Indoor Composting – Part 1

Did you know that you can compost indoors?

This is good news for those who embrace composting. No more trudging in the rain, sleet or snow to the composting bin in your backyard during the colder months. Instead, make space in your kitchen, basement, or closet for an indoor composting system.

Even apartment or condo dwellers can join in the fun. Use your compost for indoor plants or balcony gardens and planters. Give the excess to gardeners in the community, friends, and relatives. Community gardens would benefit from a compost donation, as would your building’s lawns, flowerbeds, gardens, trees, and shrubs.

There’s a good reason for composting in addition to producing a wonderful soil amendment for your garden. Millions of tons of food and kitchen scraps are thrown away each year. This organic waste rots in landfills, where it generates methane gas emissions. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas 28–36 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide in terms of its trapping of heat in the atmosphere, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

DIY Indoor Composting

Do-it-yourself composting is the cheapest method and the most popular. You can compost on a small scale if you have limited space, and you can make your own composter. The kitchen counter or the space under the sink are great places to set up your compost area. This system of composting, however, is time-consuming and requires regular maintenance.

Setting Up for DIY Indoor Composting

To set up for DIY composting you will need:

  • one large plastic container with a lid and a smaller container that fits inside
  • space for the large container
  • a tool such as a drill or knife to make holes in the smaller container and the lid
  • sawdust (mixed with some shredded paper if you wish)
  • woodchips (these can be reused)
  • food scraps (but no fats, oils, dairy, or meat)

The sawdust and woodchips provide the carbons or “browns”, and the food scraps provide the nitrogen or “greens” for successful composting.

Next Steps

  1. Drill or punch approximately 15–20 holes in the bottom of the smaller container.
  2. Layer woodchips on the bottom of the large container.
  3. Place the smaller container inside the larger one.
  4. Layer woodchips on the bottom of the smaller container, followed by a layer of sawdust. Next, put food scraps on top of the sawdust, and then layer some more sawdust on top of those scraps.
  5. Drill or punch holes in the lid and cover the larger container, or you can leave the lid slightly uncovered rather than make holes.
  6. Continue to layer materials as instructed in step 4 until the smaller container is full. Keep the containers in your designated spot.

The materials will warm up as they break down, and the resulting warm air will rise, drawing in fresh air from the bottom. An earthy smell is ideal, but if an unpleasant odor develops the materials are not getting enough air. Make sure air is getting into the larger container so it can flow upward through the layers of the smaller one. Maintain a moist environment, and add some water if the contents dry out. You will notice the volume of materials decreasing by one-third to one-half as they decompose.

Pesky Flies and What to do About Them

You may have problems with fruit flies during these composting stages. The little pests are attracted to a yeast that forms when fruits and vegetables begin decomposing, so it’s best not to leave kitchen scraps lying on countertops. Cover them immediately or put them in the refrigerator (first make sure you’re not going to be refrigerating any fruit flies). You can also freeze kitchen scraps for composting until you need them.

To rid yourself of fruit flies you can purchase commercial traps, or make some yourself. The homemade traps with apple cider vinegar and dish soap in a jar with a funnel at the top are very effective. A vacuum cleaner also works wonderfully and kills them. Bring the hose within a few inches of the fruit flies and they’ll get sucked in. Just be careful not to also vacuum up any water or food scraps with them.

“Curing” the Compost

The compost should have completed the initial decomposing phase in two or three months. Now it needs at least 2–4 weeks to cure (to stabilize and become finished compost). Remove it from the containers and place it somewhere where it has exposure to air, such as an outside compost bin dedicated to storage, or a new compost pile on the ground. Cover the bin and pile so the compost doesn’t get soaked with rain.

You can also use an uncovered plastic container, bucket, or small garbage can drilled with holes. Store these in the garage or basement, or somewhere outside in a dry place sheltered from rain. When storing on an exposed balcony or patio, cover the container with plastic, ensuring good airflow.

If you live in an apartment or condo without a balcony, you can store this compost in a plastic container or bucket in a well-ventilated closet, cupboard, or storage locker.

Take care to keep the compost moist (it should feel like a wrung out sponge), turning it every few weeks to bring the moisture up from the bottom. If the compost becomes dry throughout, mist it and lightly turn it. If storing outdoors, add enough water, then turn it.

The curing step is necessary because immature compost may contain substances damaging to plants. As well, immature compost mixed into soil continues to decay, using up the nitrogen and oxygen the plants need to survive. Finished compost is crumbly, dark brown, and has an earthy smell. So wait for it to fully cure and give your plants, garden and lawn a treat.

Storing Extra Compost

You may find you have more finished compost than you currently need or can give away. The good news is you can store it for later in the same types of containers and locations you were using for the curing stage. In fact, you could add a batch you’re curing to any stored mature compost. This will add more organisms to keep the stored batch healthy for future use. Just make sure to keep the compost moist and aerated similar to the curing phase.

Don’t worry about continuing to store some of your mature compost outdoors or in the garage during the winter. If your part of Texas experiences freezing temperatures, the compost will freeze and thaw and be fine in the spring. You’ll have the indoor stored compost ready to go for your first planting.

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