Apartment Composting With No Yard, No Porch, and No Worms

Our fresh new compost! See how black it is?

It started a few months ago when our local government passed a measure that was supposed to be environmentally beneficial, but I felt would just hurt the finances of people already struggling financially, without actually benefiting the environment as it was supposed to. As a protest, I wrote an article about more effective ways the government could actually help the environment without hurting the poor.
On that list was the suggestion that there be community wide composting programs, so that people's organic waste didn't go into landfills, and instead put them in composters.

Growing up, we never would dream of throwing decomposable material into the trash. We kept a little trash can under the sink which we filled with this kitchen trash, and when that filled up, we dumped it into our compost heap in the back corner of our garden. The compost there would then be used in our garden where we grew all sorts of delicious things (of which the snow peas, fresh tomatoes, and asparagus were my favorite... though can't forget about the wineberries.)

When I moved abroad and got married, it took convincing to get my husband to be willing to have a compost in our yard, but when he got on board, he saw how cool it was, how we were able to get such rich soil that way, which we then used in our small garden (tomatoes, swiss chard, and potatoes are what we successfully grew).

Then about 5 years ago we moved into our current small apartment, where we have no yard and even no real porch, so that curtailed our gardening abilities. (The few things I tried to grow didn't turn  out to be so successful.) One of the things that bugged me most was throwing out my decomposable waste since we no longer had a compost heap. I'd thought about making a guerrilla compost pile in a public place but then never had the guts to do so. (Eventually a neighbor did exactly that not far from my home.)

I had heard about a concept called vermicomposting, which is an indoor composting method that is supposed to be smell and mess free. It uses worms to convert food scraps into fresh compost, but when I brought up the idea with Mike he said no way, no how, our house is small enough that we don't need to be taking up room with a composer inside, just to assuage our environmental conscience. If I had known where to even get worms locally I may have pushed it, but since I didn't, and admitted space was at a premium in our house, I didn't. Instead, for the last 5 years, our kitchen waste just contributed to landfills.

Then less than a month ago, Mike decided that he was finished with emptying out the food caught in the kitchen sink drains into the garbage, which would often drip across the floor, making a mess, and then made the kitchen garbage stink. We had a planter with a small layer of dirt in it from our previous failed windowsill gardening attempts sitting on the sill outside the kitchen window which was right in front of the sink, so Mike decided to empty the sink drains into there and let it decompose on a small scale.

I told Mike that if  he was going to start a compost there, I was going to put my decomposable kitchen scraps there as well; I wasn't going to throw it in the trash if I had a means of composting. He argued with me at first, saying that there wasn't room for all our scraps, but I won the argument.
So for approximately the last 30 days, any time I had non animal product kitchen waste, such as fruit peels or cores or produce that spoiled before we could eat them, into the planter they went. It would start to fill up, and then after a day it would sink down, compacting, and there'd be room to add things yet again.

We didn't do what you're supposed to do with a compost- turn it over to encourage decomposing microbes- it wasn't easy with a planter that size behind the kitchen sink.
And I'll admit, there were some bugs, mainly fruit flies, and a mild sour smell. Not horrible, but not the most pleasant in the world either. And a pile of kitchen scraps isn't so pleasing on the eyes either. So the kitchen window stayed closed, covered by a curtain as well, other than when we opened it to add things to the compost.

What we've been keeping out of sight- our compost planter.

Last night, I wanted to put more things in the compost but saw that it was overflowing, so I decided to deal with it- to remove it and my other two planters, and see if there was any ready compost underneath that we could move to another planter, to make room, and also plant things, and also turn over the compost as well, so it would decompose faster.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when I saw that there wasn't just a little bit of compost underneath- but a very large amount!

Look at the difference in the dirt! Bottom is just compost- dark and rich, middle is compost and "old dirt"- notice the differences in color! And top is the non decomposed plant matter.
Nice, rich, nearly black compost, that, despite its origins, didn't smell bad. It smelled fresh and musty, kind of like you'd expect a forest to smell after it rained. Compared to the dirt we'd originally had in the planters, the difference was startling. The planter dirt was a light brown reddish dirt, hard, dry, and clumpy, and our fresh compost was was super dark, wet, fluffy, etc.

We moved the ready compost into our other two planters, and then put the non decomposed plant matter back into the composting planter.

Seeded compost- now can I make this grow?

In the fresh dirt, we're going to attempt to try gardening again, on a small scale. I scattered some seeds for various greens (baby greens, arugula, various lettuces, spinach, and cilantro- all already in my house) in one planter (all things I can harvest early, and are entirely edible, not plants that I can only eat the ripe fruit, etc...)

Lemon verbena and mint in our fresh compost.
In the other planter, my husband planted some lemon verbena and mint cuttings that he had taken from work and rooted (some in water, some in a small pot plant).

We'll see how successful we are at growing those things. Can I turn my brown thumb into a green thumb?

One of my biggest issues I have with gardening is forgetting to water, so I set myself a daily reminder via Google Calendar to water.

Hopefully this will teach me new habits, and responsibility for a garden, important skills because when we move into our new home (I recently heard it may be as soon as July or August!!!) with a yard I want to intensely garden and grow as many of our vegetables as we can... so its important that I practice first on a small scale with these two windowsill planters, before we make a bigger investment of a larger garden.

But more than anything, I am glad that we finally are able to compost again, and I am also super stoked that we managed to do it with no yard, no porch, and no worms! Apartment composting IS doable!
And it took less than a month from when we first started to when we had good, workable, beautiful compost. I think that is super awesome!!!
I love upcycling, and this is the ultimate upcycling- literally turning our garbage into something benedicial. 
I'm a big fan of composting, and I think we proved that anyone can compost, no matter how minimal their resources.

Do you have a compost pile or ever have one? Do you have one in a yard, an official "composter", or a vermicompost? 
Do you know anyone, yourself or others, who wanted to compost, but lack of space or a yard stopped you from composting? 
Does this look like something you'd try, or no way, no how? 

And anyone who used to be bad at gardening, dubbed themselves a "brown thumb", anyone have any tips for someone like myself who wants to "turn over a new leaf" (pun intended) and become better at not killing plants?

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. Great job! When we were in an apartment we had a decent sized patio so i got a worm bin. It worked well. We moved to a rental house now that has a small yard. I now have a regular compost bin and the worm bin. It is nice to have the compost to add to my gardening adventures.

  2. Penny you inspired me.

    I've been reading your blog for 5 years and never actually took any of your ideas. Either they were impractical and bot worth the energy or I was just lazy.

    This idea of composting in an apt without any earthworms is something that I will try.


  3. This is an amazing idea. We're moving back to our farmhouse in PA, where I had a giant compost pile, so I guess I won't need it, but, wow, I wish we'd had this the last year and a half.

    Loved keeping compost, all the non-meat kitchen stuff went in there (also toilet paper for a while too when the septic quit and we couldn't afford to fix it), and it worked well when I had a square foot garden. The only problem was that bears thought it was a great idea too and you had to be a little careful going to dump stuff.

    Good luck with your move! You must be so excited...

  4. I had a good compost pile outside, on the side of our house bordered by woods. It was in a small, natural hollow. I even had some potatoes growing in it last year. But, after a couple of very rainy seasons, the compost has disappeared, and even the hollow/ditch isn't the same - all washed away, leveled somewhat, or just dispersed more widely around that area. I don't bother composting in the winter, since nothing decomposes when it's really cold outside. And my kitchen is too messy for me to want to add an indoor composter. Since this spring started, I've been throwing kitchen scraps out on the weedy grass just outside my garage. I have NO luck with gardening, so I'm not trying to make a good sized compost pile for garden soil anymore. But, if I do decide to try gardening again, and want compost, we have so many piles of dead leaves in our driveway, that have all turned into compost underneath, all I'd really need is a wheelbarrow to shovel it all into. (I used to carry shovelfuls of leaf-compost over to the hollow where I put my kitchen scraps, to bury the scraps and help turn them into compost faster.)

  5. I wrote - and tried to post - a long paragraph about my composting attempts. But, in the process of logging in, the website ate my post. Sigh. ... Anyway, to summarize what I said, I had a compost pile, in a hollow in my side yard. It seems to have been washed away by the rain, in recent months. Lately, I just dump my kitchen scraps onto the weedy grass right outside my garage. I've given up on gardening, for now, as my plants always died without yielding much of anything edible. But if I ever decide to try again, I can get a lot of compost from under the many piles of dead leaves in my driveway.

  6. I got a hot tub compost pile. A kiddie swimming pool pile and a lazy lasagna pile in the yard. All about the composting.

    To keep the brown thumb at bay...water once a day! There's a rhyme for ya Penny! My neighbors use composted horse manure and keep their watering on a timer. Needless to say that 10 X 4 box garden grows EVERYTHING without fail. I'm about to do the same thing with some 5 gallon buckets and a drip hose. I don't water due to mosquitos that like to hang out in my garden but I'm about to do something about those little pests. I want my garden back. - Mattie

  7. You've encouraged me to start composting in my apartment as well! Not sure when I'm going to start, but hopefully some point this year!

  8. I've always been very impressed how people can get their composting done in storage barrels in an apartment. That stuff reeks to high heaven once it starts getting its decomposition on!

  9. Hi Penny, Composting is a great idea! I have been doing that from a long time now. I have dug a small piece of earth and dump all biological waste of my kitchen in it apart from the leaves that fall in my garden. I keep it for an year and then use it just before the flowering season. It takes almost and year for the compost to decompose.

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