In Growing Possibilities: Stories from the Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge, 10C Shared Space’s Urban Sustainability Activator Vicky Huang shares the incredible initiatives led by local champions of urban agriculture and funded through Harvest Impact, a project of 10C and Our Food Future’s Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge

For our fifth installment, Vicky visits Karen Houle of the Compost Queens of the Royal City, to learn about their incredible compost system constructed Huron Street Community Garden, which is revolutionizing compost and compost education in Guelph.

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“Sheppie, come here!” The first face that greeted me wasn’t Karen Houle, the founder of the Compost Queens of the Royal City, but her dog Sheppie. Karen then peeked out from behind her impressive compost system, a 12-foot-tall, elaborate, wooden structure that she poured her heart into building with, and for the community! Let me share her story below.

Karen on the top of the Compost "Cathedral".
Karen proudly standing on the top of the Compost System at Huron Street Community Garden.

The story of the Compost Queens of the Royal City’s Compost System Rebuild:

The Compost System Rebuild at the Huron Street Community Garden - what Karen also calls the "Cadillac" of community composting - is not simply a compost system: it’s a structure that has immense meaning, history, and value behind it.

To introduce her story, let’s first learn about the motivation behind the compost system. Karen has been involved with urban gardening in the City of Guelph for over 10 years, and has repeatedly noticed and documented how inadequate the composting systems at different community gardens often were. From urban farms to backyard gardens, from starting her “Food from Home = Food for Home” project and the Art of Soil Collective, most of the “compost systems” were simply piles of waste, which might be narrowly productive (soil-wise) for large farms - but in community gardens, doesn’t work. 

Karen putting up the "Black Energy" poem.
Karen putting up "Black Energy", a poem that was one of her initial inspirations. It resonated deeply with her and told her that her values, philosophies, work, experiences, and passions were all intertwined, and that she was on the right path. It sparked a new insight for more direct, grassroots action and continued learning while teaching.

“[The piles are] treated more as garbage than compost. If you do that in community gardens, it’s not going to decompose into usable compost quick enough, meaning that the community gardeners never close the loop of making soil of what they’re doing and replenishing their own soil with the soil that they're making.” - Karen Houle, founder of the Compost Queens of the Royal City

The way Karen sees and describes composting is incredibly beautiful and inspiring. She explained how composting is a way for people who are growing food, to not only see that they’re part of a cycle, but to be responsible for their part in that cycle. With this spectacular compost structure at Huron Street Community Garden, she wanted to explicitly make this cycle and system visible for any passersby. 

Contaminated compost at the University of Guelph campus.
Contaminated compost at the University of Guelph campus, one of the drivers for Karen's passion to increase compost education.

“Community-level composting that is done well is a huge key to diverting organic waste and producing soil.” - Karen Houle

Composting also allows gardeners to make soil (or SOM - soil organic matter) from their own plants instead of buying soil, which is not only expensive but not as “right” for the garden as ones generated from its own plants. Karen described that for people who can’t afford high-quality soil, they are oftentimes trying to grow food in nutrient-deficient soil, which limits their productivity and yield, causing a negative cycle. 

“I wanted to show that gardening doesn’t need to cost much if we’re saving seed, sharing plants, and composting.” - Karen Houle

The Compost System Rebuild & GWUAC

Building this compost system has been a dream of Karen's for years, so it quite literally, is a dream come true. After receiving the "Shovel and Fork" GWUAC funding and with the financial support to realize her vision, choosing a site for the Compost System Rebuild was the next step. The Two Rivers Huron Street Community Garden was a location that caught Karen’s attention, not only because she lived nearby, but also because it was a prime example of a garden lacking a decent composting system. The “compost” pile at the garden was at least 10 years old, and was full with old pallets, plastic broken chairs, garbage, and dog poop (which is not acceptable in compost!). Even though it had been “composting” for years, the gardeners were not able to get any finished compost and soil from the pile, which was an enormous waste of potential. With these challenges in mind, Karen went on to design her majestic compost structure, which we will explore in the next section.

"Honestly, this is a dream come true...this project happened because of the funding." - Karen Houle

A still from the "Compost Makeover / Rebuild" documentary.
A still from the Compost Queens of the Royal City / "Compost Makeover" documentary.

The $2000 funding from the Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge actually wasn’t put fully towards the building materials for constructing the Compost System Rebuild - most of the funding was used to create a beautiful documentary about the process, philosophy, and story of the Compost Queens, this inspiring structure, and the rebuild journey. Filmed and edited by Tobin J. Stewart, a local freelance filmmaker, photographer and composer, the 2-and-a-half-minute documentary showcases the amazing community that was brought together to bring this project to life. There were community members who came and donated materials, helped saw, drill, and build the structure; there was a drumming circle that provided music and rhythm to the atmosphere; and Karen ensured that the community build was indeed a community build. The documentary can be found at the top of the page, or here.

Because most of the funding went to creating a video for the project, Karen tried to obtain most of the building materials through donations. After all, community engagement, sharing and donations lie at the heart of these community rebuild projects in the first place.

 

The Compost System: an overview

The "Compost Cathedral" at the Huron Street Community Garden.
The "Cadillac" of Compost at the Huron Street Community Garden.

In a word, the Compost System at Huron Street Community Garden is magnificent. Let me break down the parts of Karen’s Compost System:

1. The Upper “Die & Dry” Deck

The upper “Die & Dry” deck is a main element that Karen designed in order to overcome numerous composting challenges. First, the deck platform is lifted off the ground, so that not only will any seeds dry out in the sun, but also so that any weeds (i.e. bindweed, a very aggressive weed) can also dry out. The platform also needed to be big enough to receive a large volume of green matter. This “pre-compost” platform ensures that any seeds and weeds can dry out before going into the compost, making a big difference and overcoming a major challenge faced by many community garden compost systems. 

Models of the Compost System Rebuilds.
Models of the Compost System Rebuilds from the "How-To" Guide.

2. Three bins along a slope

The three bins in Karen’s compost system are also designed carefully to maximize efficiency and productivity of the compost system. Karen notes that these bins are best placed on a slope, so that gravity can be utilized to flip the compost, and turn them into the next bin. Having these bins on a slope, as well as having removable wooden slats separating the bins, makes for a much easier job turning the compost - another limitation many gardeners face in compost systems.

“Lots of people can’t turn compost due to accessibility reasons. Making that physically possible is the first thing needed for all community gardeners to get involved.” - Karen Houle

With such thoughtful design and construction, the Compost Queens' compost system can turn organic matter into quality, rich soil in just a few months. She described that she can turn the bins over to the next one every 3 weeks, which is a world of difference compared to the oil compost pile that sat in the garden, unproductive for 10 years.

Karen putting compost ingredients into "Bin A".
Karen putting compost ingredients into "Bin A".

Karen built and designed her compost system with the purpose for it to spread to as many community gardens as possible. She has thus created a guide detailing all the materials needed, design aspects, and important construction diagrams and notes for anyone interested in (re)building a compost system for their community garden. With her original drawings and illustrations, I have helped Karen make a digital “How To” guide for her Compost System Rebuild. Check it out!

3. The shovel stanchion

The shovel stanchion

Even though the shovel stanchion isn't necessarily a functional part of the compost system design, it holds a lot of meaning for Karen. 

"The inspiration for the shovel stanchion came from the work of incredible, contemporary Métis artist, Christi Belcourt. She has a painting called "So Much Depends Upon Who Holds the Shovel" (2008). She is one of my all-time heroes and teachers." - Karen Houle

The piece deeply struck Karen, who realized that indeed, healing the soil depending upon the right intention - "holding the shovel". She put it up high on her Compost System Rebuild because she wanted to share that intention with the rest of the community, and because the intention and work to heal the soil needed the whole community of hands to hold.

Composting Education with the Compost Queens

Karen didn’t build this compost system to simply act as a composting system: it invites a world of education as well. Being an educator comes natural to Karen, who has educated community members in urban agriculture through her “Food from Home = Food for Home” project and who’s currently teaching Creative Writing (Poetry) and Philosophy at the University of Guelph. 

“The education piece is huge.” - Karen Houle

The Grades 7-8 students at Sacred Heart Catholic School learning about compost.
The Grades 7-8 students at Sacred Heart Catholic School learning about compost through the Foodsters program.

These compost systems are a way for Karen to fully immerse the people she talks to, to be able to experience the compost system first-hand. In addition to how composting works, Karen also wants to drive home the importance of compost and the mindset of composting as a way to heal the soil as responsible gardeners. She explained how Huron Street Garden is a contaminated site, like some other locations around the city where gardening needs to be within raised beds to ensure the foods grown are safe to eat. “Gardening in urban centres bears the legacy of treating the Earth like a dumping ground, especially in an industrial area like the Ward,” Karen explained. However, she did not express them in a pessimistic way; she went on to outline ways to remediate the soil, to heal it by working with it, putting organic matter, mycelia and good bacteria back into the soil.

“I think it’s our responsibility. It’s an ethical thing to do, to think about how to be with the soil to help it recover from what it’s faced in the past.” - Karen Houle

It was beautiful the way she described her philosophy of her work, and how healing the soil and thinking of composting as a gift to the Earth aligns with not only what she believes in, but maybe as a way to honour the history of the land and the first nations as well. 

"Lets heal the soil" sign beside the Compost System Rebuild, which is a perfect reminder of Karen's guiding philosophy.
"Lets heal the soil" sign beside the Compost System Rebuild, which is a perfect reminder of Karen's guiding philosophy.

“I want to encourage people to come here with “gifts for the soil” - it’s not just about us getting soil for our plants, but we need to heal the soil as well. This is the way of being very loving to the soil and participating in an act of healing the soil instead of an extractive mindset. Come with one of the things on this list that the compost would be happy to receive and think about what the Earth needs.”

Because the composting process is so important to its productivity, here are a few basic rules to follow:

1. Brown and Green

Karen repeatedly mentions the importance of putting “brown and green” together into Bin A, the first bin of the compost. “For example, when you put some fresh leaves or veggies, just put in some dry straw too.” She mentions how she always has things lying around the compost to put in, so that people can always mix in their contribution with brown or green. "It's a basic rule for good compost," she explains. Good to know!

Compost ingredients in "Bin A".
Some dog fur, newspaper, and plants that Karen put into "Bin A". Notice the mixture of 'brown' and 'green' in the bin.

2. Right inputs and ingredients

Karen often describes a compost heap like a compost “cake”, with a mix of ingredients that allow it to “bake” beautifully. She has a list of these ingredients in her “How To” guide, and different ingredients together is key to compost to keep “baking”.

Speaking of compost "cakes", below is a fun video by Karen and friends introducing the concept of such a cake!

 

3. Add water

When I attended Karen’s “How to bake an excellent Compost Cake” workshop she led with local urban agriculture champion, Omelnisaa Giddam, the dynamic duo iterated the importance of adding water as an ingredient in the compost. In the Huron Street Garden compost, rainwater is available but even if compost ingredients were to be dumped into Bin A with water (for example, you can save the water used to wash veggies for it!), it would mix perfectly into the compost cake, and allow it to decompose properly.

Karen and Omelnisaa at the Community Gardens Festival.
Karen and Omelnisaa at the Community Gardens Festival, showing the "Compost Cake".

4. Turn the compost

Compost needs turning and mixing to fully develop into soil. With Karen’s design of the bins down a slope, she makes turning the compost easier.

With the proper methodology, Karen proudly explained how she was able to make soil at a highly accelerated rate. Her finished product was full of worms and does not smell.

“People are always amazed at how it doesn’t smell. It’s the smell of the Earth.” - Karen Houle

Compost worms
Karen holds the precious compost worms, so happy in the soil.

The impact of the Compost Queens' Compost System

The Compost System Rebuild attracts people of all ages to come learn about composting. From the community rebuild to its community educational engagements, the structure has impacted over 200 community members, and is on route to inspire many more. From the gardeners themselves to the construction workers around the garden, from intentional workshops (15 and counting!) to signage for passersby, there is education happening every day.

"I’ll come meet anyone here anytime, even if it’s just one person." - Karen Houle

The Foodsters program by Yorklands Green Hub that works with students of Sacred Heart Catholic School is a prime example of community members using the space as an educational tool. Every week, the Grade 7-8 students learn concepts for how to make better food choices for the planet. 

Karen empties the garbage bags from the students' classroom to demonstrate all the compostable items inside that should have gone into a compost system.
Karen empties the garbage bags from the students' classroom to demonstrate all the compostable items inside that should have gone into a compost system (Left). The organic matter that Karen showed the students, such as apple cores, orange peels, banana peels and paper towels from their lunches (Right).

“We started with tree identification and now it has spread. The students love it...they'd come out in the rain.” - Norah Chaloner, Chair of Board of Directors and Community Liaison at Yorklands Green Hub, and a Foodsters Learning Center Volunteer

The Grades 7-8 students at Sacred Heart Catholic School learning about compost.
The Grades 7-8 students at Sacred Heart Catholic School learning about compost.

There have also been classes from the University of Guelph that have come to look at the compost system as well. One example is the "Bee Land" first-year seminar class that Prof. Christina Kingsbury teaches at the University of Guelph. After the visit, the students reflected about their experience and what they wrote demonstrated the profound impact that the visit meant to them.

"When I first saw the garden I was a little weirded out as it was based around a sense of messiness...although I first found it strange, I soon realized the importance behind this, the messiness helps to promote genuine life as this is how unaltered ecosystems really are....the soil displayed at the community garden was literally humming with life. It was made up of tons of organic matter and living organisms such as worms." - Hashir Ahmad, "Bee Land" student

What Hashir noticed reflects the cultural tendency to favour 'orderly' over 'messy', which oftentimes makes passersby overlook, at first glance, the "intricate perfect beauty of a permaculture-compost system for growing" (Karen Houle). It has been supported by literature, for example Ian Parker's "Inorganic: Reporter at Large" (New Yorker, November 15th, 2021) that "an unsprayed farm....looks as scrappy and weed-infested as it should.... every organic farm looks like a disaster." (p. 50). 

University of Guelph students visiting the Compost System Rebuild.
First-year University of Guelph students visiting the Compost System Rebuild.

Next Steps for the Compost Queens of the Royal City

Karen’s project doesn’t stop with the Huron Street Community Garden Compost System. She hopes to bring her Compost System Rebuilds to all and any community gardens that need it, as well as to bring compost education to all schools.

"If another community garden wants to do it, I am here to support and mentor it." - Karen Houle

A two-bin system at Westmount site.
Karen with a two-bin compost system at Westmount, a "Food from Home = Food for Home" project site.

Karen wants to engage the City of Guelph as well. She would love to invite Samantha Dupre, the City's Community Stewardship Coordinator, and other City staff to come visit this beautiful community compost system and be inspired too. She wants to communicate the need for such systems across the city, and ask support and endorsement from the City to expand them, fund them, and build them up. She wants to challenge the City to take it on, because if a volunteer alongside a bunch of community members can do this, the City can certainly do this too. Even if the City funds two Compost System Rebuilds per year, the impact would be huge.

 

My takeaways

Visiting this incredible composting system and listening to Karen talk about her vision was absolutely inspirational for me. Her story was so beautiful and so important, and I felt the responsibility of my storytelling of her project to really communicate the impact, meaning, and necessity of her work.

Karen telling Vicky Huang her story.
Karen telling me her story at the Compost System Rebuild.

Karen really poured her heart into building this, and I could really tell how much this meant to her, and what it could mean to the City of Guelph and beyond.

I am so humbled, so honoured, and so grateful to be telling Karen's story, and I know that this Compost System Rebuild is only the start to a bigger movement of compost education and soil regeneration.

Thank you, Karen, for sharing your heart and work with us!

Stay tuned for the next blog post in this series of Guelph’s newly-innovated urban agriculture projects! (Spoiler: next week, I share the story of the empowering Youth Leadership Project, "Putting Down Shoots" by Immigrant Services Guelph-Wellington!)

summary of the GWUAC Compost System Rebuild project.
A summary of the GWUAC Compost System Rebuild project by the Compost Queens of the Royal City.

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This is the fifth installment within the "Growing Possibilities: Stories from the Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge" series. All installments of this series can be found here. The fourth installment was on the Goldie Park Rainwater Harvesting Bench.

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