Composting 101: Demystifying Compost for Urban & Apartment Dwellers
The Green Mama’s guide to backyard compost piles, composters, tumblers, vermicompost (worm bins), and electric-assist composters
I love composting. I know, organic decays isn’t a turn-on for everyone, but it does have the potential; and for good reason. Organic items—things you could compost and turn into soil— make up 40% of the garbage in most homes, the largest single item. (Unless you are a parent, where disposable diapers make up about half of a home’s waste stream.) If done right, a good deal or ALL of your kitchen waste can be turned into soil.
Composting made simple
What is composting? The basic process is simple: organic waste (think kitchen scraps, plant material, manure, etc) biodegrades into fertilizer. It is an aerobic process (requires oxygen) and is assisted by various microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, and in some cases worms. The process varies a bit from system to system, from leaves slowly turning into soil on the forest floor to my compostable diapers being turned into fertilizer in 24 hours in my electric-assist composter, The Red Dragon.
I've tried every kind of composting: from traditional piles to flashy worm bins (vermicompost). I love compost. Here are some basic models that I have done in the city. (They range from requiring the most space to those that you can do in your apartment.)
Description When I lived in Cleveland we had enough of a backyard to do an actual compost pile. It wasn’t glamorous: just a pile of grass clippings, flower trimmings, and leaves that we left to biodegrade behind our little shed. I’ve seen very nice backyard piles that have wooden structures or similar to hold them in place or even accelerate the process. We didn’t get fancy with it.
What can you feed it? Because it wasn’t fancy and we didn’t want to attract rodents, we only added yard scraps and some raw vegetables and flowers. (Wildlife can be attracted to backyard piles with yummy stuff in it because it is really only compost-hot at the core.)
How long does it take? This method is slow. (I never got any of the actual compost from our pile but over 5 years it also kept at a pretty steady size so something must have been happening somewhere deep inside).
Value This method requires almost no effort, costs nothing, and is way better than shoveling your yard waste into an unmarked bag, wearing a disguise, and trying to dump it into a neighbours yard.
Sexy score Variable. The nonchalant, do nothingness of this method is highly sexy but ONLY if you live in the country. If you are doing this in the city you are attracting rats and that is just gross.
Backyard closed bins:
Description These bins come in a variety of sizes and shapes and levels of “closed-ness.” Most of these sit on the ground and have lids that close securely and a hatch of some sort near the bottom where you get the compost out. They are usually dark in color. They help the compost get hotter. They require periodic turning (like using a giant fork to stir a huge vegetable stew). For cities I recommend the rodent-proof six sided options. We had an open-bottom one that got mice, but our closed-bottom bin never had any problems (and we put it to the test in our Chicago neighborhood).
What can you feed it? These bins can handle most kitchen scraps. Pits, pineapple stems, and even eggshells take a really long time (years) to break down. Similarly, most yard waste will fill the bin too quickly without the right balance. Meat, grease and dairy products aren’t recommended either. I would stretch the limits and put some dairy and grease but not meat. My bins also liked leaves. Lots of leaves make these bins happy.
How long does it take? These are faster than backyard piles, but in my experience still nearly glacially slow. Granted the more attention you give it (turning, adding the right mix of elements, etc.) the hotter it will get and the faster it will work. I plan for a year to get a backyard compost bin really working and then it takes about a year to harvest your first results. My last backyard bin I harvested almost 1/2 of a bin worth of compost 3 times in 4 years (and it had lots of recognizable items like eggshells and pits).
Value These bins can be come-by pretty inexpensively, around $100 or far less if you live in a city that subsidizes them (many do). They are easy and you can immediately see a reduction in your household garbage bag size. You won’t get a lot of usable compost material, but they are easy and cheap and need little maintenance. If you have the space, get one!
Sexy score Low. Big, bulky, and slow—it’s like a dim-witted second cousin. Nice to have around, but zero bling.
Description: These bins are a type of backyard closed bin but are often held off the ground. They often look like a plastic barrel held on a stand. And they roll! (So you don’t have to stir—stirring is a pain.) They are supposed to significantly speed up the composting process, but this hasn’t happened yet for us.
What can you feed it? The same as above.
How long does it take? We are still in our first year and aren’t doing much to hurry along the process, but so far nothing has happened.
Value. These bins are more expensive than a regular closed bin—ours cost about $300. If you have a yard, I would skip it or make one yourself. The great benefit of this system is that it does fine outside and on a patio. That is where we use ours—on our backyard condo patio. Like the other systems, the work best if regularly fed leaves or other nitrogen
Sexy score. Medium low. It’s big, bulky and slow like the bins above, but it rolls. Rolling gives it a bit more pizzazz.
NOTE: How to make your backyard compost pile or bin work faster? Find that perfect balance of brown material (high in carbon) and green material (high in nitrogen), turn it a lot, monitor the moisture and temperature, and try compost accelerator.
Vermicompost: Worm bins
Description: The two basic models are one-tiered and multi-layered. It is just what you would think: the one-tiered is usually some form of plastic box with holes in it. You can make it yourself and I have. The multi-layered system is like a worm low-rise. I have seen as few as two and as many as five “stories.” Worm bins use worms, usually red wigglers, to process the organic waste and turn it into fertilizer. Vermicomposting is popular right now.
What can you feed it? Like most compost bins you can feed it most food scraps including fruit peels, left-overs, vegetables. Worms also love newspaper, egg-cartons, and junk mail. Worms can eat truly compostable diapers. Worms can also eat meat and dairy products, but they aren’t recommended until you have a flourishing worm community (as they can start to smell). Also, worms are a bit finicky and usually won’t eat onions, garlic, some hard candy and salty junk foods will be rejected. As well, papaya and pineapple contain natural digestive enzymes and can kill your worms. Also, your egg shells need to be blended quite fine (worms love the grit) otherwise they remain in tact for a long time.
How long does it take? A healthy worm bin can be fast! It usually takes just a few months (or less) to really get your bin going and then every couple of months or so you can harvest your “black gold” as the worm castings are called by enthusiasts. Worms can generally eat their weight in food waste and can potentially eat more than double their own weight each day!
Value. You can make a simple worm bin yourself or buy a more complicated one. Thus you can spend anywhere from nothing to about $300. To get started you will want a pound of red wigglers and there are website where you can order them as well as local stores that will supply. Or, ask a friend to give you some! They multiply fast! Worms can be a bit moody and if you, for instance, leave them outside all winter when you live in Chicago, they will petulantly die on you. It can also be a bad idea to leave them in your basement and forget to check on them for six months—they don’t like that one bit either.
Sexy score Very high. It’s fast, shapely, and moody—what’s not to like?
Electric assist composting & The Red Dragon
Description: These bins are small, enclosed appliances that use a bit of electricity to add heat and automatically turn the organic waste in the bin. This makes composting fast, nearly odourless, and easy. I have a Red Dragon and mine is a cute, red machine about the size of a bar fridge.
What can you feed it? You can feed these composters just about anything. Mine takes all the usual kitchen scraps plus the often forbidden items like meat, dairy, and greasy foods. As well, the Red Dragon is supposedly able to handle dog waste. I haven’t tried that yet, but I have been feeding it a small amount of compostable diapers that have only been wetted (no poop). So far, so good. These bins don’t do well with things that might stop-up the motor like branches, avocado pits, or strings.
How long does it take? 24 hours or less. I’m not kidding. It is like a miracle. It is the first time I have actually used a composter and could truly look forward to the final results (rich fertilizer).
Value. At approximately $300 to $900, electric assist compost bins are relatively expensive compared to other compost bins, but cheap compared to other appliances. I have followed these bins from a distance for the last few years and I had heard a lot of complaints, they just never seemed to live up to their promise. The Red Dragon seems to be the exception. At the higher end of the price spectrum, it makes me believe that you get what you pay for. These machines are probably over-engineered to our advantage. They are the easiest composting a person could ever do and they create fertilizer so fast as to seem miraculous. A system that truly works indoors—mine is in our kitchen nook, right next to the table.
Sexy score Very, very high (at least for The Red Dragon). It is little, red, and hot!
This article was written by Manda Aufochs Gillespie aka The Green Mama. The majority of photos are courtesy of Shutterstock, including: compost writing by Tanis Saucier, compost pile by jadimages, compost bin by kropic1, and worms by schankz.