Heaps of choice: composting options for urban gardeners

by Emma Cooper

Carol Klein’s composting might have caused some controversy lately but for many urban gardeners, having a compost heap has always been a little bit tricky – a lack of space, soil, or somewhere secluded to hide a heap are just a few of the possible challenges.

Composting isn’t the most glamorous gardening activity, but it is one of the most important, as composting your waste not only benefits the environment, but also provides a free resource to help your garden thrive. As well as increasing fertility, so you can do away with commercial plant food, compost improves the structure of the soil so it has the right amount of air and moisture in it to grow strong and healthy plants.

The good news for urban gardeners is, you don’t need a traditional heap to make good compost. There’s a method to suit everyone, so you can do your bit for plants and planet in a way that fits your space and style.

If you’re short on space…

If you have a small garden, patio or balcony, a worm composter is the ideal choice. These self-contained units don’t need to sit on soil and there are very compact models available. The basic idea is that you have a plastic or wooden container, with ventilation holes, in which composting worms live. They eat their way through kitchen waste such as fruit and vegetable peelings, tea bags, kitchen paper and the odd cardboard tube.

The end products are a regular supply of liquid plant food, and a small amount of very rich compost. Worms need to be kept somewhere that doesn’t freeze in winter, or bake in summer, and you can’t neglect them entirely, but they make very low maintenance pets! It’s even possible to keep a worm composter indoors, although that’s a step too far for most people.

If you’re short on time…

You may be under the impression that a compost heap needs lots of love and attention to make ‘proper’ compost, but that’s not entirely the case. While it’s true that a traditional ‘hot’ heap (where layers of different materials are built into a heap that heats up enough to kill plants seeds and diseases) needs to be turned regularly to keep it working, a ‘cold’ heap composts almost as well with a lot less effort – it just takes a bit more time. For cold composting, all you do is add your waste as you have it ready, and let it rot down over several months. A cold heap can deal with soft garden waste, kitchen waste (see above for suitable ingredients) and a certain amount of waste paper and cardboard. It’s not the place for cooked food, meat or dairy products, which could attract rats.

Although you don’t have to turn a cold compost heap, you do need to remove the finished compost once or twice a year. An even lower effort choice is to site a Green Cone at the back of a border. The Green Cone system looks like a regular compost bin but has a basket at the bottom that’s buried to allow organic matter to be transferred directly into the soil – you rarely need to dig out the compost or move the cone.

If looks matter…

If you can’t hide your compost bin at the bottom of the garden, look for one you’d be happy to show off. For a cottage garden-feel choose a wooden beehive compost bin – you can paint it to blend in with your garden. Or for a more urban look, try one made from galvanised steel. Alternatively, you could go for a pop-up compost bin that can be stored away when it’s not in use.

If you’re nervous…

If you want to compost your kitchen waste but you’re worried about smells or attracting vermin, then a Bokashi system may be for you. It’s not strictly composting, more of a pre-treatment for your waste. A Bokashi system uses two buckets with lids, and taps at the bottom. You add your leftover food to one of the buckets, along with a sprinkling of Bokashi bran. The bran is home to Effective Micro-organisms (EMs) which go to work on your waste and (more-or-less) pickle it. Excess liquid is drained off and can be diluted as a plant food, or used to clean your drains! When one bin is full you leave it to one side for a fortnight and fill the other. The result is a bin of food that looks much the same as when it went in, and smells of vinegar, but will break down very quickly if you add it to a compost heap.

If you’re not convinced…

If none of these options fit the bill then speak to your local council and see if they have food or garden waste collections. (A Bokashi system can be used to store food waste without smells, if your local council collects it.) Let them do the heavy lifting, and when you need compost for the garden you can head to the recycling centre and pick up a bag of ready-made green waste compost.

Emma Cooper is a writer, gardener and Master Composter. She lives in Oxfordshire with her husband Pete and five pet chickens. Find out more at http://emmacooper.org/.



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