Smart Composting Tips for Urban Gardeners & Apartment Dwellers

(Image via Brettf)

With the economy in dire straits and many people losing their jobs, everyone’s looking for ways to save money and become more self-sufficient. Growing your own food – even if you live in an apartment or urban setting – is a low-cost and easy first step towards saving a lot of money. Composting is another great activity that can help both your gardening and the planet. But doing it in a small space can be tricky. Here’s how to compost even in a small apartment.

The Container

(Images via Planet Natural, Always Brilliant and Arbico Organics)

First, the right container is important. You don’t want to operate a large, standard compost system in a small space, not only because square footage is at a premium but because of cost. A small unit is best. There are plenty of great options, including countertop models that are attractive and usually under $30. If you’re really concerned about odor, invest in one with a charcoal filter, such as the one pictured above, left. There are plenty of stylish choices, such as the attractive ceramic style shown above, middle, and it, too, comes with a filter so you don’t have to worry about smell. Whatever you do, don’t DIY – no tupperwares or old pots. You’ll have unwanted odor and infestation before you know what’s happened.

What to Compost

(Image via matsuyuki)

You can compost a lot more than you may realize. Any food scraps and leftovers you would normally throw away or put in the garbage disposal can be composted, from pizza crusts to takeout noodles to the popcorn bits at the bottom of the bag.

- Pasta, beans, rice, bread, cereal

- Vegetables, fruits, nuts, herbs, leaves, flowers

- Egg shells, orange rinds, grapefruit halves, nut shells, seed hulls

Anything of organic origin is fine, from pits and cores to seeds and skins to liquids and moldy cheese. But you can also compost some unusual things like latex condoms, small paper scraps and receipts, matches, hair, hamster cage sawdust, old beer, the contents of your vacuum cleaner, and other organic but inedible items. Just make sure it’s something that has a reasonable chance of breaking down.

What not to Compost

(Image via Yomi955)

Besides bacon, which is obviously not allowed (and why would you let bacon go to waste?), don’t ever compost the following:

- anything that can’t break down reasonably fast in a small container, like old magazines, t-shirts, or (obviously) plastic.

- anything with toxic chemicals, like detergent, paint, or hair dye (you should be using eco-friendly versions of these products anyway, for your own health and the benefit of the planet).

- meat and animal byproducts other than milk or cheese. Butter, being fat, takes a long time to break down, and meat will just attract rodents and insect infestation. The breakdown process going on in your compost bucket can also be hampered by the introduction of meat. Avoid fish, bones, chicken skin – anything that you wouldn’t want your cat getting into probably should not go in the compost. If you’re tossing soup that has chicken broth in it, that’s OK to compost, but no bones. There are plenty of other uses for chicken bones, some good, some bad.

Tips for Composting

(Image via Lachlan Hardy)

As great as it is getting rid of food scraps, you’ll need more than that for successful composting. Nitrogen is necessary to break down the foods into more than a sludge of smelly scariness, and nitrogen comes from grass clippings and dead leaves. The easiest thing to do is add in a half-inch layer of dead, relatively dry matter for every two or three inches of food compost. This usually means about once a week you’ll need to add in some of mother nature’s sheddings. Pine needles are fine, too. The key is balance – don’t think of this as a slimy food free for all. You want to keep it damp but not wet. It’s as easy as grabbing some dead leaves from the sidewalk out front and tossing them in. Newspaper works, too.

If you’re adding in things like paper, shred it! Otherwise it takes forever to break down.

Coffee grounds help create an acidic environment, and worms love them.

Add in the occasional layer of carbon-containing organic matter to balance the nitrogen – leaves are great.

Avoid ashes – they make the mixture alkaline, which means it will take a lot longer to turn into compost.

Don’t forget worms!

Keep your compost near an area with decent ventilation, but out of the sun. Compost will be warm anyway because of the breakdown mechanism going on, so you don’t want it getting too hot.

Don’t freak out if you see some bugs in your compost. They’re helping. What you don’t want are cockroaches and potato bugs or flies and other large scavenger insects. But worms and all those tiny, hard-working soil critters are OK.

What to Do with Your Compost

(Image via timsamoff)

You’ve followed the tips for what to compost, you’ve patiently waited for about 45 days, you’ve kept the mixture appropriately moist – but not too much – and now you’re seeing some decidedly awesome compost develop in your compost bucket. What to do with it? If you’re not gardening yourself, give it away! Compost is gardening’s more nutrient-rich treasure; think of it like a vitamin bomb for your little shoots and seeds. Someone will surely appreciate all your composting efforts, even if it’s not your pals. Try Freecycle or Craigslist – you might be surprised by all the urban gardeners out there! If you are gardening yourself, you’ll only need about an inch-thick layer of compost for plants (you don’t want to smother them). If it’s still winter when you’re planting, give the seeds a little more for comfort, but make sure there is still plenty of ventilation. Don’t pack the compost in, or you’ll stifle the plants.

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