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  • Composting can be done at virtually any scale. If you live in a city or suburb, there are many small systems available, including worm farming, which can be done in a 5-gallon bucket, and compost tumblers.
  • Two essential components to make composting work well are nitrogen-rich materials such as food scraps and grass clippings, and carbon-rich materials such as leaves, shredded paper, and corrugated cardboard.
  • The key is finding the right balance of ingredients. When it’s the consistency of a wrung out sponge, you’ve achieved the right moisture balance.

Practical Composting Know-How for Small-Space Living

November 28, 2015 | 46,835 views

By Dr. Mercola

Growing your own food is an important aspect of achieving optimal health, and to really succeed in that endeavor, you need healthy soil. Composting various household waste is an excellent way to achieve this end.

In her book, "Compost City: Practical Composting Know-How for Small-Space Living", New York City native Rebecca Louie reveals how to create compost even in the smallest of spaces.

She also provides valuable tips on how to network and identify local resources to help you generate high-quality top soil, which is crucial to growing nutrient-dense food.

"I grew up in New York City, in Queens... So, I didn't have the benefit of growing up in areas where yards, backyards, and playing in grass were a common thing," she says.

"In my early adulthood, I was a journalist, an entertainment writer... In that world, there's not so much of an intersection with natural living with plants. I was more into the red carpet versus the green carpet.

Then, in my late 20s, the industry started shifting. I started doing that soul searching thing that happen to a lot of people. I took some time off. The moment I took that time off, I started to hear the world around me...

I started to observe [and think] "Wow, I'm part of the community." And with that came an awareness of the food I was eating. I started cooking more. I started trying to grow things...

As this happened, [the transition to composting] came very organically... I'm eating all these foods, I'm cooking, and growing all these plants, but where am I putting the resulting scraps? Where does that go?"

When at First You Don't Succeed

Rebecca's initial ventures into composting using a worm bin ended in disaster. All the worms died. But the failure spurred her on to learn how to do it right. Like many other cities around the US, New York City offers a free Master Composter certification program, so she signed up and took it at the Queens Botanical Garden.

"In that course, I really learned about soil system, the value of returning organic matter to the soil, both for the environment at large and for the plants that live in it," she says.

"As a plus, and something that I'm really excited about now, is the potential for building community around things like composting. You have a community garden but with that can come a community composting effort.

Suddenly, people are networking, making friends, sharing activities together, and getting outside. It's a really transformative moment that's happening right now."

Composting 101

Composting is a more controlled version of what happens naturally on the forest floor. Leaves fall down and decompose, providing shelter and nourishment for a network of micro and macro organisms, from fungi and bacteria to larger creatures like worms.

Many of them ingest and break apart this biomass, returning to the soil organic matter that feeds the plants growing in the soil. Composting mimics this cycle in a more controlled setting.

Two essential components to make composting work well are:

  • Green material: Nitrogen- and water-rich materials such as food scraps and grass clippings contribute nitrogen to the composting cycle. They also contribute water, which is another important element that must be tempered as you build your compost system.
  • Brown material: Carbon-rich dry materials like leaves, woodchips, and even shredded paper, (non-glossy) junk mail, newspapers, corrugated cardboard, and egg cartons.
  • Besides being rich in carbon, they also provide a dry material that absorbs some of the water from the nitrogen-rich greens. Just be sure to remove any plastic tape if you use cardboard boxes, as it will not compost well.

The real magic of composting and doing it right is finding the right balance of ingredients. "You want compost to feel like a wrung out sponge," Rebecca notes. This means you've achieved the right moisture balance.

If your compost pile is too soggy, you need to add more dry carbon-rich materials. If it's too dry, microbial activity will be impaired, so you'll need to mix in some water.

"Once you achieve the balance that you want, you just maintain it. You constantly do those little adjustments to make sure that you have the kind of compost pile that you want."

How to Set Up a Worm Farm

Composting can be done at virtually any scale. If you live in a city or suburb, there are many small systems available. The principles of composting—finding the balance between carbon, nitrogen, water and air—remain the same.

For example, you can use a 5- or 10-gallon bucket or storage tote to create worm compost. According to Rebecca, vermiculture is becoming quite popular among city dwellers who are short on space, and it's probably one of the finest composts you can possibly get.

You're basically creating an ecosystem from scratch, so balance is important. First, drill holes in the bucket for ventilation and drainage. Next, fill your bucket with carbon material. This will serve as the bedding source. As it breaks down, the worms will consume it. The carbon material also serves as a biofilter, eliminating unpleasant odors and pests like fruit flies.

Next, dampen—do not soak—the bedding material with water until you get that wrung-out sponge consistency. You want it to be moist but not wet. Then you add the worms, and a small amount of kitchen scraps like fruit and vegetable peels. Be sure to avoid citrus, as both the acidity and oils can be harmful to worms.

"I'm a really big fan of portion control. You have to get to know your worms. How fast they eat. If you're in a colder climate and temperatures are lower, they'll be less active. These are things you have to get to know.

Maybe start with one and a half cups [of food scraps] if you have a pound [of worms]. Freeze it first because that will kill any pests on the surface of the scraps. You thaw the scraps afterwards, which will speed up the decomposition rate. But also, it will help leach out a lot of excess liquid because we don't want it to get too wet. You can always add moisture but it's more difficult to take it away.

Then, once you've drained that liquid, you dump in the scraps, and you watch. How long does it take for my pound of worms to eat this? Check in after a couple of days and see how they're doing. Once that food is almost gone, you're like, 'All right, that took 'x' amount of days. Good to know.' And then feed them another portion [of kitchen scraps]...

[The worms] create this beautiful, amazing, very coveted compost: black gold worm poop. The reason that what they produce is so rich is that their guts are lined with a lot of bacteria that the soil needs. As they consume organic matter and poop it out the other end, that little casting that comes out is not just decomposed organic matter; it is that plus this beautiful microcosm of exciting microorganisms that help plants be healthy."

Compost Tumblers Produce Excellent Results with Minimal Effort

Another option is to purchase a compost tumbler. Rebecca's book, "Compost City: Practical Composting Know-How for Small-Space Living", goes into detailed instructions on a number of different composting systems. It's really one of the best resources I've seen on how to engage in this process. Reading her book also reminded me of the importance of balancing the greens and the browns. The normal tendency is to compost mostly greens, but that makes it too wet.

Dr. Mercola Uses Compost Tumblers

Now, I'm a big fan of woodchips and I've got a big pile in my yard,  When my compost starts to get too wet, I just add some woodchips to it. That works just magnificently. The key is to balance the carbon and the nitrogen. I use two compost tumblers—one is in active process and the other is more mature. This allows me to have a pretty continuous supply of healthy compost. With a tumbler, you can get finished compost in just a few weeks with very minimal effort.

Composting Saves Money in Several Ways

One benefit many might not consider when approaching the idea of composting is that it can also reduce the amount of trash you have to send to the landfill. All that non-glossy junk mail paper can be used in your composting, along with all those cardboard boxes, newspapers, and shredded paperwork.

"If you live in an area where you have to pay per pound for your trash pick-up or if you're trying to build a garden and can't necessarily afford to or don't want to pay for soil, you can make your own," Rebecca says. "You're using a free resource coming out of your own waste stream and transforming it, and the cost-savings really making a difference."

Composting will also help you conserve water, as returning organic matter to the soil significantly improves water retention. The key to that is the carbon component, the brown component. That's what forms the humates and the glomalin, which have great water retention abilities.

A group of New York City moms proved composting can be a particularly sensible solution when you go large-scale. They created a composting program for their children's school, which has since been adopted by the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) and some hundreds schools across the city. But to start, they had to prove to the school system that it would make sense from a financial standpoint.

"By crunching the numbers and setting up this small pilot program, they did something that's now revolutionizing how the school system in New York City is dealing with waste," Rebecca says. "It's fabulous. If you think about your household, you'll say, 'OK, I saved five bucks this week on not having to bring one extra bag to the dump.' If you multiply that times a whole city or community, suddenly, it's mind blowing. People like thinking green but really, what talks is the green of money."

The Importance of Ground Cover

One way to grow your own food is to start converting your ornamental landscape, including lawns, to edible landscaping. An important aspect of that process is to use waste biomass not to compost, but to cover the bare soil. I'm passionate about woodchips, so I add about a foot and a half to two feet worth of wood chips to my landscape, which lasts a few years. If you add just a few inches, you'll have to re-apply it annually.

Covering bare soil with biomass mulch helps retain moisture, significantly reducing your need for irrigation. It can also cut down weed growth by about 90 percent, and virtually eliminates the need for fertilizing too. Eventually, this ground cover will decompose, which helps build up your topsoil. Wood chips also radically increase the earthworm concentration, and once you have enough, they essentially create the compost for you.

"All my window boxes get full sun all day. As we know, with container gardening, you're going to lose a lot of moisture. You can water your plants in the morning and if it's a warm day, by the end of the day, that soil will be bone dry. So something that I've done is taking that shredded paper, that junk mail, that secret document with my social security number, shredding it and creating a top layer that mulches over and holds the water underneath.

Basically, what happen is the sun will land on this very reflective white surface. The heat won't go down into the soil; thus conserving the water in there from evaporation. Really, it's about using resources at hand to protect the soil," Rebecca notes.

Alternative Composing Resources: Urine and Manure

Alternative composting resources include urine and feces—including your own. It's particularly easy for men to collect urine into a container, dilute it, and spread it on the plants as a form of nitrogen. You can also use human manure, although it's a bit more difficult to work with.

"If you think about it, it's the obvious thing to do. We are similar to a gigantic earthworm. We break down the organic matters we eat and what results are wastes, which are largely decomposed and microbially rich. And in theory, it could go right back in to the soil.

Why not? One thing that people are concerned about with omnivore or carnivore manures, where you have meat-eating animals pooping (your dogs, and let's say people), is that there could be pathogens in that feces. So, what is recommended as best practice is to use a hot composting method."

Hot composting involves building a large compost pile, ideally a mound around 3x3x3 feet. Those are the optimum dimensions to create a home for thermophilic, i.e. heat-making, bacteria. When you think of a steaming compost pile, the heat rising off the top is produced by these bacteria. The heat inside this compost pile will reach about 133 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the recommended temperature to kill off pathogens in compost.

One caveat is cat poop. It can carry pathogens like toxoplasmosis, which is very dangerous for pregnant women as it can be passed on to their children. It's also hazardous for people with weak immune systems. So, as a general rule, it's best to avoid cat poop when composting.

"In terms of animal manures, if you have a bunny or chickens, these are all great animals, prolific poopers. What people can do is harness their bedding, which is often full of urine as well, and their poop and put it in something like a worm bin.

Create a passive pile, which is what it sounds like: it is a pile of browns and greens. Let it just sit there and let time and microbes do their thing. You can turn it occasionally to mix up the microbial populations in there, to check the center of it, to see if it's moist enough or it needs a little more of this or a little less of that. That breaks down into really amazing stuff."

How to Compost Meats and Cooked Foods

In regular composting you cannot include cooked foods or meat scraps. It must be fruits, vegetable scraps and yard waste only. However, there is a way to compost meats and cooked foods as well. A method called Bokashi fermentation allows such food scraps to be fermented in an airtight container, inoculated with special anaerobic microbes. Once the food scraps have been pickled, you bury them in soil. Eventually, the acidity goes away, leaving the soil usable and very rich in microbial life.

You Can Have Major Impact In Your Community

People living in urban areas have a great opportunity to build networks to tap available resources of potential composting materials that will otherwise end up in a landfill. There's plenty of waste out there. For example, you could ask your local coffee shop for their coffee grounds, or ask a juice bar for their spent pulp. You can also turn to your neighbors, who may or may not be interested in composting themselves, but have plenty of food scraps, leaves, and cardboard.

"Similarly, things like buckets. Again, I'm a huge fan of bucket compost system because they're space-efficient and they're free. Look around and see who might be donating them. Call a restaurant. Go to your favorite deli and say, 'Hey, that pickle bucket, what do you do with it?'

A lot of these places just throw them out. Rather than sending them to the landfill, give them another life. You can grow things in buckets, decorate them, paint them, and plant your beautiful tomato in there and harvest it few months later.

What I love about New York City is the amazing volunteer spirit. There's a group I've volunteered with called Earth Matter that has a compost project on Governors Island. It's already kind of magical. They have animals there and they're recipients of some of the scraps that are collected at the Greenmarkets.  

Residential food scrap collection at farmers markets started with a group called The Lower East Side Ecology Center. Decades ago, they needed some soil for their community garden and couldn't afford to buy tons of it. So, they just started asking people, "Hey, do you want to bring us your scraps?"

Then, the Union Square Greenmarket gave them permission to collect there. Now, that program has ballooned into this huge amazing system where people in green markets across the city bring their scraps. The collected scraps are brought to places or organizations such as Earth Matter, which processes them.

The point is that the resources are there. The help is there. The knowledge is there. Most cities have amazing Master Gardener Programs and Master Composter Programs. There's the Cooperative Extension Offices across the country that have huge amazing resources.

Once you start looking around and finding people to help you, bring it to a classroom. Let 20 kids in a class take care of a thousand worms, and they'll treat them like their pets. They'll love them. They'll want them to thrive. And then, you'll start building communities."

Rebecca has an obvious passion for this topic, which shines through in her book, which is available online and in bookstores everywhere. For anyone with an interest in composting and reducing waste, it's a must-read.

I think it will inspire you to action to help create a healthier life and a cleaner environment at the same time, so you won't want to miss it. You can also read more about composting and using ground cover to optimize your soil under the related articles' listing.

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