My close friend recently moved to an older, one-story apartment building. Off the back decks, each unit enjoys the tiniest strip of dirt adjacent to a clunky air-conditioning unit. Since he wants to garden, he quickly realized he would need to learn to love container gardening. What wasn’t so clear, however, is how he would compost kitchen scraps in order to use the finished compost in the deck garden when there was such little space to work with. He shared these tips with me on composting options that are going to work for his urban setup:
1. Free Compost Garbage Bin
As it turned out, it didn’t take a whole lot to begin composting on that tiny strip of grass. My neighbor had a rusty, old 32-gallon garbage can. The bottom was beginning to corrode away, which made it easy to poke some holes for drainage. With a hand trowel I tilled up a bit of the soil to encourage earthworms to enter my “compost bin,” upturned this trash can and Wa-la! I had an instant compost bin open to the soil and secure from pests.
To make the bin more secure from raccoons that could potentially overturn your garbage can, you can run stakes through a few of the metal holes you punched in the bottom of the can into the ground.
Making compost is easy! And there are so many ways to do it (see How to Make Compost). The basic principle is the same no matter the type of bin you have. You want to incorporate both carbon-rich “brown” wastes — such as straw, paper towels or dried leaves — and some nitrogen-rich “green wastes,” which I produce plenty of while I’m cooking in the form of kitchen scraps. I spent an hour raking up leaves around my apartment building, and that’s all it took to fulfill my brown end of the deal for several months.
2. Compost Tumblers
If I’d had the cash and a little more deck space, I could have put a compost tumbler right out my back door. Compost tumblers come in four different varieties: hand-cranked drum tumblers, center-axle drums, base rolling drums and roll-around spheres (this tumbler guide will help you determine the best option for you).
No matter the style, compost tumblers work pretty much the same way: a large metal or plastic drum features a crank at one end and is supported by legs, lifting the drum off the ground. Load your food and garden waste in the top and then crank away every few days to mix your compost.
3. Shipping Pallet Large Compost Box
I live in a two-person household, so either the tumbler or garbage can method is plenty big enough to handle our kitchen and garden scraps. But what if you have a larger area to work with and many more mouths producing many more scraps? You will need a larger composter. There is no need to dish out a lot of money at your local lumberyard for building materials. Create a compost box using scrap wood or even shipping pallets. Shipping pallets are lying around my town everywhere I look, including behind the grocery store. Ask your store’s manager if you can reclaim a few.
For a single bin, simply stand up pallets on their edges and nail them together in a box formation. (See an illustration of this method here. This method also allows for a two-bin system. One bin will be “cooking,” while a matured bin will hold useable compost ready for the garden. You will use five pallets for this method.
Getting air into the system is very important for bacterial processes that turn your scraps into black gold. David Camp provides a step-by-step design for a compost box that incorporates aeration pipes in How to Build a Labor-Saving Compost Bin.
4. Indoor Worm Bin
“Yes, this is all great,” you say, “if I only had a yard!” If you do not have any outdoor space to build or buy a compost bin, you can still compost indoors using worms. Worm bin composting is also known as vermicomposting. There is no need to buy a specialized bin. Simply make your own by drilling about 30 holes around all sides of a 10- to 15-gallon plastic storage bin to let in oxygen for the worms.
Fill the bin half full with damp newspaper and/or unwaxed cardboard, torn into small pieces. Add 1 pint of gritty soil (worms have gizzards, like chickens, to help them “chew” their food), 1 pint of compost, and 1 cup of plain cornmeal. Mix and dampen this mixture well. Add your worms and secure the lid. Keep the bin in a cool place, such as a basement, or underneath your bed, where temperatures range between 55 and 75 degrees.
When adding food scraps, bury them in different parts of the bin. Cover them with 1 inch of bedding. This Step-by-Step Guide to Vermicomposting will get you going in full force. When your wrigglers are churning out quality fertilizer, you won’t be as creeped out by them.
Good luck in your composting adventures!
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