Compost for the garden: how savvy urban gardeners feed their gardens

Compost for the Garden (for Urban Gardeners)

If I lived on a larger property, I’d have a proper compost pile, or rather piles. Compost needs to be turned (stirred) periodically, and the way to do that with a mass of it, is to shovel it from one bin to another. My parents have a large lot in a semi-rural area, and my father’s compost bin system is actually  several bins made from shipping pallets that are wired together. He makes great compost—he’s even been featured in the local paper for it, and it works well for his garden.


But in my small urban garden I only have space for one compost bin made from pallets. Because of it only being one bin, it’s a hassle to turn it, and I really don’t get around to doing it nearly often enough, which means it takes a long time for everything to break down and make useable compost. Additionally, that single bin isn’t nearly even close to big enough to handle all of the trimmings and prunings from my lot line to lot line to lot line sized garden. And the cubic yard sized “compost bins” usually on offer at community environmental days? Eh, they might be big enough to manage our kitchen scraps but they wouldn’t come close to handling the compostable material our garden produces.

This is the pile of yard waste I currently have waiting for Friday’s city yard waste pickup. Once I prune my roses there’ll probably be another pile 2/3rds as big.


It’s fair to say that I am a frequent and plentiful contributor to the city’s yard waste program and I think it’s a great program—from March until November a truck comes by every two weeks and hauls away all of my and my neighbour’s garden scraps. This is where the compost cycle ends for most city residents, but for those of us with gardens and a willingness to do a little bit of work, the compost created out of that yard waste is ours for the hauling. I know that some municipalities charge residents for compost, but that’s not how it works in Toronto–as long as you are willing to shovel it, it’s yours (within reason.)


The city has several waste transfer stations and there are set hours on Saturday mornings where residents can go and pick up compost from April until October.

This was a busy Saturday morning last year. The piles of compost were almost gone. Thankfully, once the city worker cleared out the vehicles in this picture, a few more backhoes full of compost were brought around for the eagerly waiting gardeners.


The compost is available to anyone if you bring your own shovel and containers.

I’ve been making this trek since 2003 and I’ve learned by watching, and experience, that sturdy garden trugs*, pails or old recycling bins are great for hauling compost. But all of those take up storage space when you’re not using them. Aside from a few garden trugs that I use for many garden tasks throughout the season, my preferred compost collection receptacles are my collection of IKEA bags. They’re an excellent size, they stay open, they’re economical, they last about 12 years, and when not in use they all get scrunched down into one bag that hangs on a hook near the ceiling in my potting shed.


Over the years at the transfer station I’ve seen people use all sorts of methods to get compost home. Some people even lay tarps inside their trunks and then shovel directly into the trunk! I think that’s a lot of potentially messy work to shovel it out again. I do have a very handy fitted liner  (mine is similar to this one*, but one like this one* is what I’d buy if I was starting over) that I lay out in the back of our car, but I’d never shovel directly onto it.


We have a Honda Fit and the back seats flip down flat, so there’s a lot of hauling room for compost. In fact, I could fit a lot more compost in the Fit than I do, but I’m very conscious of how much weight my car can bear (which isn’t much–they didn’t build Fits for hauling heavy stuff, just bulky stuff.) Free compost isn’t a good deal if you break your car in the process!


The photo on the left is with the car loaded with compost, the one on the right with the car empty (and yup, you can see that I still have my winter snow tires on–switching them out is another spring task yet to be done!) The compost we picked up on Saturday was very wet from two days of rain and extremely heavy. When it’s drier I can haul more home. But on Saturday I didn’t feel comfortable with more than you see in this photo. And even then, I drive a bit slower than usual over the bumpy parts (which is every road between the transfer station and our house—there’s major construction going on for a new rapid transit line.)


So that’s how I, and my husband, spent part of our Saturday morning (I hear that some couples go for brunch on Saturdays–haha!) because I know that it’s important to replenish the soil in my garden (if you need a refresher on why, read this post.) It’s a bit of effort but if you want to have an urban garden you have to figure out how to do things on a scale that works with the size of your property.



I mentioned to a friend of mine that I had gone to pick up compost and she said “Yeah, I thought about doing that. But I can’t be bothered, I’d rather just buy a bag for $1 at [the big box] store.” If you have the means, then by all means, buying compost is just fine, and might be more convenient. But I’ve never seen compost for sale for $1—that’s the price for topsoil. Compost is usually triple that or more. And topsoil is absolutely the wrong thing to put on your garden (or top dress your lawn with.) Topsoil is essentially clay. It’s very different from compost. Make sure you know what you’re buying.


*Disclosure: some of the links on this page are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.



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