Composting -- Without a Compost Pile

By Ellen Zachos

We all know that adding compost is the best thing you can do for your garden. It helps build a healthy soil, makes nutrients available to plants, improves water retention, and recycles organic waste. But what if you CAN'T compost in the traditional way? For years I felt guilty about not composting. Didn't I care about the soil food web? Didn't I want to make the world a better place by recycling my biodegradable leftovers? Of course I did! But both places where I garden make it impossible for me to have a traditional compost pile.

New York City Rooftops and Brownstone Backyards

NYC rooftops (and any other terrace, balcony, or deck) tend to be small spaces where every square foot is used to the max. A compost bin in close proximity to the dining table could be a smelly proposition. And what about the flies? Even an enclosed, spinning compost bin would be a hard sell to my clients. Who wants to give up space for a tree or two just to make compost? As for city backyards, where it's possible I might find a corner to tuck in a compost pile, I have one word for you: rats.

What's a city gardener to do? Vermicomposting. That's right, start a worm bin. Worm castings aren't exactly compost, but the process of vermiculture (vermi- means worm) uses the worm's digestive process to break down organic material into nutrients readily absorbed by plants. In a few square feet you can recycle kitchen waste and generate natural soil nutrients. Red worms are best suited to small scale bin composting. They take very little space and when done properly, with the right balance of bedding (newspaper) and organic matter (no meats, fats, or dairy), vermicomposting is odor free. You can buy ready-made kits or construct your own with simple tools.

Depending on where you live, you may need to bring your worms indoors or insulate them with straw bales in winter. Large, in-ground worm farms generate substantial heat and are well insulated by soil, but red worms in small, home-style bins don't survive freezing temperatures well.

Rural Pennsylvania

Plenty of room in Pennsylvania, right? No problem locating the compost pile far enough away from the barbeque that no one will smell the rotting vegetable matter or be bothered by insects that assist in the process of biodegradation. Ah, but there is one problem. Bears. Okay, there are also raccoons, skunks, and foxes. (I kind of like the foxes, but they aren't so great for the cat.)

Wildlife is always on the prowl for a free meal and a compost pile that includes kitchen scraps might as well have a sign above it saying ″All You Can Eat Buffet.″ One or two close calls with a large black bear were more than enough to make me give up the idea of composting kitchen leftovers. But when you live in the woods, there's something else you can compost: leaves! Leaf mold is a superb soil amendment, and a pile of composting leaves holds no appeal for local wildlife.

Leaves decay to form leaf mold which can be used as either a soil amendment or mulch or both. It's ridiculously easy to make. Instead of bagging or burning your leaves in autumn, rake them into a pile. Now go inside and read a seed catalog. Yes, really. It takes about a year (you didn't expect it to be easy AND fast, did you?) for those leaves to turn into crumbly, dark brown leaf mold. You can speed up the process by mowing over your leaf pile, turning it occasionally, and hosing it down every once in a while.

Leaf mold is an excellent soil conditioner. While it may not contain the nutrients you'd get from full-on compost, it improves soil texture, water retention, and offers habitat for beneficial organisms like earthworms and essential soil bacteria.

I no longer feel guilty about not composting in the traditional sense of the word. I've got my worms and my leaf mold…it's all good.

Ellen Zachos is the owner of Acme Plant Stuff (, a garden design, installation, and maintenance company in NYC specializing in rooftop gardens and indoor plants. She is the author of numerous magazine articles and six books and also blogs at Ellen is a Harvard graduate and an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden; she lectures at garden shows and events across the country.

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