Adventures in Urban Composting

It’s your guilty moment of the week again – time to take out the trash. You take a peek at the week’s detritus and feel that familiar twinge. Perhaps the majority of your waste is food scraps, which will decompose in the anaerobic landfill environment and produce methane, a global warming gas more potent than carbon dioxide. Instead of tossing this waste, try composting it. It’s not as hard as you may think.

Real Urban Renewal

According to the EPA, 24 percent of household waste consists of food scraps and yard trimmings. Some cities, including Seattle and San Francisco, are now offering composting bins for residents that are picked up once a week along with recycling and trash. Other areas, like Santa Barbara County, offer composting bins at reduced rates as well as free composting workshops. Check with your local municipality to see if it offers similar services.

Community of Composters

If you decide to compost on your own, the EPA’s site is a good place to start to get an overview of different methods and services available in your region. Santa Barbara County also has an extensive online composting guide available online.

If you have limited space and decide to go the urban composting route, consider vermicomposting – tapping into the magical power of composting with worms.

According to the Santa Barbara County composting guide, bins also give you bang for your buck. You can build one for about $40 or you can order one from a gardeners supply store. The guide explains how to calculate the size bin you will need, how many red worms to get and what can be composted. Here’s a rundown of treats for your new squirmy friends:

Several items you often throw away can actually be composted. Photo:

Several items you often throw away can actually be composted. Photo:

  • Vegetable scraps
  • Fruit peels and scraps
  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Plant clippings and leaves
  • Crushed egg shells
  • Stale bread and grains
  • Tea bags
  • Untreated paper towels and tissue paper

In other words, you may be able to compost a lot of the items you’ve been throwing in the trash – hooray!

Transforming Trash on a Budget

If you’re working with limited resources, there are additional how-to sites that highlight how to build the best bin for you. Temperature is a consideration when vermicomposting as well. The worms like 55-75 degree weather. If you live in a colder climate, you can either insulate your worm bin or keep it in a basement or garage where the temperature will still be warm enough.

If you are considering setting up your own composting system, check out these resources:

Building the Bin

Almost every resource listed offers similar directions on constructing your own bin:

Your compost should always mantain a balance of greens to release and browns for carbon fuel. Photo:

Your compost should always maintain a balance of nitrogen-rich greens and browns for carbon fuel. Photo:

  • Decide on a size bin based on the amount of waste you produce. You can use wooden storage crates or any other similar container that will provide a dark, ventilated environment for your worms.
  • Drill several holes in the crates for ventilation. If you stack the bins, the holes in the bottom of the top bin will allow the worms to crawl to the next one when you are ready to harvest the first round of compost.
  • Buy the worms! You’ll need about a pound of red worms (Eisenia foetida or Lubricus rubellus) to get started. Do an Internet search for vermicompost supplies in your area or order them online. Bait stores and some hardware stores often carry a supply of red wrigglers.
  • Line your prepared crate with shredded newspaper and cardboard. The bedding should be as damp as a wrung-out sponge.
  • Add a handful or two of soil as well as any dry leaves if you have them. You should have a constant mixture of brown and green in your compost. Green is nitrogen-rich, and brown provides carbon fuel.
  • Introduce the worms to their new home and start feeding them. Place the food underneath the bedding in a different section of the bin each week, fully cover the food, and keep a lid on your bin.
  • Once the first bin is full and no longer has recognizable food (this usually takes a few months) you can place bedding and food in the second bin. Most of the worms will migrate in search of food in a few weeks time. If you are only using one bin, you can also place the compost under a lit surface. The worms will move to the middle of the pile away from the light, and you can gently move worms that way as well.
  • Add your compost to potting soil or to your garden. This will enrich the soil with nutrients.

Reap the Rewards!

Now that you’re set up and ready to go, closely monitor your bin for any signs of unhappy worms – check out ways to  troubleshoot a stinky bin for example. Usually, these types of issues can be addressed with more ventilation, less food or an adjustment in moisture.

Now that you have a composting bin, it’s time to complete the cycle and get going on that urban garden. Head to the farmers market to pick up some seedlings!

Read more from Libuse Binder at Weekly Way.

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  1. I guess what I’m confused about regarding urban composting is that if you don’t have enough space for a compost pile, how will you have enough space for an organic garden? I think it’s great that some cities will pick up compost for you, but in other cases you’ll end up with nutrient-rich fertilizer from your compost and nowhere to put it.

  2. Trey …. “Guess what I’m confused about regarding urban composting is that if you don’t have enough space for a compost pile, how will you have enough space for an organic garden?”

    1 option in urban living assumes you have a balcony, deck or access to roof. Large storage bins (Target-Type ) can be used to start effective micro – gardens for tomatoes, peppers….Smaller tier stacked or over the deck wood boxes can be used to grow herbs……


  3. There is a great book out called Crops in Pots (by Bob Purnell) that mother in law gave me that I just love.
    I have small pots of peppers, strawberries, tomatoes and some essential herbs growing on the steps of my tiny porch that I didn’t think I had the room to grow, but they are thriving! My next step is a small composting bin.

  4. Someone wrote about not having enough space…there are a variety of ways you can make up for space…for starters you can create raised beds, you can grow vertically and of course you can do container gardening. To recycle your food scraps through vermicomposting, it doesn’t really take anything elaborate…just some worms and box to put them in.

    Hope this helps!

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