Composting in small spaces

One of the joys of composting is the awareness it gives us of how much waste we actually produce. When we save waste to use for compost, the scale of our consumption is hard to ignore. Composting is one way to reduce the amount of waste we generate as well as providing a replacement for toxic fertilizers, improving soil quality, and reducing waste entering landfills.

There are many ways to compost in a small space. The easiest and quickest way is to use a worm bin for vermicomposting. For beginners, this is the perfect solution as you don’t need to do much because the worms do all the work. Verimculture, or vermicomposting, is the breakdown of organic material by vermis, or worms. The worms move through the waste and turn it into castings, which helps build the compost.

Creating a worm bin

You can use all sorts of containers for worm bins. If you have an old bucket or container, these will work well. Alternatively, you can use timber boxes or containers, or make them yourself. To start, you’ll need to ensure you’ve got one container that is small enough to sit easily inside the other one. The small container needs to have some small holes drilled or cut into the bottom of it, and needs to be enclosed, with a lid or top that will stop the worms from getting out.

Once you’ve got containers sorted, place the smaller container with a number of small holes drilled into the bottom of it, into the larger one. Place some shredded newspaper into the bottom of the small bin. Add water to the paper until it feels moist. Then add a thin layer of soil from the garden.

Then it’s time to add the worms. You can often buy worms at your local garden centre. Have a quick search online for the closest store to you. Buying worms from local sources is the best option as they will be used to the climatic conditions at your home.

Red wrigglers are generally the best type of worms to use as they are known to break down waste quickly.

These worms like to be left alone so it’s best to feed them once a week. When you’re collecting food scraps, store them in an airtight container for a week or so and then tip into the worm bin. Cover the food scraps with another layer of shredded paper and soil, and repeat once a week.

Liquid will drain through the holes in the small container and pool in the bottom of the larger container. Every so often, empty the liquid from the larger container. It is nutrient-rich and great as a liquid fertiliser for the garden.

Once the compost bin is full, it should also be ready to use on your garden. If you want to keep the worms and repeat the process, feed the worms on one side of the bin for a week to draw them to that area. Then empty the compost from the other side of the bin. Some worms will remain in the compost, but they’re great for the garden too.

Alternatively, if the thought of having hundreds of worms around is not for you, you can set up your own compact composting system, minus the worms.

Traditional composting

To make a compost bin for a small space, you’ll need to find or make a suitable container. Old plastic containers work well, as do buckets and wooden boxes. Once you start looking, you’ll be amazed at what you can find to upcycle for a compost bin. The only necessity is that it has a lid, and small aeration holes can be drilled into the lid. You’ll also want to make sure its as airtight as possible to stop flies and other insects being attracted to it if it’s being kept indoors.

Wooden boxes are also great. Some ideas for upcycling include old drawers or wine crates. To use wooden containers, it’s often a good idea to line the inside. We recommend using recycled baking paper or similar. If you don’t have a lid for your wooden box, you can cover it with a heavy fabric and make small holes for aeration in the fabric.

Where to store a compost bin indoors

Compost bins can be stored anywhere there is space – on the deck, in a hall cupboard, in the garage or out in the open. If you have the space, storing the bin under the sink in the kitchen allows you to easily collect kitchen scraps and put straight into the compost.

What can I compost?

Many organic materials can be put into a compost bin: fruit and vegetable scraps, trimmings from plants, shredded paper, coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, toilet paper, and dry lint. What you put in though, does need to be small in size to allow it to break down quickly in the small space. Some food scraps won’t break down quickly in a small bin, such as pumpkin and banana skins, for example. These are more suited to larger, outdoor compost heaps.

There are certain things to avoid adding to your bin such as: meat, dairy products, bones, and larger pieces of waste.

Looking after your compost

The contents of your bin need to be turned and aerated often. Mixing the contents prevents them from becoming too wet or too dry. You can use a shovel or hand trowel to move the contents around, or, if you are using a bucket, roll it back and forth.

To prevent the contents from staying too wet, add some dry leaves, shredded paper or sawdust to your bin. These help dry the bin out and restore the balance between materials, allowing them to break down quickly.  

On the other hand, if the contents are very dry moisten them using a spray bottle or by adding moisture-rich items like tea bags or vegetables which are past their prime.

Using your compost

How long your food scraps will take to break down will depend on various things including climate, what you’re composting, and how wet or dry the mix is. You’ll know when compost is ready to be used in the garden because it looks and smells like dark, rich soil. When ready, It can be stored or used as a nutrient-rich mulch or fertiliser for potted plants or gardens.