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10 Tips for Composting in the City

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Consumers throw away more than 200 million pounds (90,718 metric tons) of trash every day in the United States. Fifteen percent of it comes from our kitchen and yard waste, and generally ends up in our landfills [source: Bailey].

Composting keeps this nutrient-rich organic matter from going to waste by turning it into fertilizer for your container vegetables, window boxes and hanging baskets. It’s a way to speed up nature’s recycling process by creating the ideal conditions for rapid decomposition of organic materials, turning the nutrients from once-living materials into humus — a fertile dark, crumbly material that helps improve soil health.


The humus produced by composting is a source of minerals and nutrients that are essential for plant growth. While synthetic fertilizers may provide a temporary solution for poor soil, composting changes the structure of the ground making it nutritionally rich. It also benefits the environment by recycling valuable organic resources, reducing air pollution from refuse trucks and extending the life of landfills.

Contrary to what you might think, composting doesn’t smell bad, it isn’t expensive to set up and it’s easy to do. In fact, bugs and worms do most of the work for you. Plus, it allows you to make the most of the small space you may have available in the city for gardening.

Can’t wait to get started? Read on for some tips on composting in the city.

10: Understand How It Works

There’s no need to take Composting 101 or read a lengthy how-to manual to be successful at composting. It’s something just about anyone can do. But while it’s easy, there are a few things you might want to understand before you start.

The four basic requirements for composting are air, water, carbon and nitrogen. The right amount of air and water will ensure the rapid reproduction of decomposers, the organisms that break down the carbon and nitrogen materials in your compost pile. Decomposers include bacteria, bugs, worms and fungi, of which bacteria are the most plentiful.


Aerobic bacteria thrive in an oxygen-rich environment and are the most effective at decomposition. When there isn’t enough air in the pile, anaerobic bacteria move in and decomposition becomes slow and inefficient. Anaerobic bacteria also leave behind hydrogen sulfide, which gives off an unpleasant rotten egg smell. So, you’ll want to make sure your pile gets enough air.

You should also strive to keep your pile moist, but not soggy. When moisture decreases, the deposition of your pile slows. Too much moisture and it becomes air deficient, encouraging the growth of anaerobic bacteria.

Carbon comes from dry, lifeless materials from your kitchen and garden, and nitrogen from the moist, fresh waste. Compost forms best with a 30:1 carbon-to-nitrogen ratio [source: National Sierra Club]. You should try to balance these elements in your compost pile, but maintaining the exact ratio isn’t that critical.

9: Select the Bin That Fits

Although a bin isn’t necessary, especially if you’re composting only yard waste, it will ensure that your compost pile is tidy and compact. In most instances, an enclosed do-it-yourself box or a store-bought container poses a better choice than a loose pile.

Composting bins keep warmth and moisture in and pets, rodents and other pests out. They come in just about any size and shape, and fit any budget.


You’ll want to consider the amount of space available. You might choose one that is several square feet for your yard. In an apartment, you’ll want something that can be easily moved to a corner of the balcony before guests arrive or maybe a countertop model that slides under your cabinets.

Consider your décor when choosing. You’ll find bins made of plastic, wood, metal and ceramic. You can make your own using wooden pallets, cinder blocks or even old rubber tires. Add a personal touch by painting it your favorite color, mounting flower boxes on top or planting a vine around the edges.

The type and location of the bin make a difference in the amount of time you spend tending to your pile. Use a tumbling bin for easy aerating. A bin near the house encourages everyday use. Placement next to your garden bed requires less hauling. And a spot in the sun might need more watering, but could be good for a cold climate.

With so many options, you’re sure to find the bin that fits.

8: Think Green and Brown

Nitrogen comes from your green kitchen and yard waste, and carbon comes from brown waste. You’ll need both for your compost.

When looking for nitrogen-rich materials, think of green, fresh, moist items. Include green plants, garden trimmings, leaves, flowers and grass clippings. Eggshells, tea bags, coffee grounds and fruit and vegetable scraps from your kitchen are also good.


Carbon comes from dry garden materials, such as fall leaves and twigs, brown plant material, straw and hay, pine needles and potting soil. Kitchen items include shredded newspaper, bread and grains, nutshells, corncobs and food-soiled paper towels and napkins.

To make gathering compost materials more convenient, keep bags of yard waste near your compost pile and make a temporary home for your kitchen scraps in a compost pail or a designated spot in your freezer. This will help you avoid an excessive number of trips to the compost bin, as well fruit flies and odors inside your house.

Without enough greens, your compost pile will decompose very slowly. Without enough browns, it may smell bad. So, it’s important that you have a balance. In general, you can figure that you’ll need 25-30 times more brown waste than green [source: Bailey]. If you have a hard time figuring the ratio, it’s better to error on the side of too many browns. When determining the right mix, take your cues from your compost pile. If it’s mushy, add some carbon. If it doesn’t seem to be decomposing much, you’ll need to add more nitrogen.

7: Cover It Up

As green nitrogen-rich materials decompose, you may notice an ammonium odor coming from your compost pile. To prevent odors be sure to mix carbon-rich browns thoroughly into the pile and cover newly added greens with brown materials. By burying the greens with browns, you’ll not only alleviate odors, you’ll keep pests and flies from infesting your pile.

If you’re composting indoors with worms, it’s also important to cover their food with carbon materials such as shredded newspaper. To prevent rotting food odor, monitor the worms’ intake. If they aren’t eating everything you put in the container, feed them a little less.


6: Make It Rodent Proof

If your compost bin is enclosed, rodents shouldn’t be a problem. But, if they’ve found a way in, it’s time to take action.

First, watch what you put in your compost pile. Avoid meat and dairy products, and fatty foods, which tend to attract animals. Other food scraps should be well-concealed beneath a 2 to 3-inch (5 to 8-centimeter) layer of brown materials, such as dry leaves. Turn the materials regularly to prevent nesting and each time you add greens, cover them up with more browns.


Next, examine your bin. Make sure there are no holes or gaps larger than a quarter inch (.64 centimeters). If your bin sits on soil, lay a piece of screen between the soil and the bottom of the bin to prevent rats and other burrowing animals from getting through. A vertical screen inserted 6 to 8 inches (about 15 to 20 centimeters) into the ground around the perimeter of the bin will also help to keep the critters out.

5: Keep It Damp

Dried-out compost piles will eventually break down, but it could take some time. Keep your pile moist, but not too soggy. The dampness of a wrung-out sponge is ideal for organisms to turn plant materials into finished compost.

Turn your pile as you spray it with water to evenly coat all materials. If you find it too hard to turn, make deep holes in it, stick a garden hose down them and turn on the spigot. Leaves should glisten with moisture and shredded paper should be wet, but not mushy.


Hot, dry climates may need a little extra water to reach the right moisture level. Let nature help out. If your weather forecast calls for rain, leave the top off of your compost container to enjoy the shower. But be sure to replace the cover after the storm to retain heat and moisture, as well as to keep out pests.

4: Let It Breathe

In order to do their work, microorganisms need to breathe. Turning your compost often will ensure the proper aeration. If your pile is large, turn it a section at a time. Stirring it up not only gives your compost a shot of fresh air, but also distributes excess water and speeds up the decomposition process by promoting contact between the greens and browns. Compacted piles also have a tendency to smell. A few turns can reduce the odors.

You’ll want to mix and fluff the compost. With a long-handled rake, pitchfork or even a long stick, move the inside of the pile outward and the outer areas to the inside. It’s best to do this every two to four weeks [source: The City of New York].


3: Speed Up the Process

So, when will your compost be done? If you add materials now and then, and turn it sporadically, you most likely won’t see the finished product for a year or more. However, if you’re getting tired of waiting for your compost to mature, there are ways to speed up the process.

When it comes to composting, smaller is better. Smaller pieces of material break down faster than bulky items. Use your hand pruners or a knife to cut large pieces of yard waste into pieces not more than 4-inches long (a little over 10 centimeters). And make sure your kitchen scraps are also chopped into bite-size chunks.


Turning your pile more frequently also will speed up the process. Mix things up at least once a week and spray it with water to keep it damp.

With a little extra care, you could have finished compost in just three months [source: The City of New York].

2: Test for Doneness

The time it takes for compost to mature varies. It’s partially determined by climate. Warm temperatures increase microbial activity and speed up the decomposition process. Cool temperatures slow things down. The types of materials you use and the amount of attention you give your pile to ensure it has enough air and moisture also affect timing. Your compost might be ready to use in three months or it could take more than a year before it’s fully mature.

Your finished compost will have no resemblance to the materials you tossed in the pile. If it looks dark and crumbly, it might be ready to use. But you’ll want to make sure. An immature mixture that still contains food scraps could attract rodents or other vermin.


A simple bag test will indicate when your compost is ready. Put a handful of the compost into a ziplock bag and leave it sealed for a week or so. When you open the bag, it should have a pleasant, earthy smell to it. If it has a sour odor or has an ammonia smell, the microorganisms are still at work. It’s best to give it another week to finish curing. After a week, test it again.

1: Use It Wisely

Compost gives a boost to any indoor or outdoor plant. Spread several inches on your vegetable garden in the fall and mix it into the soil come springtime. When planting, put a handful in each hole. Once plants begin to grow, add a half-inch (1.27 centimeters) around their base. If your compost contains plant cuttings or grass clippings that have been sprayed with pesticides, don’t use it on fruits or vegetables.

After the ground has softened in spring, loosen the top few inches of your flowerbeds and mix in a layer of compost. Then, use it as mulch to control weeds and conserve moisture. Add compost twice a year to potted plants and window boxes to make your flowers flourish. Or, use it to make your own potting soil using two parts of your mixture to one part sand.

Top dressing with compost will green up your grass. If you have a spreader, that’s the easiest way to apply it. If not, a shovel and rake will work. Treat bald spots by mixing compost into the soil before reseeding.

Apply up to 2 inches (a little over 5 centimeters) under trees to reduce moisture loss, stabilize soil temperature and provide nutrients. Compost placed directly against the bark of the tree could cause rot and invite pests, so be sure to leave some space.

Use your compost wisely and you’ll soon be enjoying the fruits, and vegetables, of your labor; your daylilies and lawn will be the envy of the neighborhood; and your plants will never be happier.

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Bailey, Owen. “Learn to Compost in Your Backyard.” The Sierra Club Foundation. (April 12, 2011)http://action.sierraclub.org/site/PageServer?pagename=CompostingGreenTips&s_src=N11ZSEGO03&s_subsrc=Composting&gclid=CODagoCwl6gCFYob4Qod6HT8Cg

Farm Aid. “Is it possible to compost in the city?” June 2007. (April 12, 2011)http://www.farmaid.org/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=qlI5IhNVJsE&b=2723877&content_id={55D38A54-7BE5-4456-BF49-CE9386B7DFE8}¬oc=1&msource=adwords&gclid=CKX8x5Svl6gCFdFX4QodqVFoCg

McLaughlin, Chris. “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting.” Alpha Books. 2010

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National Sierra Club. “Home Composting.” The Sierra Club Foundation. (April 12, 2011)http://www.sierraclubgreenhome.com/go-green/composting/composting

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The City of New York. “Chemical Decomposers-Microorganisms.” (April 12, 2011)http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycwasteless/html/compost/science_decomposters_mircroorganisms.shtml

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The City of New York. “New York City Outdoor Composting Guide.” June 2009 (April 12, 2011)http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycwasteless/downloads/pdf/materials/nyc_composting_guide.pdf

The City of New York. “Setting Up Your Outdoor Bin.” (April 12, 2011)http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycwasteless/html/compost/edu_outdoor_setup.shtml

The City of New York. “Troubleshooting Outdoor Composting.” (April 12, 2011)http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycwasteless/html/compost/edu_outdoor_problems.shtml

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The City of New York. “Using Compost for Trees and Shrubs.” (April 13, 2011)http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycwasteless/html/compost/edu_using_trees.shtml

The City of New York. “Using Compost on Lawns/Turf.” (April 13, 2011)http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycwasteless/html/compost/edu_using_lawn.shtml

The City of New York. “Using Compost to Grow Plants.” (April, 13, 2011)http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycwasteless/html/compost/edu_using_plants.shtml

The City of New York. “Using Your Compost.” (April 12, 2011)http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycwasteless/html/compost/edu_using.shtml

The City of New York. “What is Compost?” (April 12, 2011)http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycwasteless/html/compost/science.shtml

University of Illinois Extension. “Composting Basics.” (April 12, 2011)http://urbanext.illinois.edu/homecomposting/basics.html

University of Illinois Extension. “Composting Troubleshooting.” (April 12, 2011)http://urbanext.illinois.edu/homecomposting/troubleshooting.html

University of Illinois Extension. “Follow the Basic 1-2-3.” (April 12, 2011)http://urbanext.illinois.edu/homecomposting/follow123.html

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