4 steps to composting in small spaces (for free)

For city-dwelling renters like ourselves, it’s not so easy to start composting. For one thing, our green yard space is limited, and most of that space is shared in a courtyard with about 5 other houses. Because of the tight quarters, we can’t make some chicken-wire contraption that’s going to stink out our neighbors.

Sure, we can go out and buy a $150 “tumbler” composting system that will do it all, but we can’t justify spending that kind of money on a container for rotting earth. Michael and I wanted a solution that was cheap, portable, and discrete.

1. The bin

In some cities like San Francisco, you get a compost bin in addition to your municipal trash and recycle bins. The city does all the composting for you! But where we live (San Diego) we’d have to pay to take our yard waste anywhere. Our city provides information on where to buy a “stack” or “worm” bin for $70 or $80, but that still seems like a ridiculously high price.

compost_bin_illustration1Our solution was so cheap it was free. We ended up re-using a 10 gallon plastic “storage tote” that one of our house guests left. The secure lid was essential as we don’t want rodents paying a visit. Various websites recommend poking 1/4″ holes in the bottom for ventilation and drainage, although if you’re composting indoors you can poke those holes on the sides instead.

2. The cover material

To start composting, we needed some cover material for the bottom and top layers of the bin. Potting soil or shredded newspaper would work, but the great thing about where we’re living right now is that there’s plenty of rich cover material right outside our door — a huge tree next to our house sheds its leaves and no one clears them away. Natural composting is already happening in the soil under the tree. Michael just grabbed handfuls and tossed them in the bin. He also found some worms and gave them a cozy new home as well.

3. The stuff to compost

For the past 3 weeks I had been keeping our food scraps in old plastic yogurt tubs on the kitchen counter, some of which had gotten very furry. To keep down the odor, the NYC Composting project recommends that you keep food scraps in a plastic bag in the freezer until you are ready to toss them in the compost bin.


It’s very important to know what does and does not compost well. An easy one to remember is no meat, dairy, or anything greasy. I found Compost This to be a great website if I was ever in a quandary about what to compost. For example, did you know that citrus fruits contain d-limonene, which worms do not like?

4. Maintaining the pile

What it takes to compost successfully is moisture, air and good compost materials. Add water if necessary, stir occasionally (like, once a month), then wait. Maybe we’ll have some nice dirt to use when we plant our heirloom tomatoes this spring.

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James NomadRip 03/11/2009 at 3:43 pm

UGH! I have been having fruitfly issues with my bin. Bury food well under bedding material and definitely do the freezing, particularly with banana peels if you even use those…they are the worst thing for fruitflies! I didn’t do the freezing and put a lot of banana peels in…and we have it bad. Trying to fix the problem is much worse than doing it right to avoid it altogether!

thistinyhouse 03/11/2009 at 5:01 pm

We compost a lot of banana peels. I’ll keep an eye out for fruit fly issues, but we haven’t had any problems yet. Thanks James!

Karen 03/11/2009 at 10:19 pm

My mom recommends equal parts yard scraps to food scraps. If you have too much food, it’ll start stinking.

I’ve been hesitant to start composting in NYC. And have been thinking I’d just wait until after the move this summer. Wish I’d thought about a big plastic bin sooner!

thistinyhouse 03/17/2009 at 10:01 pm

Well we’re starting to get fruit flies, but not a big deal so far. And no stench! Unless of course you open the lid and take a big whiff.

Heather@TheGreenestDollar 03/18/2009 at 1:30 pm

This is an awesome post; thank you!

I had plans to start a compost pile this spring, but my husband and I are contemplating putting our house on the market so we can finally start working on our shipping container micro home (we’re SO ready to get started…)

Anyway, this put a halt on my compost plans, until I saw here that you could compost in a bin. This would be a great solution to my situation. It keeps everything “out of sight”, but would still allow me to recycle my kitchen scraps.

Many thanks for the great post!

thistinyhouse 03/31/2009 at 7:01 am

Update: I underestimated how much food scrap we would have. Need to get another bin in the next few weeks.

Patricia 06/03/2011 at 1:27 pm

Thanks for your super ideas! I have a covered laundry barrel just the right size and the holes are already there so I put window screen material on the inside to deter little animals from crawling inside the holes.

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