ashley englishsmall measures

small measures with ashley: home composting

by Grace Bonney

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t grow up “green.” My mom, brother, and I lived a rather typical, suburban lifestyle, eating packaged foods, driving our minivan all over town, and throwing mostly everything in the trash without a second thought. During my sophomore year of high school, however, I had a most auspicious encounter at a friend’s house. Built by her parents over the course of several years, my friend’s log home was simple, rustic, and elegant. It was there I was first introduced to the practice of giving simple, handmade gifts for the holidays (I visited her place for the first time the day after Christmas), to tofu hot dogs (she might have also been the first vegetarian I’d ever met), to backyard chicken-keeping (her mom to this day owns a thriving local free-range egg business), and to the art of composting. That visit left an indelible mark on me and factored heavily into the person I would become and the interests, concerns, and practices I would later adopt.

As an adult, I now make (or bake-my favorite!) a large quantity of the holiday gifts that I give; I am mostly vegetarian (eating a bit of fish a few times a week, and almost exclusively local seafood, at that); I both keep chickens and have written an upcoming book on the topic, “Keeping Chickens;” , and I compost everything I possibly can. I was surprised to learn recently that by composting for one year, it’s possible to save an equivalent amount of CO2 produced by your washing machine in 3 months. With composting, not only can I do more to prevent the production of harmful greenhouse gases (like methane-created when waste trapped in plastic garbage bags breaks down in landfills with no oxygen circulating around it), I get to reap the rewards in spades months later with rich, nutrient-dense soil to use in my garden, hanging baskets, and containers. Compost is loaded with potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus, minerals desperately needed by plants to not just survive but thrive. It also plays a key role in balancing alkalinity and acidity levels present in soil, making it more hospitable to growth. Furthermore, compost works to retain soil moisture, so important as more and more areas experience both long and short-term drought during growing seasons.

So, whether you’re a pavement-pounding urbanite or a forest-dwelling denizen, compost glory can be yours. You don’t even need a yard to compost! A very close friend of mine lives on the 8th floor of an apartment building in Center City, Philadelphia. She successfully composts all of her kitchen scraps in an apartment composter. When the compost is ready, she either spreads it over her houseplants, or carries it a block over to an open lot, where she tosses it for future fertile soil (albeit someone else’s!). If you’ve never composted before, there’s no time like the present to get into the mix. Fall is a really wonderful time to get your compost going. As annual plants and vegetables die, branches fall from trees, and leaves gather on the ground, collect them, along with your kitchen scraps, and transition them to your compost area.

CLICK HERE for the rest of “Home Compost-Piling on benefits” (and tons of home composting tips!) after the jump!

There are several options for composting. If you have the space, a backyard pile is cheap and easy. Lacking that, an upright or tumbling style is ideal. If you’ve no yard or hardly any yard to work with, an indoor, compact model or wormery will get the job done.

1) Pile: Many backyard compost piles are enclosed by recycled shipping pallet frames, or similar wooden structures. You can find two fantastic how-to’s on building your own pallet composter here and here .

2) Tumbler/Upright bin: An increasing number of nurseries, home building supply stores, and even natural foods stores have composting bins for sale. Other sources include compostbins.com , goodcompost.com , and even DIY plans here and here for building your own tumbler and bin.

3) Compact/indoor: If you’re really short on space, several indoor composting bin options exist: Can ‘O Worms is a vermicomposter, allowing worms to do all the breakdown work, offering up healthy soil in exchange for kitchen scraps; Nature Mill is high-tech, producing compost every two weeks (a light even comes on to indicate when the compost is ready!); this composter works well in compact, indoor spaces and is well priced; and the Bokashi compostor actually ferments and pickles food waste (including meat, fish, and cheese!) via the inclusion of a mix containing wheat germ, molasses, and microorganisms.

In traditional composting set-ups, including piles, bins, and tumblers, several key components need to be kept in check:

1) Compost contents: you’ll need to include green matter, which will serve as the nitrogen component-this should comprise 1/3 of your compost and includes matter such as kitchen scraps, plant leaves and stems, grass, and flowers; brown matter, which provides carbon, should occupy about 2/3 of the piles contents and consists of items such as twigs, stems, straw, cardboard, and newspaper; and water, keeping your compost always moist, but not too wet.

2) Don’t add: with the exception of some indoor compost models, meat, bones, dairy products, whole eggs, fatty foods (which could attract vermin and cause maggots), cat or dog feces, and glossy magazines should be excluded from your compost pile.

3) Maintenance: compost materials should be in small particles, to expedite deterioration, so if you have long stems or branches, chop them up into smaller bits before adding to the pile; the pile needs to be turned about every 4 days or so, in the beginning, and then every few weeks thereafter to deter opportunistic pest inhabitation and to provide aeration; the pile needs diversity, in order for the combination of microorganisms to work synergistically; and the pile should always have a bit of moisture, but not too much, so a lid or cover is helpful.

Here’s a few troubleshooting tips, should you experience problems with your compost:

1) It stinks: it might be lacking oxygen, so try turning it more often

2) It’s damp and warm in the middle but not anywhere else: you might want to try increasing the size of your pile and incorporating it thoroughly with the existing matter

3) It’s damp and smells good, but it’s not hot and won’t break down matter: you might be lacking in nitrogen, so add a nitrogen-rich component like grass or bloodmeal

For further resources, I found this site from Recycle Now to be extremely assistive. I’m also a fan of the following books, each with beneficial composting how-to’s and DIY options:
Composting , by Nicky Scott
The Complete Compost Gardening Guide , by Barbara Pleasant & Deborah L. Martin
Garden Anywhere , by Alys Fowler

If you have any other helpful composting tricks, tidbits, sources, or links, I’d love to hear them!

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  • Ashley, thank you so much for this post! This is something I have been interested in for a while now. I recently stopped throwing out my scraps in fear that I would attract rats. Now, hopefully, I will be able to create an alternate system that will be a benefit.

  • Great post!
    I struggled at first with the best way to handle all the compost. After much experimentation we now have an open container in the kitchen sink, which gets emptied into a plastic lidded bucket in the laundry (keeps in the smells perfectly!). This way we only really have to make a monthly trip out to the compost pile and it seems to work.

  • Great Post! I have a wormery – I love it, but it does smell a little, and there is a bit of a problem with fruit flies in summer, I don’t think I’d keep it inside to be honest, but perhaps I’m doing something wrong?

  • Thanks for such a great post. This was something I was really hoping you would write about here on D*S.

    As a new gardener and a person very mindful of my waste habits, composting is something I have been really wanting to start up. It will likely get my trash down to almost nothing and provide great nourishment for my garden next year.

    Thanks for the concise information and encouragement.

  • also want to add that you don’t have to buy a fancy composter — I got a big Rubbermaid tub, drilled holes in the sides, and put some worms in it. the whole thing cost under $5. I keep it out in the back yard in an out-of-the-way spot. other tips: freeze raw veggie scraps in an old yogurt container if you don’t want to visit the compost bin every day. also, dryer lint can be composted.

  • I’m interested in hearing more about apartment/urban composting; I’ve seen the little tins in Crate and Barrel and thought about it, but I just can’t get through the logistics. The “empty lot” that your friend in Philly has simply has no analogue where I live in Queens. All lots around me are owned, filled, and lived or worked in. Additionally, it is against the law to dispose of private trash in public space and private space not owned by me. Finally, this is a personal problem, of course, but I have serious, serious phobias of worms and other little crawly things! Is there composting hope for me?

  • This made my day! I grew up composting before composting was cool or even something most people were aware of…I love the options for people with no yard.

  • If you’re in Alameda county in the bay area, our waste management folks sell the super sturdy Smith&Hawken compost bins at a HUGE discount. They’ll even deliver them to you with a free and fantastic instructional video.

    They also have a really nice website that I refer to often for gardening advice. Oh, and they have gardening and “master composter” classes! (and no, I don’t work for them, just love the services….)

    here’s the website:

  • thank you soooo much! i have tried composting (mostly at apartments) a few times and haven’t had much success. i recently moved to a home with a big yard and was just talking about getting chickens too! this couldn’t not have come at a better time and been more helpful.

  • I live in a city apartment but have access to a backyard. I found a black, lid-locking outdoor trash can at a thrift store and drilled small holes all around it. When I go to add more to the compost pile, I tip the can over (with the lid on) and roll it around a few times. Then I upright the can and add my stuff. Instant tumbler for $3!

  • It always bothers me when “green” or DIY projects require an ample purchase of new tools. To me, that defeats the “green” part of the project. Thanks for including the make-it-yourself crate system for the compost bin. A great post!

  • Marie – have you tried adding some shredded newspaper to your worm bin?

    We had a worm bin at a previous workplace of mine and I remember that moisture is usually the culprit if the bin is getting smelly. If everything is properly balanced inside the bin you shouldn’t have trouble with smells or fruit flies.

  • cattyinqueens-of course there’s composting hope for you! do you have a sunny windowsill or balcony where you could put some potted plants filled with compost and potting soil? a nearby neighbor who’d take your compost? an urban farm/community garden that might be willing to take it off your hands?

    and if worms bother you, then just don’t go that route. stick with traditional composting, instead of vermicomposting. wormery or not, the job will get done!

  • Andria , thanks for the great post and all the tips!

    Has anyone made a DIY tumbler? I found many how-tos online but many of the reviews said they were not very effective and you’re better off buying one. I want to make one (less$$) for my father and he would specifically need a tumbler for easy rotating. Thoughts?

  • This is awesome, Design sponge. I am really happy you seem to be getting more in to the idea of homesteading, and all these other simpler ways of living. It’s beautiful.
    I just moved to Seattle, and I was SO pumped to find that the city actually collects all food and yard waste when they pick up the trash every week, so for the moment it’s easier to go that way since I don’t really have any plants.
    Love you design sponge.

    • thanks leah-

      i’m really enjoying this column as well- it’s so nice to have something non design-product related on the site once a week. especially from an urban homesteading pro like ashley. speaking as someone who’s is basically a constant influx of “stuff” and products, it’s really nice to take some time out and focus on ways to be more aware of what i do, eat, buy and own.


  • I’ve wanted to compost for a long time in our apartment, but there’s something I don’t understand. If you’re adding scraps all the time, how do you ever have finished compost that you can use? And what do you do with kitchen scraps when your composter is full and you’re waiting for it all to turn to compost (it that’s what you do to get finished compost)?

  • …it is important to note if a person is unable to compost due to space, time etc you can contact your local county government. Local governments will often accept yard waste. The county will compost and then sell it to landscapers or use it themselves around govt bldgs. It saves money & is a revnue source. That what happens here in Georgia anyway.

  • I’ve composted for more than 1 year now, and it’s been easy. My parents’ compost is an hour away from me, but recently the office just added three compost piles. So all I do now if freeze my scrapes at home and take them to work whenever my bin is full.

  • My compost bin is an old beat up plastic trash bin (got it on Freecycle) that I drilled holes all around and set on a couple of scrap wood blocks.

    Now I’m thrifting around for the perfect big container to keep on the counter so I don’t have to take my compost out every day in old margarine containers!

  • emilykristin – You can always sift out the composted stuff when you’re ready to use some. And if you run out of space, just start saving scraps in an ice cream pail in the freezer.

    Also, if a lot of your kitchen scraps are vegetable peels, you can use things like carrots & celery to make your own vegetable stock.

  • If you are in NYC you can take your scraps to the Union Square greenmarket and put it in the large bins which go to the Lower East Side Ecology Center to be composed.
    i purchased worms from the Lower East Side Ecology Center and now have a worm bin. it was out in a shady area in the summer and now the bin lives in my bathroom. I am pretty squeamish about worms, so all the feeding etc is done by my husband.

  • My husband and I have a little compost bin in our small Baltimore backyard and I love it! Between composting and recycling we’ve made a huge dent in the amount of garbage we ‘produce’ . And my tiny garden has reaped the benefits too – I had some massive tomato plants this summer! Thanks for the great post – I’m totally looking forward to your chicken book now!

  • Just a quick note- I managed to get my piles to 100 degrees fahrenheit. I took a lot of tips from this website:

    I now have 2 upright bins which I’ve been lazy about, just rossing stuff in, but when they were going really really hot at the beginning I even managed to compost leftover salmon!!! I am always dismayed at the amount of produce thrown away at my local grocery store that could be composted or taken to the local soup kitchen. I hope this green trend will continue, and everyone will become more mindful of our environment.

  • great article. i keep a bowl on my counter right next to the sink and when it’s full, i dump it in the compost bin. never had any smell issues.

    however i don’t throw my eggshells in them – i crunch my dry shells up and collect them in a jar all winter so i can sprinkle them around the edges of my garden and keep out the slugs (it’s like glass to them!).

    for the girl with creepy crawly issues, you don’t need worms or a lot of space to compost. the ‘nature mill’ she mentions has composters of all sizes, including ones that go under the kitchen sink.

    just a note to all new composters, you don’t HAVE to have a perfect combination of types of materials in your pile – it will still compost.

    and for those who don’t have a place to compost, advertise it on Craigslist in the ‘free’ section – I promise it will go quickly!!

  • I have two worm bins. In addition to vegetable scraps and coffee grounds, I regularly add paper from my shredder to keep things balance. I’ve also simply torn newspapers into strips to add to the bins.

  • I would like to add another ideal product option to this convo – my dear brother Mike Konsterlie has designed a wonderful compost bin from reclaimed cedar fencing – it’s a beauty (though I may be biased). You can find it here – http://www.perfectomundobins.com Please think about supporting local hand-made small business in PDX, Oregon, and the beauty of making good soil better with compost. thanks!

  • SO glad you covered this. I am trying desperately to get my family to be good composters but when I’m not around I know nothing gets done. It’s frustrating but that’s life I guess. Meanwhile, I live mainly in Norway and there we are given a large tax break if we attend a 3 hour course on composting. We then receive smaller trash bins since we have less trash, and are given a large composting bin as well as a small one to keep inside. I find this to be a wonderful incentive for people to be more green. I work at a pre-school and we even compost everything there!

  • I think it is also important to mention that open composters (such as the reused crate idea) are not legal in all municipalities because of concerns about vermin.

    Also, I live in Seattle and we have mandatory curbside composting. The compost is then used in parks, community gardens, and I even believe we can buy bags of it for our homes. Encourage your communities to compost too – the facility can compost items that most home systems can’t handle well (such as meat, dairy, bones, and fatty items!). http://www.seattle.gov/util/Services/Yard/Yard_Waste_Collection/WhatsAccepted/index.htm

  • Thanks for the post. I am very new to composting and look forward to getting more of your tips. Last year my husband and I worked a raised garden in our back lot and it was so rewarding and I really learned a lot. I have a lot more to learn and look forward to more from you. Thank you.

  • Just thought I’d add that you can compost meat, bones, cooked stuff etc – the normal no no’s of composting if you have a green johanna. They are specially built to be vermin proof. I got mine here in the UK with a government discount so it was only £20. It has cut down our landfill waste by so much that the dustbin is rarely full when the dustmen come to collect it. You can get it in the USA too so though some folks might be interested http://www.greencone.com/

  • Thanks for this post! I was looking for a step-by-step for composting and how great surprise to read it here. I’m vegeterian since 2006, now my entire family became vegetarian with me. When I started my veggie path I felt my heart opening to all green ideas and I’m seeing the same thing happening with my family. It’s fun and sweet. We’ll use your tips. Thank you again!

  • If you’re a city dweller, look for a pick up service. In Philly, there’s Pedal Co-op and Bennett Composting. Pedal C0-op gave me a bucket with a lid and they pick up my compost every other week on a bike, which is so cool.

  • Thanks for another fantastic article. Where else could anyone get that type of info in such an ideal way of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I’m on the look for such information.

  • It is rare to locate a specialist in whom you can have some confidence. In the world at present, nobody really cares about showing others the solution in this subjecttopic. How lucky I am to have actually found such a wonderful web page as this. It’s people like you exactly who make a true difference currently through the strategies they discuss.

  • i bought a naturemill years ago and it literally fell apart on me when the sun melted the glue holding the frame together. After sending it back for repair twice, the warranty ran out :(

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