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How to make compost in your apartment

The Green Mama’s guide to backyard compost piles, composters, tumblers, vermicompost (worm bins), and electric-assist composters

I love composting. I know, organic decay isn’t a turn on for everyone, but it does have the potential, and for good reason. Organic items — things you can compost and turn into soil — make up 40 per cent of the garbage in most homes, and are the largest single category (unless you are a parent, and then disposable diapers might win as the largest single item.) 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 used in the city. They range from requiring a lot of space to those that you can do in your apartment.

Backyard pile:

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 edging 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 five 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, which helps 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 attracted mice, but our closed-bottom bin never had any problems (and we put it to the test in our  Chicago neighborhood).


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