Composting in a Small Space

You live in a small space and think composting is probably out of the question, right? Not really. 

With the fall season upon us, I want to talk about composting.  Winter is approaching where we live and we’re gearing up to have some nice fertilizer for our plants when spring arrives. Although you can do it all year long. Not just that, many of us have jack o'lanterns that will begin to decompose on our porches. Then there are the holidays where we do an awful lot of cooking from scratch and have a LOT of kitchen scraps that usually end up in the bin. Why not use those scraps to your garden’s benefit when you’re growing your plants for the next season?

There are dozens of ways to do it and ultimately it depends on where you live and what you have access to. Not everyone can take the grass clippings from a freshly mowed lawn and add it to their compost pile. Some people live in a desert and there’s almost no such thing as dried autumn leaves. My hope is that everyone will find this helpful so that you can create nutrient rich compost that you can add to your garden space no matter where you live.

Let me start by encouraging you to compost if you can. It’s not a bad thing at all, and there are ways to avoid creating a stinking, fly attracting pile of goo that makes your neighbors call the office to complain.

What is composting?

Composting is basically taking organic materials, letting it rot and break down before finally putting it into the soil when you pot your next plant. There are many ways to do it. This is how we do it:

Right now, we use a couple of 5 gallon buckets. You can get these at any hardware store. We recently picked up a composting bag that we sell here in our online store. After we’ve tried it out, we’ll let you know if we like it. If you’ve used one before, let us know in the comments what you think!

What should I compost?

You can compost just about anything. Meat and animal byproducts are generally not recommended, however there are composting methods where this is completely acceptable. I will say I used a fish carcass earlier this year and it broke down really well.

When you compost, you need to be sure to create a good balance between green materials and brown materials.

Green Materials include anything that’s usually wet. These mostly come from food scraps:

  • Grass clippings
  • Coffee Grounds & Tea bags
  • Fruit & Vegetable scraps
  • Clippings from your plants (like flowers that are beginning to die in your vase)

Brown Materials include the dryer organic material, usually wood-based:

  • Autumn Leaves & Pine needles
  • Pieces of trees like twigs, branches, and bark
  • Straw or Hay
  • Saw Dust
  • Corn Stalks
  • Paper (like coffee filters, newspaper clippings, or paper plates)
  • Corrugated cardboard – just make sure you peel the tape and all the labels off

So how do we do it in our garden space?

Like I mentioned before, we use 5 gallon buckets, but before they end up in the buckets outside, we actually have a little collection bin inside. We took an old plastic coffee can (plastic can?) and add to it each time we cook. The kids eat apples, the core goes in the can; we peel an onion or a banana, it goes in the can; potato peels, carrot peels, the stem pieces of tomatoes and jalapenos, all go in the can.  If you’re worried about it beginning to break down in your home and stinking up your kitchen, I recommend putting it in the freezer. This stops the organic matter from breaking down completely. When you’re ready to take it out to the compost pile (or bucket in our case) let it thaw first so you can stir it in easily.

Getting the perfect mix, or balance between the brown and the green is important. The goal is to get your compost mix to heat up so it can break down. If your pile begins to smell, give it a stir and cover it with some soil more brown matter. If it’s not breaking down fast enough, add some green matter. The great thing about our buckets is that they come with lids. It not only helps keep the bugs out, we roll it back and forth a few times to keep it mixed well.

Turning the Compost

Stirring (also known as “Turning”) is key because it helps everything breakdown efficiently. It basically boils down to aeration. Decomposition happens because of microbes and these microbes need to breathe in order to live and function.  As everything begins to decompose, it heats up. Too much heat and the microbes die off and decomposition actually slows down. Also, as things decompose, you’ll probably notice it gets extra wet. Too much moisture isn’t good either. A good stir, or roll in the bucket, will help clear out those pockets of liquid. Stirring also help keep the smells down.

In the beginning, give it a good stir a few times a week. As it breaks down, you’ll only need to do it a few times a month. In as little as a few months, you will have beautiful compost that your plants will love.

Okay, that’s great – but I live in an area where it gets bitterly cold in the winter. Won’t my bucket freeze? I’m not bringing that thing inside.

True. There are ways around that. I know I just talked about the importance of turning, but in the winter, you actually want to turn it less. The outer part will be cold, but the inner part will be insulated. Turning it will actually make the heat escape and we don’t want that. In the cold winter months, insulation is your friend. You can place your bucket in a sunny spot on your patio if you have one. If not, add cardboard, leaves, straw, or sawdust to help keep your bucket insulated.

But don’t worry. The cold can be your friend. Even if your compost bucket freezes completely and the process halts, you don’t need to stop composting. Just keep adding your kitchen scraps. The freeze-thaw cycle will still break down everything you’re adding. When spring arrives, everything will actually decompose much faster.

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