Composting for Small Spaces

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You’re tired of taking out trash bag after trash bag filled with stinky fruit and vegetable scraps. It feels like a waste (pun intended) to throw away so many food trimmings when you know you could be composting them instead. But you live in a small dwelling, share a home with several others, or have no private outdoor space, and composting seems like an impossible feat. Though it may feel
unattainable, composting with limited space simply requires some creativity!

Down in the Dirt

Composting is a deliberate, accelerated decomposition process of organic materials, such as grass clippings and food scraps, which are transformed into a rich fertilizer. Mixing compost with soil gives optimal nutritional balance to plants. So, by combining sources of nitrogen (“greens,” such as fruit peelings) and sources of carbon (“browns,” such as dead leaves) gathered from your environment, you can make your very own garden gold.

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Here are just a few of the benefits of composting, even in small spaces:

  • Composting saves food scraps from going to the landfill. When this organic matter sits in a landfill, it ferments, releasing potent methane gas into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
  • It encourages the natural nutrient and microbial balance of soil, reducing the need for pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers.
  • When you compost, you cut down on household trash — meaning fewer trash bags used and less stinky waste!
  • Composting gives a sense of connection to the environment, and satisfaction from doing your part to reduce carbon emissions and maintain soil integrity.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that up to 30 percent of our household trash is compostable, and another study found that the average American throws away about 1 pound of food scraps every day. Just think of how much nutrient-rich soil you could create with that in your very own compost!

Composter Comparisons

Another one of the wonderful realities about composting is that the process can easily be scaled up or down, depending on your available space. It doesn’t require a yard, a big garage, or lots of equipment, which makes it accessible to those with small spaces. Additionally, you can choose from several different composting techniques depending on which makes sense for your home and lifestyle.

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Compost Tumbler

These are condensed versions of traditional composting piles that don’t require backbreaking work to aerate. (In other words, no pitchforks necessary!) Compost tumblers are essentially sealed drums in which you put your brown and green materials to mix. These tumblers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, are pest-resistant, and are generally easy to maintain. Elevated off the ground, these composters are designed to roll easily, and they also trap heat, which helps quicken the decomposition process.

Pros: Tidy, pest-resistant, efficient.
Cons: Can be expensive, extra-large, or hard to turn when filled.
Approximate cost: Compost tumblers start around $100.
Maintenance: Balance moisture; rotate every time you add new material; drain off compost “tea.”

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If you’re not put off by the idea of wiggly things, vermicomposting is an efficient system that takes advantage of one of nature’s best recyclers: worms. In a contained system, worms (typically redworms, or “red wigglers”) eat raw fruit and vegetable scraps, turning them into rich compost that you can add directly to gardens, houseplants, and more. Once you set up your vermicomposting system, you’ll have to feed your worms every 2 to 3 days and keep them away from temperature extremes. Most worm bins are small enough to fit into an apartment, and can certainly be a conversation starter!

Pros: Efficient, more fun and interactive than other kinds of composting.
Cons: Longer to set up, can’t include certain food materials, can’t stay outside during winter.
Approximate cost: Worm bin kits start around $100.
Maintenance: Routinely feed and care for living creatures; change the bedding every couple of weeks; chop waste into smaller parts. 

Electric Composter

A relatively new presence on the composting market, these compact, electric units are designed to be used indoors. Electric composters, also known as “automatic composters,” use heat and agitation to quickly break down kitchen scraps within a tidy, sealed container. You can tuck your composter under the sink, or even put it on your countertop. These units can handle fruits and vegetables, along with meat, dairy, grains, and shells, turning all of your dinner leftovers into a uniform mulch in as little as a few hours. Most electric composters don’t require added water or carbon browns.

Pros: Very compact, tidy, high-tech, sterile.
Cons: Expensive, small capacity, sometimes noisy, higher learning curve for users.
Approximate cost: Most electric composters run between $250 and $400.
Maintenance: Replace filters regularly; wash out bucket between each cycle.

A solar digester can be placed in a small yard, where it will use the sun to break down kitchen scraps while reducing compost odors. (Photo by Courtesy of Abundant Earth).

Solar Composter/Digester

One little-known composting method includes a heavy-duty cone with an aerated basket underneath, which you bury in your yard. The aerated basket is open to the natural soil, reducing odors and providing access for beneficial organisms and worms. The top cone collects solar heat and circulates air to encourage growth of helpful bacteria. Technically a digester and not a composter, this method is meant to break down kitchen scraps, such as produce, meat, bread, and shells, without the need for added carbon sources. If you want an easy place to put your leftovers, and don’t care about getting soil additive in return, a digester may be a good choice for you.

Pros: Unobtrusive; low-maintenance; can handle a wide variety of items, including pet waste.
Cons: Requires at least some yard space where you can dig a hole; expensive; doesn’t result in soil additive.
Approximate cost: Brand name Green Cone Composter starts around $200.
Maintenance: Bottom basket should be removed and cleaned every 2 to 3 years.

If you choose to use a digester and still want compost, check to see if your local area offers access to municipal composting. If you don’t have this service, search nearby for urban composting or compost pickup services.

Anaerobic Method

This simple, small-scale anaerobic (without oxygen) composting technique, also known as “bokashi,” uses an inoculated medium to promote fast fermentation of most types of kitchen waste, including meat and dairy products. In a bucket with a tight-fitting lid and a spigot at the bottom, mix together the medium and your food scraps until the bucket is full. Then, seal it up, set it aside for 10 to 14 days, and, at the end, you’ll have a fermented “pre-compost” material, which you can then bury outside or add to your garden soil.

Pros: Very little space required, minimal maintenance, can include meat and dairy products, fast system.
Cons: Final product still must be mixed with soil to be complete, can produce odors.
Approximate cost: Pre-made inoculation kits start around $40.
Maintenance: Must drain off the compost “tea” every couple of days.

‘What’s That Smell?’

One of the biggest factors that keeps people from investing in an at-home composting system is the potential for smells. None of us want to be that person with a stinky pile of rotting vegetables at their house. But unpleasant odors shouldn’t be expected in your compost pile; a bad smell is actually one of the red flags that your compost setup isn’t working right. There are a handful of common pitfalls for new composters, including smelly material, so keep an eye out for these red flags as you establish your composting system.

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Odor Matters: If your compost is giving off a strong, sour, rotting smell, then you likely have too much nitrogen or not enough oxygen. This can happen if you overload your compost with too many fruit and vegetable scraps and not enough carbon sources. This also happens if your pile becomes too wet. Add more browns, such as paper, straw, dry leaves, peat moss, and pine needles, to thoroughly aerate your pile.

Not breaking down: If your compost looks the same as it did a month or two ago, you may not have the right conditions for breaking down organic matter. Ideally, your compost system should be warm, about as damp as a wrung-out sponge, and have an approximate 2-to-1 ratio of browns to greens. If compost just isn’t forming, you likely need to address moisture or temperature levels.

Pests: If you notice that your compost is attracting pests, such as insects or rodents, there are a few things you can do. First, keep your compost covered or sealed. Insects are especially drawn to exposed fruit and vegetable scraps, so make sure you cover those with brown materials (if not using a sealed container system). Rodents and scavenger animals are attracted to meats and fatty food items, so either tighten down your container, or leave these items out of your compost for the time being. (This tip is only for certain types of composters, since not every system can properly process meat or dairy products.)

No matter what your housing situation looks like, there are a handful of wonderful options that can help you cut down on your carbon footprint, reduce your household trash, and create nutrient-rich soil. Get started now, and have your compost setup established by summer.

What to Do with Fertilizer

If you live in a small space, you may find yourself with a pile of compost but no way to use it. Perhaps you don’t have enough plants to use up all your compost, or you just don’t have any plants due to weather or lack of space. Consider these strategies to divert your excess materials while still embracing the small- space composting lifestyle.

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  • If compost isn’t used immediately, store it in a covered pile on the ground (if you have outside space) or in a covered bin or sealed bag for later use. Just make sure it stays moistened and stirred! Compost can usually store until the next season.
  • If you know your compost won’t be used for a while, consider giving it away. Ask co-workers, friends, and family members if they’d like to use some compost for their plants. It may spark some good conversations!
  • Local gardens may also accept healthy compost from your pile. Do some research in your area to see if any businesses are accepting.
  • Additionally, if you have excess compost tea, it can be stored in a sealed, dark container for 4 to 6 days.

Melani Schweder is a certified health coach, herbalist, and writer. Her journey with chronic illness ignited her passion for fresh food, wild medicine, and nontoxic living. Follow her at A Brighter Wild, or on Instagram and Facebook @ABrighterWild.