Our Lazy Guidelines for Easy Urban Kitchen Composting


We recently started composting in our tiny city kitchen, and it's so easy that now I'm preaching the compost gospel. I knew for years it was the environmental thing to do with our food waste, but have I mentioned how tiny our kitchen is? Storing stinky food scraps on our limited counter space didn't seem doable.

The reality is that if you have a garden, kitchen composting gives you lots of rich soil. And it gets you closer to a system of letting the garden feed the garden, rather than buying fertilizer and other soil amendments. Free scraps! Free soil! Less garbage! Sounds good? Let's do it, I made it easy.

The perfect kitchen composting pail

Chef Iggy likes to keep everything out on the counter. I think that's the takeaway from working in professional kitchens where everything is stored out on shelves where you can see it. We're constantly negotiating over what stays on the counter and what goes in a cabinet. I know some people keep their kitchen composting bins under the sink but to me it seems like a pain in the butt to pull it out every time you slice the end off a cucumber. I'm way too lazy for that. I wanted ours on the counter, right next to the sink.

A metal compost bucket is eco-friendly and won’t absorb odors.

A metal compost bucket is eco-friendly and won’t absorb odors.

That meant it had to be pretty. And not plastic. Plastic is non-renewable and it absorbs odors over time. We found a nice metal compost pail at our local kitchen shop, and it has a charcoal filter in the lid. After a year of use, that charcoal filter is still working hard. When the lid is on we don't smell anything, even when we want to faint when the lid comes off.

I recommend a brushed finish because the shiny ones get fingerprints on them and look pretty raunchy. I also recommend getting a strong handle that's screwed into the pail. Finally, I recommend getting a pretty large pail. Ours holds 1.3 gallons, which is just the right size that don't have to empty it every day. Ain't nobody got time for that.

What goes into kitchen composting

Compost is free dirt, people! Since it's going to be feeding our plants, we don't put any unwashed conventional vegetable waste in there. Also no cooked foods because they usually have some fat or oil in them that doesn't break down all that well. It can also attract even more possums or rats to the compost heap. I don't compost citrus peels because I've heard they add too much acid to the pile. Meats are also yukky out there. So we just add vegetable trimmings.

Within a few months we were digging out some nice dark soil from the bottom of our kitchen composting pile. We turn ours over with a shovel every few weeks. Well, maybe once a month. In between turns we just dig soil from the bottom when we want to sprinkle some next to some new transplants, or add some dirt to a bed.

Greens and browns

If you start reading up on it, compost can look pretty complicated. Kitchen composting creates mostly "greens," which are high in nitrogen. Apparently the perfect compost mixture requires more "browns," which are high in carbon. The mix gets tricky because some "brown" stuff is actually high in nitrogen, but the general rule of thumb is that "greens" are kitchen waste, and "browns" are dried up things like leaves, sticks and brown paper.

Here's what we learned pretty quickly:

  1. People are fussy about compost rules. There are actually formulas for the correct ratio of carbon-based waste compared to nitrogen-based waste. These are rules I do not know or want to know. BUT…

  2. In general, try to keep more "browns" than greens in the pile for faster breakdown. For a garden that's heavy on kitchen compost, this can be a challenge.

  3. Ultimately, compost doesn't really care. Kitchen compost is going to break down eventually no matter how much carbon and nitrogen are in there. Worms help. Add some worms if you can.

My lazy rule for easy kitchen composting is really just to get more browns in there. That means we ask our suburban friends for their bags of leaves in the fall. We crush up the leaves and add them to the compost pile. If you're urban gardening, like we are, don't use your leaves from the nearby curb or sidewalk, because they're likely to have pollutants.

When we prune things elsewhere in the garden, we stack the branches and leaves in a separate pile to let them turn brown before tossing them on the compost heap. It helps to break that stuff into bits as tiny as possible to speed the breakdown process.

If you can make space for it, kitchen composting is a win-win. It has even helped us battle common garden pests that show up in our urban garden. Find the perfect compost pail and let that inspire you to create your own free soil.

SpringPhaedra Hise