Compact Compost Solutions: Composting With Limited Room

By: Becca Badgett, Co-author of How to Grow an EMERGENCY Garden

Compost is an important ingredient/additive to our garden soil; in fact, it’s likely the most important amendment we can use. Compost adds organic matter and improves soil texture. Aiding soil quality and improving drainage is reason enough to add compost to our garden beds.

But what if you don’t have a yard and barely have the space for a few garden containers? Compost is just as important when growing a garden in those containers too. The solution: explore the different ways to practice small space composting.

Compact Compost Solutions

There are different containers we can use indoors to collect and mix composting materials. Small compost bins can fit under your sink, in a corner of the pantry, or under a cabinet, wherever you might have the space.

  • Five-gallon buckets
  • Wooden boxes
  • Worm bins
  • Rubbermaid containers
  • Tumbler composter

All these need lids if there is not one attached or included. Vegetable peelings and some kitchen scraps are perfect for composting. These make up the green (nitrogen) part of the compost. Don’t add dairy or meat into any compost. Composting materials should not smell bad or attract bugs in any case, but most especially if you compost indoors.

The addition of yard waste, like grass clippings and leaves, makes up the brown portion of your compost. Shredded newspaper and shredded regular paper can go in the mix, but don’t use glossy paper, such as magazine covers, as it won’t break down as quickly.

Containers that don’t have solid sides and bottoms may be lined with a plastic bag. Turn the compost regularly, as often as possible. The more times it is turned, the more quickly it will become brown, earthy dirt. Turning the brown and green mixture leads to anaerobic decomposition that creates compost.

Tumbler composters are great options for composting with limited room in the landscape. These will spin and build up a heat core more quickly, thus giving you usable compost much faster. Although compact, tumblers need more room than most other options but they’re still a good choice if you have space on a deck or in a garage, and have use for larger amounts of compost.

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Read more about Composting Basics

Got Food Scraps?

Your food scraps and organic waste are the lifeblood of any compost pile, so why not make the earth smile with these precious goods that are created right in your kitchen? If you don’t have the means or space to create your own mini compost bin, there are still ways you can contribute to compost without adding bulk to your garbage can and, ultimately, the landfill.

Local composting services are an earth-friendly alternative since they help reduce waste for those who don’t wish to create their own compost but still want to make a difference. By providing a small bin for you each week, these companies do almost all of the work. All you need to do is toss all your food scraps and organic waste into the bin, and they will pick it up.

Check with your city’s refuse department to see if they have a composting program. Oftentimes the green garbage can that’s picked up weekly by the city is designated for food scraps and yard trimmings only, but if you live in an apartment you may not have this option. Ask your property manager or owner to become a participant in your city’s composting program. These programs usually provide a small compost pail for food waste that you can then add to a building compost cart, to be picked up weekly.

Another way to contribute to compost without doing the work at home is to collect your food waste and drop it off at a composting center. Earth 911 has a practical search tool to help you find a drop-off center in your area. For information on what you can and can’t compost, Planet Natural has a helpful list of items that are safe to include. Learn how to get started composting in small spaces by checking out Sustainable America’s helpful infographic, and then tell us about your composting tips on Twitter!

The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom’s of Maine.

Why It’s Good

Composting is a simple way to reduce landfill waste and give back to the planet. No matter if you're garden-free and live in a small space, your composting contributions can still make a big difference for your family and neighbors (and the world).

Small Space Composting

I try really hard to be as green as possible, but when it comes to composting, I’ve not been able to get beyond buying those green biodegradable compost bags at the supermarket and tossing them into the big brown compost bin provided by the local council a few times a week. Basically I’m letting someone else do my composting for me, and then when I want compost for my plants at home, I go buy the expensive bagged up stuff from the garden centre. (So ridiculous!) So I asked fellow green blogger Kayla Kamp if she’d write something for me on composting, which is one of her areas of expertise. If you’re anything like me and are a beginner at composting and/or you live in a small urban space, the idea of composting can be a challenge. (Rotting food, worms, ewwww.) So my challenge to Kayla was to write something for people like me – beginners who don’t have a lot of outdoor space (or even any outdoor space at all).

I know I’m looking forward to learning more about composting and if you want to learn more too, Kayla blogs over at Ever Change Productions with the idea that we should create more and consume less. For the past 6 years, she’s been striving to inspire others to make use of their waste. Learn more about her story here.

Why You Should Compost – Even Without a Garden

With more people than ever moving into smaller spaces, it’s becoming increasingly important to share the good news that small space composting is possible!

A few years ago I got the composting bug. It seemed like a great way to reduce food waste and to take the next step in my young environmentalist journey. However, there was one small problem – I lived in an apartment.

I did have a little patch of grass that I used for a minuscule container garden, but I knew with all the composting myths that starting a compost bin would be out of the question. Plus, I didn’t have the skills to build a bin or the money for a composting tumbler. But once I get an idea in my head, it holds on tight, so I set out to find a way to a small space composting solution. For cheap.

Optimal Bin Size & W hy It’s Important

Before we get too much further into this, let’s go over some composting basics.

The optimal bin size for a home compost pile is 3 square feet (1 square metre). Anything smaller might not heat up high enough to breakdown all the materials or it might lose heat and slow down the process. Air naturally penetrates a pile 18 to 24 inches (45 to 70 cm), which makes a 3 square foot (1 square metre) bin a manageable size.

A larger pile tends to hold too much water, which may create an anaerobic environment. It’s also much harder to turn, so it might be too much for some to manage without special equipment.

Today, there are some pretty creative ways to compost even if you don’t have access to that outdoor space.

What to Compost

Deciding what to compost depends on what composting set-up you use. For example, a common backyard bin needs a certain amount of carbon to nitrogen ratio to decompose efficiently. These are often referred to as greens and browns, but if you use a Bokashi fermenting process, you’ll only need nitrogen-rich ingredients. Worms need both carbon for bedding and nitrogen for food. But there are certain foods they can’t eat and certain bedding materials cause the bin to heat up as they break down.

Carbon, often referred to as browns, are the dry materials and nitrogen are the green, fresh materials. In a common outdoor compost bin, greens provide protein and moisture for organisms. The browns allow airflow throughout the pile and provides energy for organisms. To start off your pile it’s safe to add the same amount of brown material as you do green. The ideal ratio is 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen.

Piles with too much nitrogen tend to smell sour, because the excess nitrogen converts into an ammonia gas. Carbon-rich piles break down slowly because there’s not enough nitrogen for the microbe population to thrive. See this list of comprehensive composting materials for inspiration.

Small Space Composting Options When You Have No Garden

If you don’t have a backyard, you might think small space composting isn’t an option. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Depending on whether you have a balcony, there are a few composting options that don’t require a yard or garden.

Worm Bins

Some people might prefer a wormless composting system, but plllleeeease give the worms a chance. They’re such hard workers and really easy to manage. If you manage the bin correctly, they won’t even bother you. They’re as happy as can be, just to hang out and eat without saying a word.

Worm composting, or vermicomposting, is perfect for composting indoors. All you need is small plastic tote. I’ve even made a vermicomposting system using three cat litter buckets. You can read more about my vermicomposting system here.

If you decide to go this route, here is an affiliate link to Uncle Jim’s worm farm. They have great customer service and products. I will get a small percentage from each sale at no additional cost to you.

-Fits in small spaces
-Doesn’t need to heat up
-Doesn’t require turning
-Worms do all the work
-You get to play with worms! (This could also be a con, depending on your point of

– Materials you can compost are limited
– They can’t eat some foods and some bedding materials will heat up the bin

Electrical Composter

Now this might blow your mind it certainly did mine, but there is something called an electric composter. And if you have a serious aversion to any to the creepy crawliness of composting, then this might the answer for you. Seriously, this thing is so low maintenance. With a few hours and pushing a couple of buttons, you can have finished compost.

– You have finished compost in hours
– Perfect for people who don’t have much to compost
– Doesn’t require carbon-rich materials
– Can compost meat and dairy

– Can’t compost many scraps at a time
– Requires electricity
– Fairly expensive composting system
– Doesn’t have as many nutrients as traditional compost

Bokashi Buckets

Bokashi Buckets don’t follow other composting rules. Most of these other methods use aerobic decomposition. The bokashi system uses anaerobic, meaning it doesn’t use air to complete its decomposition cycles. The anaerobic component of bokashi buckets, means it doesn’t compost all the way. Instead, it ferments. At the end of the cycle, you have to bury the fermented ingredients, which might not be ideal for apartment dwellers. You can learn more about the bokashi bucket here.

– Fits in a small space
– Doesn’t require carbon-rich materials
– Can compost meat and dairy

– Doesn’t produce finished compost
– Requires burial to finish the composting process

Composting Options When You Have a Small Garden

If you have a rental home, duplex or even some apartments, you might be lucky enough to have a small yard. Although, the former options are totally open to you, you might have a couple more composting options.

Like I mentioned before, the optimal compost bin is only 3 feet (1 metre) wide. Before you set up any kind of composting bin, be sure to ask your landlord. There are tons of benefits for compost in the short term, but the long term benefits far outweigh any benefits of synthetic fertilizer.

Compost Bin

The optimal compost bin is 3 feet by 3 feet (1 square metre). You can build your own compost bin with unlimited materials, such as scrap wood, fence panels, even garden fence wire.

If you have the space, a compost bin is the best option because it’s the optimum size.

Other systems have other ways of dealing the lack of proper space, but a compost
bin is the perfect set-up.

– Can be made with any kind of structure
– Efficient compost

– Requires more space than some other systems
– Requires proper turning and water maintenance

Compost Tumbler

If a compost bin is out of the question because of space or other reasons, a compost tumbler is a good substitute. The tumbler requires similar conditions to a standard
compost bin.

– Easier to turn
– Doesn’t require a lot of space
– Doesn’t require permanent alterations in your yard

– More expensive than a compost bin

Green Cone

A green cone uses solar power to speed up the composting process and is able to compost 2 pounds of food per day. Not only does it compost more food in a shorter time frame, but also it can compost vegetable scraps, raw and cooked meat or fish, bones, dairy products and other organic food waste such as bread and pasta.

The Green Cone Composter has a basket installed below the ground, which forms the base for an above ground double-walled solar chamber with an access lid. The Green Cone Composter stands 26 inches above ground level and extends 18 inches below ground level. Access is through an 8-inch diameter hole in the top of the solar chamber, which is sealed by a hinged lid with a security catch.

– Composts food quickly
– Doesn’t require carbon-rich materials
– Composts up to 2 pounds of food per day
– Can compost vegetable scraps, raw and cooked meat or fish, bones, dairy
products and other organic food waste such as bread and pasta

– Requires a yard
– Requires a hole in the yard

Just as some cities offer their residents a community garden, others have municipal compost options. If there is no city-wide initiative for composting, check to see if any of your local businesses or universities collect food scraps. Universities usually have a garden and are willing to work with locals to collect scraps. Not sure how to locate your closest compost? There is a great app called ShareWaste which allows you to list yourself as a local compost as well as locate others in your vicinity.

Lastly, there is always the DIY version you can do in the comfort of your own home. This option still includes worms but will likely be cheaper. Worm bins, even on Amazon, can be pricey and if you’re not willing to throw in the dough, a homemade version is the way to go.

First, you’ll need to buy a container, either a plastic or ceramic one, from your local department store. The compost bin will need ventilation, so poke holes in both the lid and base to allow water to drain out. Next, place a tray beneath the container, similar to how you would add drainage to a potted houseplant. Use strips of newspaper, wetted down with water, to soak the bin. Then, you’ll want to pour soil over the newspaper and add in the worms. According to Forbes, the bin must be one square foot for every pound of worms. Add your scraps, then immediately add a layer of shredded, wet paper. Once everything is decomposed, it is ready to use as fertilizer. Remember with worm bins you cannot compost plastic, waste, citrus, meat, bones, or dairy.

Keep the bin in a cool spot in your apartment where it can get some sun.

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Composting in a small, indoor space

Veggie scraps, eggshells and coffee grounds can all be returned to the earth in the form of compost. Photo by Jennifer Gardner

You may have heard of people composting their kitchen scraps and thought, gee, I wish I could compost, but I live in an apartment. Or maybe, I’d like to try composting, but my roommate is. skeptical. Well, have no fear, I’m here to tell you that you can compost even if the space you live in is tiny, located in an urban high-rise, or shared with an unenthusiastic roommate.

So why bother? Why should any of us care about composting? First of all, by composting at home, you can help the planet. Organic waste in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. By composting kitchen scraps and other organic materials instead of tossing them in your trashcan, you can help reduce methane emissions. And when you return organic matter to the earth in the form of compost, you’re building beautiful soil that’s better able to conserve water, absorb excess carbon dioxide, and grow plants without using lots of chemicals.

Set up a system for collecting waste.

You can keep a covered bowl or small bin in your kitchen to collect food scraps. I like to keep my bin next to my trash can under the sink. Almost anything goes except for meat and bones, dairy, and oily foods.

In addition to kitchen scraps, which are your “greens,” and high in nitrogen, you’ll also need to add carbon-rich materials, or “browns” to your compost, such as peanut shells, shredded paper, junk mail, or newspaper clippings.

If you’re composting on your own, rather than outsourcing to a composting service, you’ll want to aim for a ratio of one pail of green waste to two pails of brown waste to effectively break down your scraps. If it starts smelling bad, or goes mushy or soggy, add some more brown waste— torn up newspaper is a good quick fix. If the compost pile is taking a long time to break down or looks dry, add more green waste. You’ll also need to turn it once in a while - unless you’re using worms. (More on that in a second.)

What about the idea of “outsourcing to a composting service”?

Investigate, because this is by far the easiest way to compost if you live in a city. Even if your city doesn’t offer a free composting service, many private companies, such as Veteran Compost and Let Us Compost, will pick up your compost curbside for a fee. To see what’s available near you, check this li st or search here.

Another option is to donate your scraps to a friend who composts. This can get tricky given the necessity of arranging weekly hand-offs, so another option might be to contribute to a community garden, farmers’ market, or urban farm. People who live in Washington DC, for instance, can drop food waste at any farmers’ market, which is then taken to a local composting site at no charge.

If you can’t rely on a composting service, you can choose between two approaches.

One involves worms, also known as vermicomposting, and the other does not. I know what you’re thinking, Ick, gross! Worms?! In my home?! Back in my city-dwelling days in Washington, DC, thinking about the worm part is all it took to discourage me from composting. But I’ve since learned how worms can really efficiently break down table scraps, cardboard, and even lint.

Also, you’re not going to have worms crawling all over your house and snuggling up next to you on your pillow while you sleep at night, I promise. (Though wouldn’t that be cute?) If you do it right, they will stay inside their worm bin and you will never even have to touch them. It’s like having an ant farm. Or a fish tank.

Time to find your bin.

The first step to composting—worms or no worms—is to choose your composter. Because it’ll live indoors, you’ll want to compost in a closed bin that’s small enough to be moved around easily and tucked into a corner of a porch, pantry, or closet. They’re not hard to find. Go ahead and google “compost bins small enough for an apartment.” Lots of choices!

If you’re willing to spend a little extra, you can buy an apartment-sized composter that rapidly breaks down scraps, like the FoodCycler, which claims to break down food by 90 percent in as little as three hours.

Back when I first heard of vermicomposting, it grossed me out. Look at me now! Photo by Jennifer Gardner

If you decide to give vermicomposting a try, a tiered bin like The Worm Factory 360 is a great option that resembles a high-rise for worms. It’s also small enough to move around fairly easily, and comes with accessories, materials to get started and an instructional DVD. If that price point seems off-putting and you’d rather put together your own worm bin, you can Build a Worm Farm for Under $10, or try this Worm Composting bin design. After you’ve set up your bins, you’ll need to add an initial layer of bedding, moisten (but not soak) it, and a layer of food.

More about bringing worms into your home.

So where can you get worms? A good place to start is a friend with a worm bin. Even if they live in a different state, they can mail you some. About 50 worms is a good start. If you’re the vermicomposting pioneer in your community, then order your worms online or buy them at a local nursery. Not just any worms will do. You’ll want worms that are good for vermiculture, like the California Red Wiggler.

Once you’ve got your worms, introduce them into their new home and give them some time to get used to things. Some people recommend dampening a piece of newspaper and placing it on top of the worms to help make sure they’re living in a nice moist environment. Worms don’t like light or extreme temperatures, so be sure to put the lid on and keep the bin in a dark, temperate space in your home.

And now you’re ready to start composting! Remember that small bin of kitchen scraps that you placed under your kitchen sink? Add it to your worm bin no more than once a week, starting in one corner of the bin and working your way around each week. Keep in mind that worms have small mouths, so you’re going to have a better success rate if you chop up your scraps a bit. I’ve seen a few YouTubers mix up their scraps in a blender. (I mean some people really spoil their pets). I don’t think you have to go that far you want this to be easy, after all. But I probably wouldn’t put a whole pineapple top in my worm bin and expect the worms to be able to break it down.

When it comes time to harvest your worm castings, you can easily collect them from the bottom bin after the worms move up to the second tier. If you’re using just one bin, take off the lid, pile up some compost in the middle and place it in direct sunlight. The worms will crawl down into the bottom of the bin and you’ll be able to collect some compost from that pile.

If you decide not to use worms or a quick composter like the FoodCycler, then things may just take a little longer to break down. You may need to start a second bin while you wait for the first one to break down, but as long as you’re managing your greens and browns properly, you should still end up with lovely compost.

What to do with the compost once you have it

I live in an apartment, you say. I don’t have a farm or even a backyard to throw it in. What am I supposed to do with my compost? Well, if you have houseplants, you can sprinkle it on those. Or maybe try your hand at growing an indoor kitchen herb garden. And of course, share the wealth. Do you have friends or family members who could use some compost for their garden? Can you donate it to a community garden? Or maybe you’re looking for some extra income? You might actually be able to sell your compost, especially if you have worm castings. Yes, it’s true! A growing number of vermi-preneurers are making a side hustle of selling both their worms and their worm castings online.

So there you have it

No more FOMO. If you live in a small, urban, indoor space, you don’t have to miss out on the composting fun! And if your questions aren’t covered here, follow Acadia Tucker, author of two gardening books with hefty chapters on composting. It’s also likely someone in your community is giving a composting demo or workshop you can attend and ask more questions in person before getting started.

There is more open-mindedness about the idea of composting than ever before, and people of all ages are realizing it’s not as difficult, gross, or stinky as they once feared. So I really hope you will feel inspired to give it a try because we truly can return so much richness back to the earth from the bounty it gives to us. You may even discover you like worms—especially the way they tickle your hands if you hold them just so.

Jennifer Gardner, a former News Fellow, is a gardener and farmer.

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