Is it possible to compost in the city?

June 2007

Dear Laura,
I live in the city and last summer I started buying a CSA share, which I love, but I don't know what to do with all of the stems, leaves and things we don't eat. Is it possible to compost in the city? I'm sure my houseplants could use the extra food but I only have a small balcony and limited indoor space.

Joan Drew
New York, N.Y.


Hi Joan,
I am so glad you asked this question because I have been meaning to figure out the same thing for myself. I try and use as much of my veggies as possible but every week I cringe when I have to throw away carrot tops, kale spines and often turnip greens (I just don't like them, don't tell my farmer!). All that organic matter should not go to waste. If you have a little time and energy, even apartment dwellers can compost!

Now, since I am in the same boat that you are, never having composted seriously before, I should start by saying if you have specific questions we will find you a master composter to help out. I will just outline the basics. In an apartment, with a balcony or other limited outdoor space, you have two options: composting with worms inside or container composting on your balcony.

Composting with worms, or vermiculture, is pretty neat. Actually, we are contemplating doing it here at the Farm Aid office. I will be sure to report in and let you know how it is going. Basically, you need a worm bin, which can be a plastic container or a wooden box - pretty much anything that you can put air holes in and has a cover. Size-wise, you need about one square foot of surface area per pound of food waste per week. One good tip is to store your waste in a bag in the freezer. This way you can control how much goes to your worms in any given week so they don't get overwhelmed - and there is no chance of bad smells.

OK. To start the worm box you need bedding materials, black and white newspaper torn in strips works well. Just wet them so they are moist, mix in a little soil and you are ready to go. One pound of worms should get you started pretty well - read on for information about where to buy them.

You can add all kinds of veggie scraps, egg shells, tea bags, coffee grounds but stay away from meat products, bones or dairy. You want to bury the scraps in the soil a bit so they don't cause an odor. If the worms don't eat everything, feed them a little less. In about six months you should be ready to harvest your compost. To do so, gently push the compost over to one side of the bin and put new bedding on the other side with some fresh food. In a few weeks, the worms will migrate over to the new side and you can use your compost. Sprinkling this black gold on your house plans each time you water will make a big difference.

Container composting is not that different from worm composting. You need a container. You can either get them from the city for about $20 or use any container that has air holes, will keep rodents out and can be easily maneuvered. You want to start the bin with leaves, newspaper, finished compost or potting soil - moistened but not soaked.

Just like with the worms you add food scraps, bury them a bit and then keep an eye on the compost. You want to keep it moist by watering every now and then. You also need to turn it from time to time to make sure everything breaks down - once a month should work ok. Once you do it for a while, you will get the feel for what your bin needs - could be more or less depending on how much waste you are adding, the outside temperature and all kinds of other things.

The New York City Compost Project is an excellent resource for you. They sell bins, have composting classes and organize compost giveback days. The web site has step-by-step instructions on how to start your compost, in much more detail than what I have laid out here, as well as links to worm buying sites and just about everything else you need. Good work NYC!!!

Remember: you don't need a back yard to compost, it doesn't smell bad (if it does, it might be time to take the Master Composter class that the city puts on), it's not expensive to set up, it doesn't take a whole lot of work and your plants or garden will never be happier.

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