Posted by: Kenn Hermann | April 14, 2006

Composting in the City Made Simple

Stop! Don’t flush those vegetable and fruit scraps down the garbage disposal or toss them into the garbage. Take just a few extra minutes to care for the life-cycle of this material by composting it with simple tools in easy steps. There is nothing difficult, expensive, time-consuming, hazardous, messy (well, okay, but just a little bit), or smelly about composting in the city. In many communities it is already illegal to send organic matter to the landfill — for very good reason. There is no need to ‘waste’ the nutrients locked in organic scraps by overloading the sewage treatment system or sealing them up in plastic bags where they will sit for many decades in a landfill when they can be used right in your yard.

It’s spring and my compost heap is coming to life again. While it has been percolating very slowly over the winter, it is now beginning to heat up. And the worms are back — hundreds and hundreds of them working in unison with microbes to complete their magic of decomposition. What a lovely sight and pleasing smell: a pile once containing grass clippings, egg shells, mulched leaves, broccoli stalks, orange peels, coffee grounds, apple cores, and old rice is oozing together into a soon-to-be-completed rich humus to be shoveled onto my wife’s flower beds. All of this activity is taking place right next to my garage in a neat space just blocks from downtown.

In this post I want to give you two different options for composting in the city, one very simple and the other a bit more complex.

Simple
Basic Tools

  • old blender
  • 1 gallon plastic pail
  • 3 – 5 gallon bucket

Basic Steps

  • cut all organic scraps (no animal or dairy products) into chunks and throw them into the gallon pail; if you can’t get to them today, put the lid on until tomorrow.
  • fill up your blender with 1/3 water.
  • toss in a handful of scraps, put the cover on, and blend.
    (creating a slurry with the blender speeds up decomposition time dramatically)

  • keep tossing in scraps and water as needed and blending until full.
  • if you have a lot of slurry, pour it into the larger bucket.
  • take your slurry outside, pour it on flower beds or under trees and shrubs, and work it into the soil with shovel, rake, or hoe. Microbes in the soil and worms will break this down in no time. This is simply a modern version of the common way of disposing of organic matter in the “old days.”

That’s it. That’s all there is to the ‘simple’ method of composting. And it just took you 5 minutes to care for your part of creation.

More Complex
Basic Equipment

  • basic tools from above
  • 2 6′ x 2′ lengths of hardware cloth (This looks like fencing that you get at the hardware store — remember those?); you can also use other dimensions or any other kind of open-weave sturdy fencing. Open-weave fencing is a simple and inexpensive way to provide essential aeration for your compost and an easy way to keep organic matter in a heap.
  • bend the hardware cloth into a circle and fasten with plastic ties or any other fastener; you should now have two bins standing side-by-side with some space between them. There is no need, in my experience, for expensive composting drums, cylinders, or bins. The key to fast decomposition is using a blender.
  • shovel in a ‘heap’ of soil in the middle, perhaps 1′ deep to start; this provides the microbes to start to work on your compost.
  • some suggest a platform for the bin, but I have never found that necessary. Besides, it’s easier for the worms to enter the pile from the bottom.
  • a garden fork to turn over the pile at regular intervals.

That’s all of the equipment you will need; $50 should be more than enough to get started.

The Process

  • Decomposition requires four basic ingredients: air, water, decomposers (microbes and worms), and organic matter. The organic matter is ‘composed’ of carbon and nitrogen, the basic building blocks of life. (Remember the carbon and nitrogen cycles from high school chemistry?)
  • Without going into the chemistry of composting, your pile needs a ratio of 25-30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. This works out great since typical vegetable waste has exactly this ratio. It might be easier to remember that you need a ratio of 25-30 parts green and moist per 1 part brown and dry. But no need for precise measurements. Your compost heap will tell you what it is missing. If it starts to smell, it needs more brown and dry material (e.g. sawdust, mulched leaves); if it is not working at all, it needs more green and moist (e.g. grass clippings, horse manure) — or, perhaps, some water.
  • Contrary to what many people think, racoons, possums, rats and other urban critters will not bother your compost at all, especially since you use a blender to break down any potential food source for them.
  • Your pile also needs air and moisture. Digging in and turning over the pile with your fork every 4-5 days will break apart the mixture and provide essential air. Also, be sure the pile is moist. If it is not exposed to rain, you may need to spray it occasionally with a water hose. The water in your slurry provides a good bit of the essential water the pile needs.
  • Be sure that you keep your compost in a ‘heap,’ higher in the middle, to keep it working properly.
  • When your pile reaches the top of the cylinder, it is time to let it completely finish (keep turning it) and start another pile in the neighboring cylinder, just like you started your first pile.
  • Your compost is ready when it looks nice and black (a few undigested leaves won’t matter). It will likely happen that you will have finished humus at the bottom of the pile before the top is finished. That’s fine. Just take out the finished and let the rest continue decomposing. The cycle of life is complete: from dust to dust. In the summer you can get finished compost in a matter of weeks.
  • When finished roll your wheelbarrow over, pull up the wire bin, and load in the humus to spread on flower beds or in shrubs.
  • You will be surprised by how much organic matter is actually needed to be transformed into finished humus. The ratio approaches 50:1.
  • In the fall I mulch all of my fallen leaves and store them in piles next to my compost heap. Every so often I add a few forkfulls as the brown and dry to my pile. By the time the next fall rolls around all of the mulched leaves have been turned into humus.
  • Don’t stop adding compost during the fall and winter. Even if it freezes, it will come back to life the next spring.
  • There are some who fuss over their compost like a small infant, but that is not necessary. Even someone without a green thumb (me!) can work a compost pile.

That’s all there is to carry out this ‘complex’ composting process. Simple. Now, which of these two systems will fit best into your stewardship responsibilities in the city?

I would love to hear tips from other urban composters.

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Responses

  1. … and if you don’t have a garden? That’s an honest question. I think I read somewhere about wormeries being a possibility. We have a small balcony with a few potted plants but not much need for lots of compost. Anyway, I’m really enjoying the blog. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Rudi. Glad you are enjoying the blog. Are there flower beds or trees around you? That would be one place to spread your slurry from the blender. Yes, there are wormeries, but that is getting a bit complicated, even for me.


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