Trash Talk: Alternatives to Traditional Composting

A wood cutting board with cut red pepper, mushroom, and zucchini, behind which is a small white pail attractively labeled Compost

Photo of kitchen composter by Justina Turpin, 2017.

Careful soil preparation is key to a healthy landscape. Soil amendments are materials you add to the soil to improve its quality. Compost, manure, vermiculite, and ash are examples of common amendments. Different amendments will improve your soil in different ways. Compost, for example, contains organic materials (plant or animal wastes) that add nutrients to the soil.

The beginning of the year is the perfect time to begin composting and preparing your soil for spring.

Traditional Composting

For beginners, composting may suggest images of rotten, moldy food or sickly-sweet smells. Rest assured, this does not have to be your experience. Flies, odors, and bins of obvious waste are evidence of composting efforts gone wrong. And done well, backyard composting still requires a backyard. For gardeners in condos and apartments this presents a challenge. Thankfully, traditional backyard methods are not your only option.

Alternative composting methods require less space than a recycling bin and less effort than taking out the trash. Whether you live on acres or in an apartment there is a composting system to fit your needs. Some approaches are so simple and sanitary that they can even operate inside your home! And the payoffs are worth the learning curve. These methods can save you money, reduce water use, and help lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Alternative Composting Methods

If you have limited yard space, vermicomposters and compost tumblers are both excellent choices. These small-scale composting methods can keep your efforts concealed and convenient.

Vermicomposting comes from the Latin word vermis, meaning worm. This method uses shallow plastic bins and compost-friendly worms. These "red-wigglers" digest your kitchen scraps and produce rich fertilizer. Despite the mental image, this method is completely sanitary, even indoors. Commercially available units are easy and child friendly. It's possible to build these systems yourself, too. See the links below for DIY composter tutorials.

If worm composting isn't for you, compost tumblers are another excellent option. These plastic or metal drums require very little effort. They also keep the local wildlife and pets away from your compost. Better still, tumblers require only a couple square feet of space on a patio or porch.

Your food scraps and yard waste are added to the large, elevated cylinder until it is full. A couple times a week you turn the handle to mix the compost and nature will do the rest. When your compost is ready, simply turn the drum to empty the compost into a wheelbarrow or bucket. Some models have two chambers to speed up production. While one is filling the other is composting.

Finally, if you'd like to compost but don't have the energy, there are still plenty of options. Consider a collection service or a community composting co-op. These options may charge a membership fee but there are benefits. Most services allow you to collect some of the compost they produce.

A traditional drum composter.

Of course, if you have plenty of yard to spare the more traditional methods can be done well. Outdoor methods can accommodate yard waste and leaf litter as well. See "Composting for the Home Gardener" for tips on building bins and piles.

Troubleshooting: Odor Issues

Between the cutting board and the compost pile, kitchen scraps can contribute unpleasant smells to your home. Consider using a countertop compost pail to avoid these odor issues. Place your scraps in an odor-reducing container on the counter. When you're ready to compost them, empty the pail at your composting site.

Another solution to the unwanted odors is to freeze your scraps. The low temperature in your freezer slows the rotting process. This prevents the smells (and fruit flies) from invading your kitchen. Place your scraps in an airtight container and store them in your freezer. When the container is full, compost them as usual.

For more information on composting, contact your county Extension office.

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