3 Composting Methods For Urban Farmers

These three small-space composting methods will help you turn your waste into a nutrient-rich amendment for your garden.

by Deb Brandt-Buehler

Are you the last among your neighbors to start composting and ready to jump on the bandwagon? While there are several different strategies for turning yard, garden and table waste into a high-quality soil amendment, there are a few things to take into consideration, too.

Justin Maltry, environmental programs coordinator for Seattle Tilth, asks would-be composters to think about what it is they want to breakdown for the benefit of their soil. He suggests that what is being composted will help determine how it can be handled. For example, if you plan to compost yard waste, such as grass clippings, leaves and prunings, you don’t need to have a bin as contained as you’d need for composting food waste. Composted food waste needs to be confined to protect it from attracting unwanted critters, such as rats.

A secondary consideration is the space you have available. If you only have a small yard or a balcony to work with, your composting options will be limited, while larger backyards might support a more expansive strategy.

As you start laying out your composting plan, here are some composting methods that can help you achieve black gold for your garden.

The Bin System

For composters with more space, using a two- or three-bin, open compost pile system (pictured above) might meet your organic decomposition needs. Maltry says that decomposition happens no matter what. Using this more traditional, open-bin system can make your life easier in that you literally pile on the compostable material, keeping an eye on the balance brown and green materials added.

By browns and greens, Maltry is referring to dried plant matter (browns) versus fresh clippings (greens). He says it’s important to make the pile roughly 50 percent greens and 50 percent browns. Browns, such as dry autumn leaves, are high in carbon while greens, like apple peels, are typically high in nitrogen. During some seasons of the year, achieving this balance may be difficult, but when browns and greens are fairly balanced, the compost pile has a healthy 30-to-1 ratio in terms of nitrogen, which will support decomposition.

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If you have the space for it, getting started with a bin system doesn’t have to be costly. Bins can be made from chicken wire, purchased wood or recycled shipping pallets. A traditional compost pile can be started in an out-of-the-way corner of the yard without any barriers, too.

From labor standpoint, some composters turn the pile by adding a layer of material and then shifting older compost from the second bin on top of the new layer. Having a pitchfork will make this work fairly easy. Turning doesn’t have to happen frequently, but it will encourage the composting process to happen more quickly.


Worm bins use red wiggler worms to digest food scraps into vermicompost.
Eliot Kimber/Flickr

Red wiggler worms in a closed container are perfect for composting vegetable matter left over from dinner. The bins offer protection from vermin while providing a timely source for brown, crumbly, nutrient-rich pellets created by the worms.

There are lots of online plans for building your own worm composting bin using materials ranging from plywood to stackable plastic tubs. All worm bins need drainage holes in the bottom to allow excess moisture to seep out. They also need a tight-fitting lid to keep out pests and unwanted rainwater.

Whichever bin you choose, you will have the cost of materials plus the purchase of worms to get started. Red worms thrive in a moist mixed bedding of brown leaves, shredded newspaper, cardboard or clean wood shavings. After settling the worms in this base bedding, food scraps can be added by burying them in a hole in the bedding. The worms will eat their way through both bedding and food scraps, and if you maintain the right balance of bedding and food waste, the bin should remain fairly odorless.

As the bedding and food scraps are composted, they can be moved to one side of the bin to age while fresh bedding is added in the emptier side. After fresh bedding is installed, only add food scraps to new material. The worms will migrate to that side of the bin allowing the older contents to be harvested.

Bins can be kept outside in a shady, protected area of the yard or in a cool indoor space, such as a garage. In colder climates, fill the bin with bedding to keep the worms from freezing during the winter months. Bales of straw may be placed around the bin’s exterior for added insulation against the cold.

Food Digesters

A half-buried trashcan with holes drilled into it is a simple compost method.
Austin King/Flickr

Most commonly made from a galvanized metal trashcan with a tight-fitting lid, a food digester is a low-maintenance strategy for composting food scraps. Drain holes are drilled in the bottom third of the can, which is then sunk into the ground to a point that completely covers the drain holes.

Food digesters rely on decomposers, like earthworms and other insects, that come into the bin through the underground holes. Composter harvests require shoveling out the upper un-decomposed material in order to access the nutrient rich compost at the bottom of the digester. The uncomposted material can be wet and smelly, needing time to dry out, so giving the uncomposted material some soil and time before returning it to the bin will allow it to age and sweeten in scent. Put it in the bottom of the bin and add new decomposed on top to resume the process.

A word of caution: Making holes in the galvanized metal can leave sharp edges inside the bin. Be aware of these as you removed composted material. Overall, food digesters are easy to create and require a minimum of effort to maintain.

Composting Do’s And Don’ts

No matter what composting method you choose, do not add meat, fish, poultry, cheese, oily foods, dairy products, or other any other animal products, including pet waste, to your compost pile. These are not only harder to break down, they’ll definitely call in unwanted wildlife.

You can, however, add eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, paper napkins and towels, vegetable scraps, and breads, grains and pastas. Open bins will attract less vermin if you only include green and brown yard waste.

Eventually everything breaks down. Even the most unattended compost pile will slowly decompose and offer up its riches to the patient gardener. With a little extra effort, gardeners can compost their way to nutrient-rich resources for their soil.

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