Composting in small spaces
Joe Swift shares how you can turn waste into a vital, nutrient-rich soil booster – in even a tiny plot
Joe Swift shows how to make free compost in even the smallest plot
Whatever the size of your garden it will create biodegradable waste – grass clippings, fallen leaves, prunings and the like. If you combine this with the household waste, such as vegetable peelings, tea bags and old newspapers, it can all be transformed into a rich, crumbly compost for your plot. Composting connects you intimately with your garden, and it’s satisfying to know that you are enriching your plot and putting waste to good use – all for free, too. When added to your plot year on year, compost builds up to make it more fertile, moistureretentive and nutrient-rich – the very basis of a healthy soil. Using compost also helps to capture carbon and put it back into your garden. Making your own reduces the number of transport miles needed for the council to pick up your waste.
What can you realistically achieve with a small compost bin?
Composting in a small space isn’t as fast, efficient or productive as composting on a larger scale – the high temperatures in big compost heaps speed up the breakdown process considerably. But in my experience it’s well worth doing. It takes a little longer but it’s possible to generate good quantities of highquality compost, even in a small space. The ideal is to have two compost bins or bays, but if you don’t have space, one will do. You will just need to be organised, practical and diligent about what you put inside your bin. Also ensure that you situate it where it can be turned and emptied easily without making too much mess.
What is the best type of compost bin for a small space?
There are many off-the-peg compost products that work really well in a small space. You can buy compost bins and bays online that are very easy to set up in your garden. They tend to be made of either wood or plastic, and some plastic bins have been designed to be able to feed in waste at the top, with an opening at the bottom. This means they don’t need regular emptying or turning, which is handy in tight spots, but it can mean the compost is slower to produce. I like the tumbler/rotary bins that you can spin, as they take up little space, break down the waste pretty quickly and evenly and are easy to use. Many local councils are keen to encourage home composting and subsidise the cost to residents by providing reduced price bins, so keep an eye out for them. It is also possible to make your own, but ensure the sides are closed to help keep in the heat.
Where should I position my compost bin?
You will probably be limited with places to put it in a small garden, but any compost bin is better than none at all. Full sun can make a heap too hot during the summer, especially so with the dark plastic bins, while permanent shade may be too cool. A spot in partial shade is ideal for keeping the temperature even. If you opt for a bin that is bottomless and position it on soil it can then drain away freely, which will stop the compost liquid that is produced from staining paving or hard surfacing. Compost liquid will also quickly attract worms, which can then
be able to access your compost and get to work breaking down the heap. Rotary models can be placed on any hard or soft surface as long as it’s stable. Wherever you put your bin, make sure there is decent air circulation around it as oxygen is needed for decomposition, so don’t position it too close to corners or where two walls meet.
Is there a way you can disguise an ugly compost bin?
Compost heaps are rarely things of beauty, and in a small space they can or dominate a plot. Fortunately they are easy to hide from view with simple structures such as a piece of trellis placed at a right angle to the boundary or a frame strung with willow or heather screening (available to buy on a roll) and planted with climbers. It’s best if any material you choose is already used in another element of the garden so that it blends in nicely. It doesn’t have to be too high either. A strategically placed shrub or two or a small section of hedge can work just as well.
What’s the best thing to do with excess compostable waste?
There will most likely be certain times of the year, or after a garden blitz, when your compost set-up won’t be able to cope with the volume of waste created. Or perhaps you have dug up pernicious weeds or cut twigs and branches that you can’t compost yourself. This is the time to use your local council green waste service, which will either pick it up or you can take it to the local recycling centre.
Wherever you put your bin, ensure there is air circulation around it as oxygen is needed for decomposition
Whatever you do, don’t see it as a failure. This is the reality of city and small-space living. Councils do composting on a huge scale, and whatever they produce is often sold or delivered free to allotments and community gardens – you may even be able to get it back in bags to use yourself. This green waste is great as mulch, a general soil conditioner or as part of a mix in potting and container compost.
Will the smell be overpowering in a small space?
Lots of people are concerned about the smell of compost, especially in a small space. But good-quality compost made of the right blend of materials that are breaking down evenly should not have a foul smell; it should just smell a little earthy. If your compost smells, it’s an indication that something is wrong with the ingredients, aeration or moisture level. Too much green material may give it the smell of ammonia or sewage, so add some brown material (see above). If it’s compacted it may smell sulphurous, like rotting eggs, so you may need to empty it out and turn it and then add some lighter, brown materials.
Is a wormery as good?
Some city gardeners have a wormery instead of a compost heap while others have both, although the former is no substitute for a compost heap. A wormery takes up much less space but it will only turn a small amount of waste into compost through the year. It does however produce a concentrated liquid fertiliser that is great for feeding plants. A wormery has two compartments: one for the composting and one that is a sump for the liquid. Composting worms are different from earthworms and usually come with the kit.
How do I deal with any vermin or pests that are attracted to the heap ?
The key to deterring vermin is to avoid putting any cooked food, especially meat and fish, on the heap – unless you opt for a closed-bin system designed to cope with all kitchen waste, which uses heat or additives to break down meat, fat and bones or even pet poo. Pests and vermin will still turn up and some enjoy the warmth in winter (rats are partial to potato peelings). They don’t like being disturbed, or damp, so turn the heap, and water it, if there’s a problem and give it an occasional hard bang on the sides to disturb them. Make sure lids and side panels fit well and check regularly for signs of infestation.
Compost should not have a foul smell when it is breaking down; it should just smell a little earthy
Rich, crumbly compost makes a great soil improver Use a mix of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ materials Put your compost bin in a partially shaded spot
Two bins is ideal, if you’ve only space for one, you need to be organised
Disguise bins behind a screen but make sure you have access
Kitchen waste being composted in a wormery Wormery worms are typically ‘brandling’ types not earthworms