Health,  Sustainability

A City Girl’s Guide To Composting

I always thought of myself as a true Midwestern girl—descended from farmers, with grit and dirt in my blood.

Then I went to work on an organic farm.

According to the real farmers, I was a city girl who didn’t know the first thing about dirt. These people grew food in the desert, made their own worm tea (a natural fertilizer that smells just as lovely as it sounds), and used composting toilets. That’s right: one of my jobs was to empty the poop buckets into the compost pile. It was really special. By the end of the summer, I had no complaints about returning to “city life” with flush toilets and supermarket veggies.

So let’s just start out by saying that I am not an extremist when it comes to sustainability. I’m a city girl. I like to be comfortable, I get tired easily, and I don’t like to touch poop.

But I still want to be as eco-friendly as I can. So this year, I started composting in my backyard (no poop involved this time).

Why Compost?

Composting is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and help the environment. The EPA estimates that 20-30% of what we throw away could be composted, preventing it from sitting in a landfill and releasing harmful methane gas. Compost is also a wonderful natural fertilizer for gardens. It increases yields and reduces pests and disease in plants.

For me, composting was a way of intentionally slowing down and honoring nature’s process. I believe that when we take care of nature, nature takes care of us, and I’ve seen this reflected in my health.

I also believe we need to teach our children skills to deal with environmental challenges that will only increase in their lifetimes. Composting is an easy way to include children in lowering the family carbon footprint. Kids can tear up paper and cardboard, take out food scraps, water the pile, and help aerate it.

How to Compost

To start composting, you need a few basic things: green material, brown material, water, oxygen, and a place to put it all.

How to Compost in a Small Space

Green Material: These are your nitrogen-rich materials. They include raw fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags, and grass clippings. This should make up about 1/4-1/2 of your pile. Greens help the pile break down (they attract the microbes) and maintain the right heat. I collect mine in an old Tupperware container by the sink (see above). Some people use special compost bins or store it in the fridge or freezer to prevent smells. I personally have never had a problem with stinky compost, but we take ours out several times a week.

Brown Material: These are your carbon-rich materials. They include paper, cardboard, leaves, straw, dryer lint, hair, and vacuum waste. This should make up about 1/2-3/4 of your pile. We keep our “brown box” (see above) by our recycling bin, which reminds us to add paper and cardboard. I also keep a bag of dry leaves in the garage and add some to the compost every once in a while. Different brown materials help the pile maintain the right moisture and oxygenation.

Water: Compost needs to be warm and wet to break down. Most compost-enthusiasts say to keep the pile the wetness of a wrung-out sponge. So…damp. It should be damp. I water my pile maybe once a week, but you may need to do more or less depending on your climate.

Oxygen: Compost needs to be regularly aerated to add oxygen. Too little oxygen will make a stinky pile of glorified garbage, and we don’t want that. For a big pile, aerating means turning the whole thing with a shovel or pitchfork. For a small one like mine, I use a small garden spade or (more often) my hands to mix and fluff up the pile.

Composting System: I use a super-not-fancy system with three milk crates and a wooden lid (see above). It literally takes up a square foot of space in our yard, and is easily broken down for renters or folks who move a lot (like us!). Plus, you may already have everything you need to make it—I did. All you need to do is line three milk crates (or other stacking crates) with weed barrier fabric or fine mesh. Some people use hot glue to do this. I used duct tape, because I’m fancy like that. Basically, you just want the crates to be breathable, but impenetrable to rodents and bugs.

Once you have your crates ready, put them in a warm spot and start filling them up. Start with the top crate (A), and when it gets 3/4 full, switch it with the middle crate (B). Let crate A break down while you fill up crate B. Then switch again. Once crate A has broken down twice, dump it into (or switch it with) crate C. The bottom crate (C) should sit until it’s broken down into compost. Then you can dump it into your garden or give it away to lucky neighbors. (For more detailed instructions on crate-switching, see Instructables, which inspired my system.)

I’m going to be totally real with you guys and tell you that I constantly forget which crate to fill and often end up just dumping into the one that’s least empty. As a result, we break down all of our waste, but our crates haven’t yet produced proper compost. *shrug* I’ll get there.

There are also a million other ways to create a compost system. You can put it in a trash can, bury in the ground, buy a fancy compost tumbler, or basically just throw it in a pile in your backyard.

Tricks & Troubleshooting

Compost shouldn’t be smelly, and it should be noticeably breaking down within a few weeks to a month. If you’re having problems, I’ve found this guide really helpful for troubleshooting my compost.

Because I use a smaller system and have a lot of veggie scraps, I’ve found it really helpful to pulse my green material in a food processor before dumping it in the pile. It breaks down so much faster this way. In the same way, the smaller you shred your paper and cardboard, the faster it will break down.

When you first start your pile, it can be helpful to add a little bit of soil to introduce good microbes to the pile. When I don’t see much breakdown in a crate, I add a little dirt, and it usually perks up.

So far, I’ve found that composting has a sharp learning curve. Keep fiddling with it, and you’ll get it right eventually!

If You Really Can’t Compost

Although I encourage everyone to try composting, I recognize that some people don’t have the outdoor space or time to make a go of it. If that’s you, but you still want to be eco-friendly, here are a few alternatives.

Try a worm binWorm bins are similar to compost piles, but can be kept indoors. As the name suggests, they use worms to break down green and brown materials. Read more about it here.

Give away your food scraps. Ask around at your local farmers’ market. Farms are often willing to take scraps to add to their compost piles. Same for your neighborhood gardener/composter. Make friends!

Try a composting service. Though pretty much only available in urban areas, there’s a growing demand for composting businesses. They provide you with a compost bin and regularly take away your food and paper waste. This is, of course, the easiest and least time-consuming option. But you still get all the environmental brownie points!

So there you go! Now you have no excuses left to throw your food waste in the trash. Get out there and start making the world a greener place…city girl or not.

How to Compost in a Small Space or Apartment


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Photo by Nikola Jovanovic on Unsplash

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