Composting for the avid environmentalist

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When I was little, my mother told me that if I listened closely enough I could hear a popping sound when an earthworm wriggles into the dirt. I would lie on my belly in the backyard, next to the composter, listening for the noise an earthworm’s tail made as it disappeared into the soft, musty soil.

Needless to say, I was a gullible child. But at least it led to several photos in my mother’s albums of me in the dirt, grass-stained and with a wisp of eggshell or fruit peel from the composter stuck to my elbow — a veritable Albertan prairie poster child.

Graphic by Natalie Inez, Graphics Contributor

Graphic by Natalie Inez, Graphics Contributor

But when I moved to Victoria and into an apartment of my own, I no longer had an immediate compost receptacle for my organic waste. The city does have the green bins for compostables, but I missed being able to turn my veggie scraps into nutrient-rich soil on my own. I may not be completely hopeless with keeping plants alive, but it’s certainly a struggle to keep them thriving; I knew that piling composted goodness onto my wilting plant babies generally gave them another boost of life.

Eyeing my cactus and drooping potted violets on the windowsill, I did what any desperate urban gardener would do. I called my mom for her horticultural expertise on how apartment composting could be achieved.

First, she told me, you need a suitable container to be your composter. If you have access to a backyard or balcony, you can set up a larger, more official composting bin. But if you’re like me and neither of those are available in your housing situation, the under-the-kitchen-sink route is a good alternative. Any bin that fits nicely in its destined home needs to have a secure lid and a tray to sit on, hopefully avoiding any leaks. Once you’ve got the container, the next step is to drill (or in the absence of a drill, punch) holes into the bottom of it. Layer about four or five inches of potting soil into the container to get the decomposing started, add a couple sheets of shredded newspaper on top, and set up your Apartment Composter 2000™ in its new home. Dust off your hands and make a cup of tea. Don’t throw away that teabag, though — it’s the first addition to your new composting system.

Now there’s also an option to add worms into the mix. They happily live in your container and turn the organic waste into usable soil more rapidly than leaving it to decompose on its own. They’re not essential to creating your own compost, but if you want to go out on a rainy day and collect some squirmy friends for your container then more power to you! Otherwise, the rules of composting your organic waste are fairly simple, and easily remembered by organization into colours.

Any green waste is extremely high in nitrogen and makes excellent soil, so scraps you’d feel good about feeding to a pet rabbit should be tossed into the compost bin — all veggies, fresh leaves, grasses or clover. You can chuck that teabag from earlier into the bin, along with coffee grounds and even seaweed.

Brown materials are rich in carbon; things like shredded newspaper, dry leaves or grass, grains and bread, nuts, and eggshells should go into the bin as well. After pulling your clothes out of the dryer on laundry day, keep the dryer lint from the filter and bring that back for your compost bin — voilà! Laundry just became more sustainable! Keep in mind that the woodier a substance is, the longer it takes to break down; meat, bones, fish, dairy products and fats or grease don’t compost very well in an urban setting.

When adding to the composter, the wet/dry ratio should be kept fairly balanced, so slide a handful of shredded newspaper (or old essays and syllabi) into the container with every few additions. Set a reminder to mix up the compost in the container once a week, and if it starts to smell funky, adding a scoop more of potting soil can help tone that down.

Now you can text yourself the applause emoticon because you’re officially a composter! At least that’s what I did. No judgment.

Once it’s broken down and suitably dirt-y, your compost soil can be used in potted plants, gardens, or you can even sell it in biodegradable bags. The University of Victoria Campus Community Garden offers both plots and composting receptacles, so your adventures in gardening and compost don’t have to be curtailed by windowsill availability or bargaining with landlords for backyard space. Bonus points if your composted soil goes into growing veggies, which you re-compost after preparing them. You’ve officially gone full circle and the environment thanks you. 👏

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