I'm lazy and have no real yard. Do I still get to compost my kitchen scraps?
June 17, 2012 1:22 PM   Subscribe

Are there any truly low maintenance, foolproof systems for low volume patio composting? And is it worth doing, if all I have is a patio where I can have potted plants of any size, but no yard to plant stuff in?

Our townhouse has a concrete patio, about 10 by 30 feet. It is fairly sunny.

My kitchen generates a ton of food-trash and a lot of it seems (to my uneducated eye) like stuff that could go in compost. Fruit rinds, coffee grounds, eggshells. Over-the-hill cut flowers (? -- could they go in compost if they aren't organic? I don't know.) The patio is right off the kitchen so it'd be easy to just dump appropriate scraps into something out there.

So, I was thinking maybe it would be smart to get some sort of compost system, to reduce my trash flow. And then maybe I'd be making magically fabulous potting soil that I could effortlessly grow flowers and potted veggies in (in reality, I have always had terrible luck with gardening, but in this fantasy it's all solved by all this splendid compost I'm going to have.)

But when I started researching it I quickly got overwhelmed. It seems like the various systems have potential to attract ants, flies, rats; or release gross juices or stink; if you don't devote a certain amount of work to them. And realistically, neither my husband nor I are going to have time and energy to devote to a compost project. At best, we would be dealing with it (harvesting compost and planting something in it??) for a few minutes every 2-3 weeks. (Although if it's something like turning a crank to mix stuff up, we can do that every day. We water the plants out there regularly.)

So - is there a system out there that would be right for me? Something where you just put in your food scraps, and out comes something you can plant flowers in, without worry, insects, vermin or stank coming into the picture?

Thank you! And please feel free to burst this bubble, if I'm wildly off base. I don't want to spend $300 on something that I'm going to abandon after a month of smelly failure.
posted by fingersandtoes to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Vermicomposting (worms) is fun and easy. Depending on where you live, it could happen outside. It gets heavy, so you don't want to be moving it about.
posted by leahwrenn at 1:42 PM on June 17, 2012

Best answer: It sounds like you're looking for something like the Nature Mill's Automatic Composter. It takes in your kitchen food scraps and creates manageable batches of compost every 2-4wks with minimal effort.

It has mixed reviews around the internet, but overall they're generally positive. I found a deal online so decided to take a risk and try it out. I just received mine this week and haven't even unboxed it yet, so can't provide any personal recommendations.
posted by jpeacock at 1:44 PM on June 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Classic "hot" composting depends on having a decent volume of material so that it can retain the heat generated by the processes of decay, so it doesn't easily just scale down. Also, while the kitchen scraps you list are the sort of thing that could go into a typical compost bin, they can't really be the only thing going in; if you don't have a lot of "brown" material like dead, dry leaves or similar it'll start to get soupy and you'll get anaerobic decomposition happening, which will be stinky. Can you collect leaf litter from your complex, or would the landscapers there be willing to give you a bag once in a while? That would make the project a lot more feasible.

As for whether things can go in compost if they aren't "organic:" that's entirely up to you. They will definitely work in the sense of breaking down and becoming soil with the rest of the compost, but if the flowers were covered in pesticide there might theoretically be trace amounts of pesticide residue in the resulting compost. Most people wouldn't worry about this, but I suppose there might be some very cautious people who might (I'd expect them to be living on a commune rather than in a townhouse.)

One more thing that isn't a direct answer to your question: the secret solution that magically turns you into a successful gardener is a drip irrigation system attached to a timer-controlled valve, which can easily be completed in a day on a budget of about $100 for an space the size of yours. You might think you water regularly, but you can't possibly do it as well as an automated system, and your plants will notice the difference.

On preview: Yeah, vermicomposting! That's what you should do.
posted by contraption at 1:48 PM on June 17, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone so far! Contraption, there is actually a big tree that drops a ton of junk into the patio, actually that's the reason we haven't really improved the patio, because it's impossible to keep clean enough to be pleasant. I'd love to throw the leaves in a bin that will decompose them rather than having to tote them out to the trash! But would any leaves work? Not if they're poisonous like, say, an oleander, right? But this isn't an oleander... I don't know what it's called... It has large glossy green leaves and enormous, untidy looking white flowers.

Jpeacock, maybe I'll wait til you've tried yours! Will you report back?
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:59 PM on June 17, 2012

Response by poster: I think it's some sort of magnolia, if that matters.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:12 PM on June 17, 2012

I've never heard of any specific prohibitions against a particular kind of plant for composting, but I'm a relative noob myself and that's not to say there aren't any. Leaves from your tree or even oleander will probably be just fine. In general the process is a lot less fussy than you seem to be imagining, really you're just putting stuff in a heap and letting it rot, and performing a few simple actions to help it rot a bit faster. Things that have a lot of woody parts or are made of cellulose (like grass and corn) will rot more slowly, but it will all be soil eventually with or without your help.

Vermicomposting is more particular about what you can add but will be better suited to small-scale, table scraps only composting.
posted by contraption at 2:13 PM on June 17, 2012

I have only good things to say about Can O Worms composters. Mine has run flawlessly for the last five years, taking all our compostable kitchen waste, and most of our garden clippings. Only downside compared to an indoor system is that it slows down in Winter.
posted by roofus at 3:14 PM on June 17, 2012

Best answer: Your mystery tree is likely a Magnolia grandiflora (aka, southern magnolia), and the leaves will take a looooooong time to break down in any kind of composting setup you could cook up on your patio.

I think you should not bother to get a composting system.

1) The amount of time you plan to spend is not quite enough. Composting works best if you're a proper hobbyist and spend a lot of time fiddling around outside anyway. Alternately, if you had a yard, I would support getting a bin that you largely neglect (aka, lazy-person composting). But small spaces require vigilance.

2) Vermicomposting on a sunny concrete patio seems like an excellent way to get cooked worms. Avoid.

3) For what you'd spend to set any system up, you could buy enough potting soil to grow anything you want. In my experience, the limiting factor in an awesome container garden is always water, hardly ever the quality of your potting medium. Sometimes fertilizer. But, again, in container situations, I think you're better off with actual fertilizer rather than compost.

If you are not too deterred: MeMail me your location and I might be able to hook you up with some composting resources that are local to you.
posted by purpleclover at 4:12 PM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

As others have already mentioned, EVERYTHING ROTS. It's just a matter of how long it takes. Eventually, even the hardest of materials will break down. Composting is a specific process of managing that process for for benefit as a gardener or to reduce your waste.

A bag of dry leaves will break down on its own, but the timescale required will likely be too long to be useful to you. In other words, your patio will fill up with leaves before they break down.

But there is Good News!

Our world is filled with an unfathomable number of bacteria and fungi that love to eat your garbage. All you have to do is give them food, air and water, and they will spring to life, consuming your trash in short order.

These critters need nitrogen and carbon to eat. Your kitchen scraps are a great source of nitrogen, as is anything green like fresh grass clippings. The carbon (think of it as the fiber in the bacteria's diet) can be found in "brown" stuff like those dead leaves, paper scraps or cardboard. Therefore you already have a balanced diet, enough to feed untold millions of microbes, right at your fingertips!

You'll want to put more carbon sources in than nitrogen, 2/3 carbon to 1/3 nitrogen is an easy rough estimate. Keep your compost pile in an open (or at least well ventilated) pail, bucket or garbage can, and keep it about as damp as a moist sponge. Put anything you want in there. The smaller the chunks, the quicker it can be eaten up.

Composting is really easy and fun, and when I started doing it my trash output dropped by two thirds overnight.
posted by stephennelson at 4:37 PM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it's a great idea to divert compostables to somewhere other than the landfill. I do it, and I don't have a garden at all, just a tiny backyard. But I'd rather have a compost bin out back that takes all my carrot peelings than send them to a dump in a plastic bag.

Just don't expect that you'll end up with "potting soil" anytime soon. At least where I live (Greater Bostonia), the stuff in my black compost bin never really seems to break down into anything useable. I just ignore it - dump all my veggie & fruit scraps and shredded paper & anything else that's compostable, and let it break down as slowly as it wants to. The ultimate in lazy composting!
posted by acridrabbit at 7:10 AM on June 18, 2012

« Older There was this "study." Was there really?   |   Best credit card for a grad student? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.