Urban Farming: DIY Composting Guide

Composting is a wonderful tool available to organic gardeners and farmers. I love the idea of reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, while benefiting my garden and the environment in positive ways. Compost adds valuable microbes and nutrients to the soil, which increases the amount of carbon stored there (rather than the atmosphere) AKA carbon sequestration. So we can all ditch those nasty chemical fertilizers and start healing the planet!

Sadly, many a city folk are scared away by the idea of housing a stinky decaying pile of crap in or near their homes. Others are afraid of the amount of work and time it could take to create high quality compost yourself.

Good organic compost buy online
Buy a 40 pound bag – $23 and free shipping

Fear not my fellow urban farmers! This post will give you tips on how to create amazing and FREE compost at home — quickly, easily, and with as little smell and flying critters as possible.

If you prefer to purchase pre-made compost to revitalize and add nutrients to your soil (DIY composting is admittedly not for everyone!) try to ensure it comes from a trusted source that uses high quality materials — local or online like Michigan Peat Garden Magic Compost and Manure.

Best Ways to Make Compost at Home

First, choose a method of containing your compost pile.

Some say it is best to start your pile on bare earth — since you will be able to readily attract earthworms and other microbes. While this is true, and doing so is also the cheapest and easiest method, it would be harder to control the pile (and all of it’s little critters!). As a busy urban dweller, I always opt for an enclosed composting bin engineered specially for the job.

An enclosed composting bin eliminates odors and prevents access to pets and pests. Best are the enclosed tumbler types which make it quick and easy to mix up and add oxygen to your pile, which speeds the composting process.

Here’s a good video explaining how to make this quick and easy DIY compost tumbler, a durable and effective design:

You can opt to buy a fancy compost tumbler style bin, one that is a bit more attractive and functional than most DIY designs. My favorite for under $100 is this 7-cubic foot tumbling compost bin below on the left, which is made out of 100% recycled BPA free materials – 98% post industrial polyethylene. Recessed handles and wheeled base make turning almost effortless. Black color provides heat for quick compost, which is great for cold weather.

best tumbler composter
Good Ideas 7-Cubic-Ft Compost Wizard Jr. – $91
DIY make your own compost
Mantis Compact ComposTumbler – 88 gallon

This 22-cubic foot compost tumbler on the right is made with higher quality materials and is elevated off the ground, which further protects your pile from ants, other pests and animals. An air vent at top of unit allows oxygen into drum and drainage vents allow excess moisture to escape. A removable door makes it easy to load materials and unload compost.

Best tumbler composter
HOT FROG Dual Body Tumbling Composter – $169 with free shipping

The Hot Frog composting tumbler model on the left is great because it’s not only made from recycled materials and elevated off the ground, but it has two compartments making collecting finished compost and adding fresh materials a breeze. Turn it 5-6 times every 2-3 days. In hot sunny conditions and with a proper balance of ingredients, this composting tumbler can finish compost in as little as 2 weeks! Durable construction – BPA free UV inhibited recycled polyethylene is contact safe and will not degrade under direct sunlight. Another good one if you live in a cold climate. The painted galvanized steel frame is corrosion resistant and will look great for years.

stainless steel composter DIY
Epica Stainless Steel Compost Bin ($22)

To make collecting food scraps easier, keep a smaller compost bin in the kitchen that you can empty into your bigger outside bin every 2-3 days – when you should also mix your pile, as explained more in the next section.

Stainless steel compost bins will control the odor, so they are best for storing those sometimes smelly decomposing materials in the kitchen. The airtight lid and replaceable activated-charcoal filter on the Epica 1.3 gallon model on the right work together to trap and control odors naturally, so your kitchen compost bin can sit conveniently on your countertop or wherever you need it. The chic modern design also complements any decor.

Below is a quick video explaining how to make a basic DIY kitchen compost bin using recycled materials if you’d rather save money and make your own.

Adding Materials to Your Compost Pile

All materials suitable for composting are either carbon- or nitrogen-based, to varying degrees. A healthy compost pile should have MUCH more carbon than nitrogen. Nitrogen sources like animal manure and green manure (clover, buckwheat, wheatgrass, grass clippings) activate the compost pile and speed the process along; however, too much nitrogen creates a dense, smelly, anaerobic pile of crap that is slow to decompose.  Keep the amount of nitrogen materials to less than 1/3 of the pile; the other 2/3+ being carbon sources.

  • Carbon = bits of wood, branches, stems, dried leaves, peels, bark dust, sawdust, shredded brown paper bags, corn stalks, coffee filters, conifer needles, eggshells, straw, peat moss, wood ash
  • Nitrogen = manures, food scraps, green lawn clippings and green leaves

Always start your pile with a layer of soil to jump start the colonization of beneficial microbes. NEVER add any meat, bones, fish scraps, or oils.

If you are not using an enclosed tumbler composting bin, always add a top layer of soil or carbon materials after you add new materials to help mask any odors, discourage fruit flies, and accelerate the composting process. Decomposing carbon sources generally give off a nice, fresh smell.

The following chart from EarthEasy.com is a useful reference when deciding which materials to add to your pile, whether carbon or nitrogen based:

 table scraps
 add with dry carbon items
 fruit & vegetable scraps
 add with dry carbon items
 best when crushed
 leaves break down faster when shredded
 grass clippings
 add in thin layers so they don’t mat into clumps
 garden plants
 use disease-free plants only
 lawn & garden weeds
 only use weeds which have not gone to seed
 shrub prunings
 woody prunings are slow to break down
 straw or hay
 straw is best; hay (with seeds) is less ideal
 green comfrey leaves
 excellent compost ‘activator’
 pine needles
 acidic; use in moderate amounts
 flowers, cuttings
 chop up any long woody stems
 seaweed and kelp
 apply in thin layers; good source for trace minerals
 wood ash
 only use ash from clean materials; sprinkle lightly
 chicken manure
 excellent compost ‘activator’
 coffee grounds
 filters may also be included
 tea leaves
 loose or in bags
 avoid using glossy paper and colored inks
 shredded paper
 avoid using glossy paper and colored inks
 shred material to avoid matting
 corn cobs, stalks
 slow to decompose; best if chopped up
 dryer lint
 best if from natural fibers
 sawdust pellets
 high carbon levels; add in layers to avoid clumping
 wood chips / pellets
 high carbon levels; use sparingly

Turn your pile 3 or 4 times per week to make sure it gets enough aeration, which is crucial to a successful and rapid compost process. And that’s it! You’re now set to start your own mini composting factory in your backyard or patio.

Depending on several factors, including the temperature and other conditions, you should have amazing homemade fertilizer to apply directly to your precious garden plants in 3 or so weeks. As explained above, using a sealed compost tumbler is the most rapid method. Outdoor temperature, time of year, and the correct balance of carbon and nitrogen matter are also factors which influence the speed of composting. In colder climates, it will take considerably longer than 3 weeks to complete the composting process. 

Hope this quick and easy guide to DIY composting at home helps you grow more delicious organic food for you and your loved ones!

Do you have any composting tips to share? Please comment below.

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