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How to compost in small spaces
For most people, this is more of a mental hurdle than a practical challenge.
Editor’s Note: I’m writing to you today from a rural area of Mexico, where the internet is not strong enough to support basic cell service, let alone photo uploads. My apologies, we’ll be back to fully-visual editioning next week.
My friend Katie recently asked me about composting in small spaces. “I don’t have a yard,” she lamented. “What do I do?” She’s not alone. Many of my readers tell me they live vicariously through my posts, using them to fantasize about having enough outdoor space to compost, while (in fact) (like so many of us) living in cities, cramped into small apartments. I once lived there, too.
In my experience, the obstacles to small-space composting are more spiritual than practical. Composting indoors costs little money, takes few materials, and can be done with relative ease, but would-be practioners are dogged by some familiar concerns: odors, animals, and a general aversion to “gross”-ness. The difference for the small-space dweller is one of proximity. If you’re worried about a compost stinking, it makes a big difference if you’re imagining that compost being fifty feet from your backdoor versus under your kitchen sink.
It’s at times like these, though, that I like to remind people that your regular trash can already stinks. Compost is far more likely to offer you a solution to this problem than be its cause, and it’s far more likely to smell good— like rich, damp earth—than bad, particularly if you provide it with a minimum of care. If you’re balking at the perception of effort, still, all I can do is point out that your garbage already represents an exertion (how often are your schlepping bags to the basement for disposal by your building?), and that switching to compost might actually reduce your overall workload.
Katie, though, is a badass from Wisconsin who splits her time between defending democracy and adventuring outdoors, and I don’t think she gives one shake about effort, odors, or overall gross-ness. She, perhaps like you, simply wants to know how to go about it.
The first thing to do is assess your space. You and your future compost will mutually benefit from finding an out-of-the-way place for storage. Look to kitchen cabinets, closet shelves, balconies (!), and even beneath the bed. Anywhere you can find where you can stash a bag or a small plastic bucket. Then, assess yourself. How much food waste are you making? Do you live alone? Part of a couple? Do you have kids? The more food waste you make, the more space you’ll want to make for your indoor compost. You might even take this opportunity to get rid of some stuff you forgot that you owned.
Now, settle on your set up.
You can buy a bokashi system, or a worm bucket. However, if you’re like me, your preference will be the simple one-bag system that is outlined in the Rodale Book of Composting. The one-bag set up is squisher than a pre-built system, and thus more easily stored (smush it under the sink or into a closet), and it can also be rigged from existing materials, and therefore costs basically nothing.
To build one, you’ll need to start with a medium-sized plastic bag. If the bag is not self-sealing, you’ll need a twist-tie. You will also need some kind of garden dirt, soil, or finished compost—about half as much as you have food scraps. Try to find this from a local garden or a friend’s house versus buying a commercial product from a store. You could, in a pinch, even collect decaying, fallen leaves from some trees at the park. The goal here, after all, is to introduce a healthy set of active and happy microorganisms, so that we can kickstart decomposition. For the final touch, you’ll need about a tablespoon of alalfa meal or pellets. You can order this direct from a garden center, or you can find it at basically any pet store, where it’s routinely labeled as “rabbit food.” (Ha ha ha.)
To create your compost, chop your food scraps up into tiny, little pieces. Add them to the plastic bag. Add the garden soil or finished compost. If you collected leaves, add them—but make sure to crunch them up beforehand. Add your tablespoon of alfafa. Add one ounce of tap water. Mix everything together. You can do this quite easily simply by closing the bag and giving it a good shake. Then, close your bag (but leave it plumped with a bit of air! your compost wants that oxygen), and stash it. From here, you’ll want to gently squeeze and roll it once a day or so, in order to “mix” things. You’ll also want to open the bag once or twice to week to “air it out” (aka introduce additional oxygen), which will allow for ongoing decomposition. Within four-to-six weeks, you’ll have usable compost.
When I use this system, I usually get two bags going at once. That way, one bag is always “curing” (e.g. nothing new is being added, which allows the compost to reach a complete state of decomposition), and one bag is always active (e.g. able to have new material added to it). Similar to any other compost, you’ll want to add things in proportion. For every cup of food scraps you add, toss in another tablespoon of alfafa. If things in the bag are drying out, add a little bit of water. If they’re too wet, add more alfafa. You will not need to add more soil, as this ingredient was about introducing an initial microbe population and less about ongoing maintenance.
Most of all, trust yourself to figure it out.
Maintenance of a one-bag compost, for the most part, can be incorporated into your existing routine. Things will break down faster if they’re added in smaller bits, so break stuff up as you add it. You can do this quite easily as part of usual meal preparation. Slice up your zucchini ends and your kale stems as you go. Add them to the bag when you’re done. This will make it easier for your compost to digest them, and they’ll break down more quickly.
What to do with your finished compost?
Your houseplants will love some. Add it as a top-dressing, meaning you can sprinkle about 1/4 inch across the surface of your potted plant. (It’s a general rule-of-thumb to keep the compost away from direct contact with any stems, though.) If you’re potting or re-potting, you can also mix your compost directly into the soil, at a ratio of about 1:4 with regular potting soil. My personal favorite use of a small-space arrangement, though, is good ol’ fashioned guerrilla composting. Pocket your finished compost in an old bag, perhaps the one you got with last night’s delivery, and shepherd it quietly into the streets. Find a crevice in the pavement or a median filled with dusty soil. Lay your compost down. Say nothing. Walk away quickly. If you have a mind, bring a mixture of native wildflower seed. Spread it with your compost.
PS. If you are determined not to use your limited apartment space to compost, you can store scraps in your freezer and haul them to a community compost hub (there are often drop-off stations at farmers’ markets) on your own schedule.
PS #2: As a reminder, all my posts on the basics of composting are collected in this “101” resource. They can be useful for the very beginner.