residents do not need to make any adjustments to their yard waste collection set out.
The only change will affect anyone accustomed to moving any type of firewood or ash wood material outside of Toronto. This is no longer allowed. EAB spreads to new areas mainly when firewood or any materials from ash trees are moved out of an infested area. To slow the spread of EAB from infested areas, firewood from any tree species or any ash tree material (e.g. nursery stock, trees, leaves, logs, lumber, wood, wood chips and bark chips from all ash species) cannot be moved outside of the City of Toronto. This comes as a direct order from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the lead agency dealing with invasive pests.
The CFIA and the City of Toronto are asking the public's help in watching for the insect and signs of infestation. Should you have reason to believe that an ash tree is infested with EAB, please call the CFIA at 1-866-463-6017. More information is available on the CFIA website at www.inspection.gc.ca and on Toronto's Forestry website.
Yard waste (less than 3 inches in diameter) is collected and accepted at City Drop-off Depots.
Tree limbs, trunks and stumps are not collected or accepted at City's Drop-off Depots if the diameter of the wood exceeds 7.5 cm (3 inches).
Material exceeding these dimensions is the responsibility of the resident for proper disposal.
Why is it important to participate in the City's yard waste collection program?
The City has set the challenging goal of 70% waste diversion from landfill. Each of us must do our part and make the most of our city programs. The more yard waste you deal with at home or put out for city collection and composting, the closer we'll be to achieving this target. Every little bit helps. Why fill up landfill space with such valuable resources? That would truly be a waste!
Did you know that much of the compost the City produces from our leaves and yard waste is offered back to you for free each year at various locations around the city from May to October? You can also get free compost at your local Environment Day (held yearly from April to September)
What kind of containers can I use for my leaf and yard waste material?
You can use either rigid, open-topped containers (a reusable container, without a lid, such as an extra garbage can, bushel baskets, one of the City's previously issued green plastic yard waste containers or kraft paper bags to put your yard waste out for curbside collection.
Please remember, to put out only your left-overs for curbside collection and City composting. You can benefit your lawn and garden by backyard composting or using these materials as mulch in your garden and around the base of trees and shrubs. More information is available in the publications section of our web site.
Will kraft bags "stand up" up to rainy wet weather conditions?
Yes, prior to making the switch city-wide, kraft bags were tested and found to be fine during rainy conditions thanks to the bags' protective wet-strength coating that resists water absorption (and they're still compostable along with your yard waste).
How well do the bags stand up during wet snowy weather conditions?
While kraft paper bags can be used in the winter, we ask you to not leave your full bags out by the street for periods of time during wet snowy conditions because the bags stick to the ground and are liable to rip apart when crews try moving them to the collection trucks. Better to not overpack each bag, keep them in a dry place, and set them out early on the morning of your collection day.
During the winter, the City prefers you do not use rigid, open-top containers (i.e., an old garbage can) because the yard waste tends to freeze inside the container. Collection crews can't empty the container without resorting to banging the can to loosen the material. This could potentially damage your container, something we'd like to avoid. Your cooperation is very much appreciated.
Are kraft bags reliable? Has anyone tested them?
Yes, kraft bags have been proven to work well. Other Ontario municipalities, such as Ottawa, Peterborough and Kitchener-Waterloo also collect leaves and yard waste in kraft paper bags.
Some years prior to the switch from clear plastic bags to kraft paper yard waste bags, the City of Toronto conducted research to evaluate the feasibility of collecting leaf and yard waste in kraft paper bags. Two pilot projects were conducted to test the collection of leaf and yard waste in kraft bags -- one pilot, done in 1996, involved 1,500 households in selected Etobicoke neighbourhoods, the other, done in 1998, involved 3,000 households in certain sections of the Toronto community. Both pilots produced successful results. Residents were pleased with the bags, as were the collection crews. The bags also responded well to wet weather conditions.
Why did the City of Toronto change its policy in March 2001?
The City made this policy change because of operational problems caused by plastic bags at the composting stage of the process. Effective March 1, 2001, the City of Toronto decided to no longer collect leaf and yard waste material in clear plastic bags. This material will only be collected in kraft paper bags specifically designed for leaf and yard waste, or in rigid open-top containers.
What kind of problems did the plastic bags cause?
The City determined that eliminating plastic bags improves the quality of Toronto's compost and reduces the amount of waste requiring landfill disposal. Kraft bags decompose with the compost, whereas plastic bags don't break down and must be landfilled. The City had tried various ways to separate the plastic bag from its yard waste contents, with little or no success. This means that pieces of plastic bags joined the material going through the composting process and contaminated the end product. Currently, no technology exists that is capable of screening out all plastic from the compost. The switch to kraft paper yard waste bags or rigid, open-top containers allows the City to provide you with a much better quality of compost.
Plastic litter from the plastic leaf and yard waste bags was also a problem. On windy days, pieces of shredded plastic from the leaf and yard waste bags were blown around the City's then owned and operated composting site, requiring manual collection by staff. This resulted in additional costs to the City. Kraft paper bags are heavier than plastic and do not have the same airborne tendencies as plastic. The removal of the plastic bags from the composting program reduced operational costs.
Failure to comply with the bylaw could result in a fine.
You can almost tell the season by what's set out curbside for City collection. Multiple kraft paper yard waste bags are a sure sign of spring and fall. Both times of the year, as we plant, prune and rake, out come the full yard waste containers for pick-up.
The City asks you to pay close attention to your local collection calendar, which clearly states when your household receives its bi-weekly yard waste collection service. Yes, there are rules about when such containers/bags may be put out at the curb and when they must be taken away.
The City of Toronto has received numerous complaints about yard waste left at the curb for days prior to collection. Property owners receiving daytime collection can put out yard waste no earlier than 8:00 p.m. the night before collection.
Residents employing companies to maintain their properties are responsible for making sure contractors follow the rules.
- Put yard waste out on either the evening before or early on your collection day as per the schedule in your local Collection Calendar.
- Store yard waste on your own property (close to your home) between collections, not on City property.
- Grass clippings or sod are not accepted in yard waste or garbage
- The City encourages you to leave your grass clippings on the lawn.
- Acceptable yard waste containers: rigid, open-topped containers (a reusable container, without a lid - e.g. an extra garbage can, bushel basket) or kraft paper bag. No cardboard boxes or plastic bags.
- Please instruct your contracted service provider to follow all of these instructions.
For more information:
If you witness illegal dumping of wastematerials
- Call the City of Toronto's Waste Enforcement Hotline at 416-392-0873 or
- E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to file a complaint
When autumn comes to a forest and the leaves drop to the ground, assorted fungi and bacteria help to transform the leaves into a rich dark humus, which feeds the trees again in years to follow. You can learn from this natural process and put it to good use in your own garden. Here are several ways you can use your leaves.
Compost your leaves
Leaves are rich in carbon, minerals and fibre. A healthy compost pile requires materials rich in both carbon and nitrogen. To maintain a healthy balance in your pile, especially in winter when most materials going into the compost pile are nitrogen-rich kitchen waste, keep a supply of leaves close to your bin in a garbage can or pail with a secure lid. Always try to add equal volumes of leaves and kitchen waste to your compost pile.
Compost surplus leaves separately
If you have too many leaves for your regular bin, use a separate compost bin for leaves only. A covered wood and wire compost bin can also be made easily at home.
To accelerate the composting process and substantially reduce the volume of leaves, shred them in a garbage can with an electric lawn trimmer, run a lawn mower over the leaves, or use a commercial chipper/shredder.
Alternate 15 centimetres (6 inches) of leaves with a shovelful of soil or finished compost, and moisten the pile. Cover the leaves with a final layer of soil.
In the spring, when the leaves have thawed, mix in a few shovelfuls of soil. During the summer, check the pile occasionally and water when dry. The leaves should turn into a rich, dark compost by the fall.
Try alternative composting methods
Place shredded leaves and handfuls of soil in garbage bags, moisten the mixture and close the bags. Once a week, shake the bags to mix the leaves and speed up their decomposition. By spring you should have leaf mold in the bags which can be dug into the garden or used as a top dressing.
Use your leaves as a mulch
Mulch is a layer of material which covers the soil surface. You can use your leaves as a mulch on your vegetable garden or flower beds. Let the worms do the mixing for you.
Fall & winter
In the fall and winter, mulch insulates your garden and prevents frost from damaging the flower beds. Apply at least 15 cm (6 in) of leaves for best results. Pile deep layers of leaves, or bags of leaves, around sensitive plants such as roses, rhododendrons and tender perennials, after the ground has frozen.
Some gardeners bag leaves on a dry day and put them on beds of root vegetables to insulate them throughout the winter. By marking the spot with a brightly painted broom handle, you can dig your carrots, rutabaga and parsnips when you want them.
Spring & summer
Save some leaves to use in the spring. As a spring and summer mulch, leaves conserve soil moisture, keep plant roots cool in the hot sun, and control erosion. Leaves will also add organic matter and nutrients to the soil.
Know your leaves
Oak, beech leaves and pine needles are more acidic than others. Add no more than 10 per cent of acidic leaves to your composter or compost these materials separately. Use finished compost on acid-loving plants like tomatoes, strawberries and rhododendrons. If you do not wish to add them to your composter, use them as mulch for acid-loving plants.
Some leaves take longer to break down than others. Oak leaves are one example. Others include such waxy leaves as laurel, rose, pine needles, holly and rhododendron. Shredding these leaves or mixing them with more nitrogen-rich materials will help to speed up the decomposition process.
Walnut and butternut leaves should be composted separately. They contain a substance which is toxic to many plants, called juglone. Shallow-rooted plants and grains, daisies, roses, Kentucky bluegrass and black raspberries are plants that are not affected by juglone. After a year of composting, the juglone breaks down and the compost can be used safely.
Adapted from materials by the Seattle Tilth Association, the Seattle Solid Waste Utility, and the Recycling Council of Ontario.
The City has always encouraged residents to "grasscycle" (leave grass clippings on the lawn), use them as mulch or compost them in their backyard bin. By not raking and bagging you save 30 minutes per mowing. Clippings reduce the need for fertilizer by 30 per cent, recycling nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus back to the soil to build a deep, healthy root system. Being 90 per cent water, clippings return moisture to your lawn reducing your water bill. Plus, grasscycling conserves landfill space.
The City of Toronto made the natural choice to stop collecting grass clippings from garbage collection.
Collection crews still pick up leaves, brush, and other yard waste for composting by the City.
It is possible to have a healthy attractive lawn using only organic methods. The key is to provide the ideal conditions so that grass grows vigorously and crowds out any weeds, and is also healthy and resistant to diseases and pests. Proper mowing and watering promotes healthy grass without risking the environment.
Lawns should be mowed to a height of approximately centimetres (3 inches) - never shorter than 4 cm (1.5 in). This will result in a good growth which keeps the grass vigorous, shades out weed seedlings and helps conserve soil moisture. Cut your lawn regularly - never removing more than the top 1/3 of the total grass blade in one cutting.
Make sure your blade is sharp, as a dull blade tears the grass and makes it susceptible to disease. Mulching blades cut grass multiple times producing very short clippings full of necessary nutrients. Mulching blades are handy for grinding or mulching fall leaves for storage and feeding to composters throughout the year. Mulching blade retrofit kits, adaptable to a variety of power mowers, are available at your local hardware or gardening centre (install yourself or seek help from a dealership). "Scalping", or cutting the lawn very close, is very harmful to the lawn. When too much of the leaf is cut away, the plant can begin to starve because you may have cut into the crown of the grass blade located at or near the ground surface. Grass blades grow from the crown, which is why you can cut off the tips without harming the plants. Also, small top growth cannot support the large healthy root system necessary to seek out water and nutrients.
After mowing, leave the grass clippings on the lawn. They will decompose, adding organic matter to the soil and recycling such nutrients as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus found within them. When the growth is too thick or long and the amount of clippings is excessive, collect them and add in 15-cm (6-in) layers to backyard composters to help break down other yard and food waste. Fresh grass clippings are "greens" and provide nitrogen; dried grass clippings are "browns" and provide carbon, both of which are required for successful composting. Grass clippings are also useful around trees, shrubs and vegetables as garden mulch as they help enrich and moisten the soil.
Lack of watering harms the grass and the micro-organisms in the soil, driving earthworms down to greater depths. It also gives an advantage to certain weeds that can withstand drought conditions better than grass. Your lawn only needs 2-3 cm (1 in) every three to seven days depending on slope drainage, soil types, root zone depth (length of roots) and weather conditions. Adjust watering accordingly. Do the "catch can test" to measure your correct watering level. Place a few identical-sized cans on your lawn. Turn your sprinkler on and time how long it takes to fill the cans to your lawn's desired level (set sprinkler timer accordingly).
Shallow watering only encourages small, shallow root systems, resulting in a dry layer of soil between the moist surface and the deeper levels. Water deeply, but don't over-water your lawn.
Practice water efficiency and water during off peak hours (11:00pm - 8:00am) to save stress on Toronto's water supply system. If you choose to water while you sleep, make sure to use an accurate timing device to guard against over watering, which can lead to fungus and rot problems. Watering in the very early morning allows time for the sunlight to dry out the grass blades.
Seed bare or sparse spots in your lawn prevent weeds from taking over. Mid-August to mid-September is a good time to seed because the ground is still moist and warm, yet weed growth is slow, and there's enough time for grass plants to develop good roots before the weather turns very cold (spring seeding encourages problematic weeds that can smother new grass plants). Rake the area of dead grass and debris, sprinkle on some compost and rake in a bit.
Inexpensive seed mixtures often contain inappropriate grasses. Consult with your garden centre about an appropriate mix for your conditions. Seed generously - 15 to 20 seeds per 6.45 cm2 (sq in) - then rake the seeded area lightly. Never let newly seeded spots dry out until the grass is well established. Even then they will require extra watering for some time.
- A couple of weeks after the last snow has melted, rake the lawn well to remove dead grass and debris.
Early to mid-May
- Feed the lawn with liquid seaweed. This contains natural growth hormones and provides the many trace minerals which are essential for healthy plant life. Apply with a hose-end sprayer at a rate of 28.35 g (1oz) per 93 m2 (1,000 sq ft) Don't use more than is recommended or you may damage the soil and plants.
Late May to early June
- Apply a granular organic fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium with a cyclone or broadcast spreader. These are now available at many garden centres. Follow the application rates recommended on the bag.
Late Aug.to early Sept.
- Apply finely-sieved compost at the rate of 45 kg (100 lb) per 93 m2 (1,000 sq ft) Put as much as you can carry into a bucket, and then walk back and forth across the lawn, broadcasting as if feeding chickens. Afterwards, lightly rake the lawn and water well. Aerate your lawn before applying the compost (best time to aerate is during heavy grass growth - early spring or fall). Aerating when your grass is weaker (height of summer heat) could cause damage to grass plants. Aerating devices can be rented at businesses which rent gardening equipment.
Late Sept.to early Oct.
- Shortly after the first hard frost, apply granular organic fertilizer as in late May or early June. This application should be made after top growth has stopped, but before the grass begins to brown.
Thick, luxurious grass shades out newly germinated weed seedlings and eventually crowds out established weeds. If you have a manageable weed situation to begin with, this crowding out will occur gradually over a couple of years. It can be speeded along by digging out dandelions and other deep-rooted weeds with a long, sharp knife or other tool, and by hand-pulling other weeds.
Diseases and Pests:
Diseases are generally caused by poor soil drainage, improper watering and mowing, acidic soil, inappropriate grass varieties, feeding with chemical fertilizers, and neglecting trace minerals.
If you consistently have problems with poor grass growth, weeds, diseases or pests, it would be a good idea to take a soil test. Your soil may have a nutritional deficiency which can be corrected by adding a natural fertilizer. It could also be that your pH is off. Dolomitic limestone raises the pH (makes the soil more alkaline). Gypsum (calcium sulphate) and peat moss lower the pH (make the soil more acidic). If all else fails, there are exciting alternatives to having a lawn - doing your entire property in "edible" landscaping, using ground covers, planting a wildflower meadow or planting native species.
Adapted from materials produced by Heather Apple of the Canadian Organic Growers, Durham Chapter.
For more information related to natural lawn and garden care, please go to Environmental Health — Pesticides page.
Before rushing out to buy grass seed or hauling sod home, take the time to answer these questions:
- How will I use my lawn?
- Will it serve as a play space or showpiece?
- What amount of time and money am I willing to spend?
- How much sun does my lawn receive?
- What type of drainage do I have?
- How even is my property - any slopes or inclines to deal with?
- What kind of soil does my lawn have?
- What competition am I facing from other landscape components?
Going to seed, are you?
It pays to buy good quality grass seed that is ideally suited to your site (a quality grass seed mix could cost from $4.00 and up per pound). By paying a little more up front, you may save in the long run, because your lawn will require less maintenance and chances are you won't have to re-seed.
Read container labels carefully. Select a seed mixture of at least three grass types in accordance with your particular requirements. This increases your chances of developing a lawn that has some diversification and is less susceptible to harmful insects and disease. For your lawn to be resistant to such pests as chinch bugs, sod webworms and bluegrass billbugs, choose grass varieties that are high in endophytes, a naturally occurring beneficial fungus that lives within the grass plant and allows the grass to repel surface feeding insects.
Here in Toronto, you need to look for a seed mixture with generous percentages of one or more cool-season grass types such as fine fescues (chewings, hard, creeping red), perennial ryegrass (avoid annual ryegrass) and Kentucky bluegrass. The better mixes have a lower percentage of "other ingredients." Select high percentages with regard to purity and live germination rates.
Here are some cool-season grass types to consider for home lawns:
A beauty, it's the most popular choice for home lawns, because it spreads easily and uniformly.
It does best in full sun on well-drained soil.
Planted alone it requires high nutrient levels (regular doses of fertilizer) and lots of water to remain healthy and not thin out.
Fescue grasses (creeping red, chewings, sheep and hard fescue) are low maintenance that produce a strong turf.
They do well in moderately shady areas but can't handle much wear and tear.
They will grow better than bluegrass in a wide range of soil conditions - acid, droughty or infertile - however they still require a well-drained soil.
Fine fescues produce a naturally occurring fungus (endophytes) that grows inside the plant to give it a natural resistance to insects.
Select a finely textured "turf-type" because it's hardy and suited to moderate northern climates.
Use perennial ryegrass as a grass mix because it germinates quickly providing quick green in a newly seeded lawn.
Perennial ryegrass acts as a "nurse" grass, helping to protect and nurture other grass types.
It's less heat and drought tolerant than fescues.
Don't mix in more than 15% or it will overtake your lawn.
When and how to seed from scratch
The best time to sow seed is early fall; mid-August to mid-September while the ground is still moist and warm, yet weed growth is slow and there is enough time for the grass plants to develop good roots before the weather turns very cold. Spring seeding encourages problematic weeds that can smother new grass plants. If you feel you must plant your new lawn in the spring, begin as soon as the soil is dry enough to work (mid-April to mid-May) to allow the grass time to get well established before the hot weather sets in.
First test your soil* before assuming you need to add compost or other organic materials. Once your soil is ready, rake the ground for a smooth, level seedbed. A level area is key, with a gentle slope away from buildings. Ideally your surface has a layer of good topsoil (12-15 centimetres / 4-6 inches deep). Seed small areas by hand from a bucket, mixing soil with the seed before spreading. Choose a still day to minimize seed blowing away. For larger areas, use a push-behind spreader for even application (2-3 kg / 4-6 lb of seed per 93 m 2 / 1,000 sq ft of lawn). Don't skimp when seeding.
Tip: Calibrate the spreader to apply seed at half the above recommended rate, then cover the area twice to ensure even coverage. First, spread in one direction (north-south), then at right angles (east-west).
Using a leaf rake, lightly rake the seeds into the top .3 cm (1/8 in) of soil (never bury below .6 cm / 1/4 in). Next, lightly roll the area to place the seed in firm contact with the soil so it can take water to germinate and grow. Lawn rollers can usually be rented. If your lawn is small, in place of renting a lawn roller, you can either gently walk across the seeded soil or use the back of a rake to tap the seed down into the soil. Ensuring firm contact with the soil is very important. Cover the seeded area with a light (weed-free) straw mulch, keeping the soil moist until grass blades grow to 7 cm (3 in) long (this may mean watering the site every day, depending on the weather).
Tip: Water slowly and evenly until 2.5 cm (1 in) of topsoil is moist and keep the soil moist until grass seedlings are well established. Avoid creating puddles.
* To test soil from your home lawn or garden, contact:
Unit 1, 503 Imperial Road
Tel: (519) 837-1600
Call Monday-Friday between 8:00am and 4:30pm
Adding seed to an existing lawn
Got a lawn but realize you've got the wrong grass type? Don't dig up your lawn. Overseeding is the solution. In early fall, lightly rake your lawn first to prepare a better soil contact for the seed and then just walk your lawn, sprinkling seed by hand (ratio of 2-3 kg / 4-6 lb seed per 93 m2 / 1,000 sq ft of lawn). Repeat annually for several years to significantly change your grass composition. The natural freezing and thawing of soil will work seed in naturally.
Tip: Happy with your grass type? Overseeding can still help you revitalize your lawn and ensure a dense, thick turf that discourages weeds (turf care professionals overseed golf courses and athletic fields annually).
Lawn is in both sun and shade
All grass needs sunlight to grow well - some varieties more or less than others. On average, six hours of sun a day is ideal. If your site receives four to six hours of sun, try planting or overseeding the site with fine fescue types of grass (Kentucky bluegrass does best in full sun). Areas with less than four hours of daily sun or in deep shade under a tree canopy should be planted with a shade tolerant groundcover. Check out Metro's "Alternative groundcovers" factsheet for more details.
Dealing with weeds
If you've started with a good layer of quality topsoil, weeds should not be a big problem during early growth. Careful hand weeding is the best solution to getting rid of the few weeds that may appear during the first month and a half. You can discourage weeds by planting the right grasses, mowing high, watering and fertilizing with care and overseeding. Reseed all bare spots with grass to prevent weeds from filling in the space. To further combat weeds, inquire at your local garden centre about new lawn care products made from environmentally-friendly substances.
The seed or sod decision
Many recommend starting a lawn from seed because it's cheaper and it allows you to select the right mixture of low-maintenance grass for your site. The most common type of sod grass available is Kentucky bluegrass and it requires higher applications of fertilizer to look its best. In support of sod, it does hold the soil well, so it is an option for slopes or other areas that could be easily eroded.
For more information related to natural lawn and garden care, please go to Environmental Health — Pesticides.
What's one of the secrets to a healthy garden and lush lawn? Try mulch! You don't need a degree in horticulture or bags of store-bought products - good gardeners have been practising mulching for generations. Besides improving the health of soil, recycling grass clippings, leaves, and weeds into mulch also provides an answer to water shortages and overburdened landfills. Mulch is simply a layer of material, organic or inorganic, placed on or around plants, shrubs or trees to cover the soil.
- Leave grass clippings on the lawn after mowing to add nutrients, reduce water loss, and eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers. Do not use grass which has been treated with hazardous pesticides or herbicides.
- Annuals, perennials and vegetable seedlings can benefit from a mulch which is moved aside at planting time and then pulled back around the plant as it grows.
- Don't mulch too closely around the trunks of trees (you'll smother the roots), or too closely at the base of heat-loving vegetables and flowers (mulches cool the soil). Mulch trees out to the drip line, which is the outer perimeter of the tree branches.
- Mulches can be an ideal hiding place for insects such as slugs and snails. Remove or turn mulch under during the spring to discourage egg-laying (follow up with biological controls available at garden centres).
- Mulch should be no deeper than 5-7.5 centimetres.(2-3 inches) to ensure circulation of air to soil. Don't mulch with weeds containing seeds or persistent roots.
Benefits of mulching:
- Water / moisture conservation - acts as a sponge to hold water and nutrients close to the soil, and blocks the drying effects of sun and wind to reduce evaporation by more than 70 percent. This encourages healthy plant growth, prevents drying of shallow roots, and makes for less watering. Mulches also attract earthworms that will tunnel through soil providing aeration, which allows for improved water absorption.
- Weed control - thick layers can reduce germination and growth of weeds, eliminating need for herbicides.
- Insulation - stabilizes soil temperatures, keeping root zones cooler in summer and protects soil from heaving during winter temperature fluctuations. (Apply after ground has frozen.) By covering bare soil, mulch prevents soil compaction and erosion caused by heavy rains and wind.
- Soil enrichment - replenishes and enriches the soil as it decomposes, reducing the need for compost, manure, and other fertilizers. Increased organic matter results in less digging, tilling, and cultivation. It improves the soil's fibre content; making sandy soil more water retentive and clay soil more porous; creating an ideal environment for earthworms and micro-organisms essential to healthy soil.
- Adaptable - may be selected either for its rapid decomposition, its longevity, or a combination of both. Most natural or organic mulches gradually break down and decompose to add nutrients to the soil and improve texture and drainage. This is helpful in vegetable plots. In ornamental plantings of flowers, shrubs and trees, you may prefer a more decorative and long-lasting mulch.
- Garden maintenance - by limiting direct contact with soil and preventing mud from splashing, mulches help keep fruits, flowers and vegetables clean and disease-free, and garden beds neat and attractive.
|Bark & shredded wood
(hardwood or pine)
|Slow to decompose; stays in place; ornamental appearance||Landscaping; around ornamentals; lasts I to 2 years or more||Garden centres|
|Compost||Readily available; can be applied any time; rich in nutrients; will not burn plants; can be used coarse or screened for finer texture||Flower and vegetable beds, shrubs, trees, and lawns; incorporated into soil; as a side or topdressing||Backyard pile or bin; municipal programs; garden centres|
|Yard or garden refuse||Can be applied any time of year; balances pH levels; also known as sheet composting; may attract pests||Vegetable garden between rows; do not use weeds with mature seeds||Commonly available from yard or garden|
|Grass clippings||Readily available; decomposes quickly; may heat excessively and mat if layers are thicker than 7 cm (3"); may contain herbicides||Leave on lawn or mix with leaves to use in garden or compost pile||Lawn|
|Groundcovers and cover crops||Roots hold soil; provides shade and nutrients; adaptable||As an underplanting for companion plants or herbs; lawn alternative; cover crops in garden rotations||Garden centres and nurseries|
|Hay or straw||Decomposes rapidly; provides insulation; lightweight; not ornamental; uncomposted hay/straw may contain "weed" seeds||Around vegetables (hay should be well composted); around fruit trees or shrubs and berries; entire bale can be used as winter cover for root crops||Stables; farms; garden centres and nurseries|
|Landscaping fabric||Lasts indefinitely; permeable to water, air, and nutrients while blocking weed growth||Can be cut with sharp knife to plant through, or laid around existing plants||Garden centres and catalogues|
|Leaf mould||High in minerals; lightweight; should be well rotted||Recommended for wildflowers; oak or beech leaf mould good for flowers or berries needing acidic soil||Can be made in backyard leaf composter|
|Leaves||Insulator; high in minerals; may mat or blow away if not shredded or composted; many are acidic (rhododendron, pine needles, oak, beech - best used on acid-loving plants like tomatoes and strawberries)||Cools soil in summer; winter cover (apply after dormancy, remove or till into soil in the spring); (see above box on leaf mould)||Commonly available|
|Composted manure||Should be thoroughly composted; usually combined with bedding straw||Winter protection for bulbs and perennials; enriches soil in spring and summer||Garden centres and nurseries|
|Newspaper (black/white pages only)||Can be shredded or left flat; excellent weed suppressant||Vegetable beds in pathways; creating new garden beds||Commonly available|
|Pine needles||Excellent weed suppressant; slow to decompose; retains moisture; acidic||Acid-loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, blueberries; should be composted first for best use of acidic properties||Pine trees; landscapers|
|Plastic film (black)||Weed suppressant; can boost yields; allows oxygen through; punch holes to allow water through; can cause roots to concentrate near surface; not compostable or biodegradable||Heat loving vegetables and fruits; between row of fruit trees||Garden centres; catalogues and nurseries|
|Stone (pebbles or crushed)||Ornamental; retains warmth; hinders cultivation||Around ornamentals; pathways; permanent plantings||Garden centres; nurseries|
Protecting plants from unwanted insects by using other plants is the natural, chemical-free way to remove harmful insects from your garden. And you won't be eliminating all the beneficial bugs.
Research indicates that plants produce excessive foliage and can afford some pruning. Natural pruning by insects can improve yields and increase the vitamin content of fruit in certain plants.
A certain relationship exists between plants, and between insects and plants. Companion planting is the usual name given to the practice of planting according to these relationships, but actually four different practices are involved.
Mixed: Planting several different plants together, as in nature, so that insects are confused by the multitude of "smells" and have more difficulty finding the plant they prefer to eat and lay their eggs on.
Repellent: Certain plants such as marigolds, mints and garlic are offensive to some insects, and will deter them when planted near other plants.
Companion: Combinations of plantings produce crops that grow better and are healthier because of their proximity.
Trap: Lure plants are located near a plant you want protected. Insects attack the lure plants and can then be hand-picked and destroyed.
Learn to identify insects and diseases so you'll be able to detect problems early.
Encourage natural enemies such as toads, birds, ladybugs and praying mantis, who will eat harmful bugs.
Rotate crops to avoid a build-up of pests in any one area.
Helpful Herbs and Flowers
When planning your next garden, experiment with these forms of natural plant protection. No doubt you will also come up with your own safe and effective combinations.
|Basil||Tomato||Improves growth and flavour; repels flies and mosquitoes.|
|Dill||Tomato||Traps the tomato hornworm.|
|Garlic||Roses, Raspberries||Improves growth and health; deters Japanese beetle.|
|Lamb's Quarter||Throughout garden,near corn.||Trap for aphids.|
|Marigolds(smelly types like Mexican, African and French)||Throughout garden.||Discourages Mexican beetles, nematodes and other insects.|
|Mint||Cabbage, Tomato||Improves health, flavour; deters white cabbage moth, ants, aphids and flea beetles.|
|Nasturtium||Radish, Cabbage,Cucurbits and under fruit trees.||Trap for aphids. Deters squash bugs, whitefly, striped pumpkin beetles and Colorado potato bug.|
|Wormwood||In perennial border.||Deters small animals and flea beetle and slugs.|
Plants that naturally repel insects
|Ant||mint, tansy, pennyroyal|
|Aphids||mint, garlic, chives, coriander, anise|
|Bean leaf beetle||potato, onion, turnip|
|Codling moth||common oleander|
|Colorado potato bug||green beans, coriander, nasturtium|
|Cucumber beetle||radish, tansy|
|Flea beetle||garlic, onion, mint|
|Japanese beetle||garlic, larkspur, tansy, rue geranium|
|Leaf hopper||geranium, petunia|
|Mexican bean beetle||potato, onion, garlic, radish, petunia, marigolds|
|Slugs||prostrate rosemary, wormwood|
|Spider mites||onion, garlic, cloves, chives|
|Squash bug||radish, marigolds, tansy, nasturtium|
|Tomato hornworm||marigolds, sage, borage|
Adapted from materials produced by the Canadian Organic Growers, Toronto.
What is it?
What is it?
What can and cannot be composted?
Spread a little good... compost!
What is it?
Information about composting with worms.
The Why, What and How to successful composting.
Where to get free compost in Toronto, Why and how to use it.
Solutions to potential problems:
Are there pests in your neighbourhood? You may not even be aware of any small critters like raccoons, mice, rats, insects, etc., until you start to compost. Previously unnoticed pests may now be looking for a new source of food or a cozy bed in your compost pile. The best solution is prevention. If you compost correctly, your pile will be less attractive to pests. This factsheet outlines some general tips and specific methods of protecting your compost pile. Note: Composting will not encourage pest populations to move into your area, though a neglected pile may attract local populations and make them more visible to you.
Do not compost any meats, fish, bones, oils, fatty foods or pet manures. Animals may be attracted by the smell and the decomposition process slows down as these materials take longer to break down.
Place materials that are high in carbon (e.g. dry leaves or dead plants) at the bottom of the pile and along the inside walls of your compost bin. This will provide good airflow, drainage and odour control. Ensure that each layer remains slightly damp to discourage nesting. A well maintained bin will not attract as many pests.
Cover any exposed food with a layer of dry leaves or a 2.5-centimetre (1-inch) layer of soil or finished compost or bury food waste into the centre of the pile. This reduces smells which may attract pests. Micro-organisms present in the soil help to speed up the composting process.
Turn or poke holes in the pile every week or two. A regularly "disturbed" pile helps deter pests.
Take measures to build a "hot" compost pile. This is an active compost pile in which the internal temperatures become very hot. Maintaining a "hot" pile takes some extra effort, but it is an effective way to ward off unwanted pests and you'll have finished compost in a shorter period of time.
Harvest finished compost at the bottom of the bin every three to six months. This will discourage pests from nesting in the warm finished compost.
If possible, choose a location for your compost bin that has good drainage and at least partial sunlight. This improves the efficiency of your pile. Place your bin at least 20 to 30 cm (8 to 12 in) from fences, decks and buildings to discourage pests and to improve air flow.
Pests will be less likely to discover your compost if they are not already attracted by other sources. It's a good idea to put your plastic garbage bags into a container at the curb, or to not put out your garbage bags until the morning of collection. Keep leaves and other materials for your pile in a secure garbage can near the composter. Piles of yard waste can provide a safe, warm place for pests to hide or nest. Food waste to be added to the compost pile should be kept in a sealed container away from the bin. Note: Sources of fresh water and bird seed also attract some pests.
Flies, wasps, hornets and bees can be discouraged from invading your compost bin by covering any exposed food, with a 2.5-cm (1-in) layer of soil or by burying fresh food into the pile. Add air to your compost pile by turning it or create air channels by plunging a broomstick handle into the pile. Keep the pile slightly damp so that it will heat up. Higher temperatures and moisture will kill any fly larvae and discourage bees, wasps and hornets from nesting. If a nest has already been set up in your bin, soak the pile completely with a hose and spray nozzle and leave it damp until the colony vacates the pile. The pile can also be dismantled after freeze-up in the fall.
Rodents and other small animals
Pest-proofing your bin, as described below, will prevent any animal from tunneling up through the bottom, climbing into the bin from the sides or top, or chewing holes in the bin.
Use hardware cloth to line the bottom and outside walls of your bin. For mice, 0.5 cm (1/4 in), 16 gauge should be used; 1 cm (1/2 in), 20 gauge for keeping out larger pests. (Hardware cloth is galvanized wire mesh, available at most home improvement/hardware stores. Chicken wire is not a good protection against unwanted visitors.)
Get a tight-fitting lid or modify your existing lid by adding hinges and a latch. Or stretch a bungy cord or chain across the lid and fasten it to the sides of the bin. A heavy brick or rock will also keep the lid secure. Note: Bungy cords can be dangerous if children are assisting in the maintenance of the composter.
Pile rocks or bricks around the outside bottom edge of your bin as a good temporary measure against some burrowing animals.
Environmentally safe animal repellents can be found in hardware and gardening stores or pest control companies.
For information on ultrasonic sound devices used to repel rodents and other wildlife, contact Health Canada, Pest Management at 1-800-267-6315. You can also ask about the effectiveness of a product you own or want to purchase, and get recommendations.
If rodent problems persist, or in the unlikely event that rodents are nesting in your bin, call the local public health division or an authorized pest control company. If a small animal gets trapped in your bin, call an animal control company or the Humane Society.
Don't give up!
There are many ways to compost. You will need to find the method that works best for you. If outdoor composting proves too difficult, try composting indoors with worms. It's easy and produces great compost.
The process of decomposition in your compost pile is a very complex, but natural one. Living organisms digest the organic matter in the pile. If you are just trying composting for the first time, you may be surprised by the community of small organisms that take up residence in your compost pile. These organisms, which include many insects, bugs, slugs, bacteria and fungi, form what is called a food web.
In the food web, each organism has a job to do in turning your organic waste into dark, crumbly finished compost. Many have the job of eating other organisms and turning them into compost. In your finished compost, at least one-third of the volume is made up of the dead, decomposed bodies of soil organisms.
The food web is divided into three levels as shown on the attached diagram. The roles of the organisms, at each stage of the decomposition process, are explained below.
Who lives in the food web?
The most productive members of your compost pile's food web are the bacteria. Every piece of organic matter you place in the pile is covered with varying amounts of bacteria as they digest the organic material and break it down into its basic elements. While digesting, they are also reproducing at an incredible rate. One gram of bacteria can become about 450 grams of bacteria in only three hours. There are many kinds of specialized bacteria operating in different temperature ranges.
Psychrophilic bacteria work best in temperatures of about 13 degrees C (55 degrees F), but can stay on the job even in below freezing conditions. This is why you will notice your compost pile sinking in the winter; these bacteria are busy breaking down organic matter. As these cooler bacteria go to work, their activity actually begins to heat up the pile. The increased temperature creates the ideal conditions for the next type of bacteria to arrive.
Mesophilic bacteria work best in temperatures of about 21 degrees C to 32 degrees C (70 degrees F to 90 degrees F), but can stay on the job in even hotter conditions. The activity of mesophilic bacteria can heat the pile up to even greater temperatures of 43 degrees C (110 degrees F). Thermophilic bacteria become active when the temperatures reach a range of 40 degrees to 93 degrees C (104 degrees F to 200 degrees F). If you notice your compost pile steaming in the morning or on a frosty day, it's because these bacteria are busy at work, decomposing your organic waste. These bacteria generally last for up to five days, and then the pile begins to cool.
Actinomycetes go to work next. These fine, gray-coloured strands are a cross between the bacteria and fungi that often excrete vitamins and antibiotics as they consume the organic waste in your pile.
Molds and fungi get down to business along with the actinomycetes. They are closely followed by the members of the food web that shock many a new composter. These are small mites, springtails (little insects that hop like fleas), beetles, centipedes, sow (pill) bugs, flies, slugs and earwigs. The slugs, sow bugs, earwigs and beetles all excrete "castings" that are very dark and fine, like those of earthworms.
Worms also arrive at this stage. Unlike the other small and "scary" creatures, worms are generally welcomed by new composters. As a result of the worm's well-deserved reputation for being excellent decomposers, many people think that it's a great idea to add extra worms to their compost pile. This is unnecessary. Let the worms find their own way into the pile, when the conditions are right. They prefer the pile when it is cooler, so adding worms could lead to their quick demise in the hot, steamy pile.
Maintaining the balance
All members of the compost food web are very beneficial to your compost pile and should be left alone to do their work. They need each other to survive. If you remove any of the member organisms, through the use of insecticides, you will interfere with their natural cycle and contaminate your compost. While the organisms are busy recovering from the imbalance created in their food web, your compost pile will be decomposing much slower. On the other hand, if you are willing to closely monitor the temperature in your compost pile, you can speed up the process by gathering excess sow bugs, earwigs and slugs and adding them to your pile after it has cooled.
Composters often fear that the hungry organisms in the compost pile may escape to the garden or lawn and eat everything in sight. Fortunately, this is not the case. The compost pile is their preferred environment. In fact, other organisms from the garden or lawn may leave their homes and go into the compost pile! However, if you are concerned about the food web in your compost pile "breaking out", try the following tips:
- Create a barrier by spreading a line of wood ash (not barbecue ash) or crushed egg shells around your compost pile. This will keep the activity contained within the pile.
- A similar, but more lethal technique, is to sink small margarine containers full of stale beer, molasses and water, or yeast and water in the ground around the compost pile. Unsuspecting slugs, sow bugs and earwigs will be attracted to the liquid, crawl inside and drown.
Don't get bugged!
Some bugs and insects may overpopulate parts of your garden. If this is the case, try the following solutions.
If you discover earwigs on your plants, simply spray the offending ones with a solution of one tablespoon of liquid soap detergent combined with a litre of water. This will kill the earwigs that are doing damage and spare the helpful bugs that are eating dead organic material. Earwigs can also be trapped in rolled up newspaper, old hose or corrugated cardboard and shaken into the compost pile.
Flies, particularly fruit flies, can be greatly reduced in the compost pile by burying all food waste in the centre of the pile and covering the top of the pile with a 2.5-centimetre (1-inch) layer of soil, dry leaves or finished compost. Ensure that the pile is not too damp or too acidic by maintaining a balance of materials.
If you are interested in learning more about the compost food web, the following books will help:
- Tiny Game Hunting, H.D. Klein and A.M. Wenner
- Bugs, Slugs and Other Thugs, R.H. Massingham Hart
- Ecological Gardening, M. Harris
- How to Get Your Lawn and Garden Off Drugs, C. Rubin (available from Harbour Publishing)
- The Bug Book, H. and J. Philbrick (available from Garden Way Publishing)
- Rodale's Colour Handbook of Garden Insects (available from Rodale Press)
Composting is a great way to reduce your household waste by up to one third, while producing a rich soil conditioner for your garden, lawn and houseplants. For those who have never tried to compost, or are just beginning, odour is a common concern. A hot and healthy compost pile will not create offensive odours. To prevent odours from developing, here are a few simple things to remember.
Do not add large, unchopped items to the pile.
Compostable items that are about 2.5 centimetre (1 inch) or smaller in size will break down very quickly as they offer more surface area for the decomposer organisms to work on.
Make sure each layer of material is no more than 10 to 15 cm (4 to 6 inches) thick.
A compost pile consists of layers of browns (carbon sources), such as finished compost, soil or dried leaves, and greens (nitrogen sources), such as food waste, fresh yard waste etc... These materials must be alternated and added in equal layers.
A little soil goes a long way...
When adding food waste to the pile, bury it in the centre and cover with a 2.5-cm (1-in) layer of finished compost, soil or dried leaves. This prevents odours and adds helpful microbes to the pile.
Water is important, but ...
The proper amount of moisture in the pile is very important in the control of odour. Too much moisture can create a rotten egg smell. Keep the whole pile as damp as a well-wrung sponge.
NEVER add meat, bones, dairy products, fats or oils to your compost pile.
These materials will smell as they decompose and may also attract unwanted insect and animal pests.
Make sure there is a lot of air in the pile.
A compost pile that does not have enough air is called anaerobic (without air). To prevent an anaerobic compost pile, poke holes through it with a broom or rake handle, a stick or a commercial aerating tool, or turn it with a garden fork.
You can also create an airstack that will regularly allow air into your pile. Place a bundle of sticks, about 15 cm (6 in) in diameter (tied with rope), or a piece of plastic pipe punctured with small air holes, in the centre of your compost pile.
An ammonia smell means that too much nitrogen-rich material has been added to the pile. Materials that are high in nitrogen content include kitchen food waste and green grass clippings. These are called green materials and they must be balanced with carbon-rich or brown materials to properly decompose in a compost pile. Materials high in carbon include brown leaves, dried grass clippings, dried garden plants and straw.
Always add equal volumes of green and brown materials. Turn and mix the materials in the compost pile; dampen to the wetness of a well-wrung sponge; and top with a 2.5-cm (1-in) layer of soil. The soil will trap any remaining ammonia and turn it back into nitrogen.
Compost piles that are too wet, or too compacted, will become anaerobic and give off a rotten egg smell. To solve this problem, turn the pile with a garden fork or shovel to allow more air into the pile. Mix in dry leaves or a similar dry material to absorb moisture. Repeat this step for a few days. Then place a 2.5-cm (1-in) layer of soil on top of the pile to introduce more decomposer organisms to the pile and reduce the odour.
Don't stop composting just because it's cold outside. While the decomposition process slows down, your compost pile will keep working all winter long. Just follow the tips in this factsheet. Next spring you'll be glad you made the effort.
To prepare for winter, empty out as much material as possible from your composter. Dig unfinished compost into garden beds under a layer of soil. Finished compost can be stored in a dry place for use during spring planting. You should also return about 1/5 of your finished compost to your bin, mixing it with new organic materials, to help speed up the decomposition process when spring arrives.
Restart your bin by placing a 10 to 15-centimetre (4 to 6-inch) layer of plant stalks or brush at the bottom. Add a layer, up to 15 cm (6 in), of leaves (browns) and then an equal amount of food waste (greens). Top with 2.5 cm (1 in) of soil or finished compost. Repeat by layering browns, then greens, then soil. Always bury greens, especially food waste, in the top centre of the pile under a layer of soil, compost or leaves.
Over the winter months you will be generating more food waste than yard waste. In order to maintain a proper brown:green (carbon:nitrogen) balance, you will need a constant source of carbon to mix with the food waste. Fall leaves are an ideal choice.
Collect fall leaves for use in your composter during the winter. If possible, shred the leaves using a lawnmower or trimmer. Smaller pieces decompose faster and take up less space. Store your leaves in a closed garbage can or similar container. Note: Leaves stored in bags can become a nesting site for rodents. And, if leaves are left outside, make sure they are protected from wind, rain and snow.
Maintaining a hot pile
Keep layering the materials in your bin throughout the winter, alternating equal amounts of greens and browns, then a 2.5-cm (1-in) layer of soil. This will ensure that you're creating a "hot pile" which will keep the decomposition process going. While the helpful decomposer bacteria in your pile continue to work in temperatures as low as -15 degrees C, you can create additional heat by insulating your bin.
Don't worry if the outer edges of your pile are freezing. The decomposition process is still working in the centre of your pile and the freezing process will actually help break down organics, allowing the material to decompose more rapidly when the warm spring weather arrives.
Turning the pile
Turning the pile in winter may release too much heat. For this reason, it's important that you alternate layers of materials and maintain the necessary ratio of browns (carbon) and greens (nitrogen). If the pile is too wet once the warmer weather arrives, you should turn the pile once or twice and blend in more leaves or other carbon sources, or a small amount of soil or finished compost that you've saved from the fall. (See our Materials to Compost factsheet.)
Storing food waste
If you would like to cut your trips to the composter back to once every few weeks, store your food waste indoors in a container and cover it with coffee grounds, soil, coconut husk fibre (Cocofibre), or preservative- and paint-free sawdust. Or consider moving your composter closer to the house if you don't want to walk through the snow.
Composting with worms is a great winter alternative, either indoors, or outdoors using an insulated bin. All you need is a bin, red worms and bedding.