A Quick Guide to City Composting

Ciaran O’Byrne

Ciaran Byrne is a guerilla gardener from Rialto.


Folks in the property business sometimes say the reason land costs are so high is because “they’re not making any more of it”. But with every rule, there is an exception. The best way to make more is by starting your own compost heap.

To start? You might buy a dalek-style plastic bin from your local garden centre. Into this, you can put almost any garden and food waste and turn spoil into soil, by returning the nutrients of this organic material to the ground.

Advantages of home composting are that you reduce waste going to landfill disposal and don’t have to spend your hard-earned euro on waste charges.

Composting is the controlled process of decomposition of organic material, breaking down what used to be cut-off ends of carrots, or banana skins, in to humus.

In my experience, the best way to start a compost pile is to lay a few twigs on the ground, then layer some newspaper pages on top, fanning around. As simple as that. Now you can begin to add your fruit and veg kitchen and garden waste.

The best compost is derived from a mix of “green” and “brown” items. The list of green waste includes the aforementioned banana skins, carrot tops and tails, the bits of onion you don’t eat, pepper stalks, and the ends of leeks. Anything that lived, in other words. Green is for nitrogen.

The brown signifies carbon, paper and cardboard usually. This can be in the form of toilet roll inserts, international fast food-outlet hot-drink holders – I have been known to litter-pick these from the street in my local area. It saves carrying them for too long. Or if I see them in town I put them on my bicycle carrier and bring them home.

Litter louts are a pet hate of mine. If only they realised the good use the cardboard could be put to – egg boxes, even torn-up cereal boxes. I used to buy my cereal in cardboard boxes. I keep one beside where I prepare food, between the sink and the cooker. Any scraps go in there. When it’s full, I bring it to the composter outside.

More recently, I’ve been buying my cereal in plastic packaging, but I still have a stockpile of older boxes to work through. I use them for several months until they get battered and worn, and then into the compost bin they go and I start with a new one.

Composting is slow to begin with and you may think that it’ll never happen. But trust me, it will. Critical mass will occur and the micro-organisms and bacteria will get to work. The length of time this takes depends. It’s much quicker in warmer temperatures, so during the summer it’s speedy. In the winter months it won’t seem as if anything is happening at all.

By the way, I have a regime. Your compost needs air. You give it this by stirring it around, or more efficiently, by turning it. I take off the lid and lay down a couple of election posters I keep for this purpose – recycling and reusing – and turn everything out onto them. Then I put everything back in, in reverse order. So fresh stuff goes at the bottom and the more broken-down waste on top.

My regime is to turn the compost on a bank holiday. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but a decent rule of thumb. So St Patrick’s Day, Easter Monday, the bank holidays of May, June, and August. If the weather’s not too inclement, I might give it another swirl in October at Halloween. Got to get those pumpkin skins to the bin asap! If Easter is early, you might skip one of the first two on the schedule. Otherwise, work away.

Ideally, the bits going into your bin should be as small as possible. That makes a large surface area for the bacteria to attack. If you’ve a head of lettuce or cabbage that you don’t feel happy eating, don’t just toss it whole into your composter. Chop it up first.

Conditions for composting are best when there’s a good mix. Don’t lump in a big load of grass cuttings at once. If you’ve a lot, add a bit at a time, no more than a 15cm layer. And it’s best if it’s neither too wet nor too dry.

In the current hot spell, add some water to the pile. A word of warning though: don’t compost meat, cheese, fish bones, or cooking oil. They don’t break down quickly and may attract pests.

When you have your compost heap up and running it can be used to condition your soil and improve soil structure if you’ve poor soil, or you can use it to mulch around young trees as a weed suppressant, but also as a means to retain moisture. I have used it when I have planted flowers, guerrilla-gardener style. That is, on publicly owned land.

Having just dug a hole in the ground, I dropped some homemade compost in the bottom and plonked in my flower, echium in this case. They are very bee-friendly. And it has been a resounding success, if I do say so myself.

I have also used it to “pot-on” pot-bound trees recently that were not ready to go into the ground. The old adage applies here, “only plant a tree during a month with an r in it”.

I had a willow in a large pot for a couple of years. Some of the leaves were turning yellow. I took this as a sign that the plant was unhappy and under stress – you get to know your plants! – so I took it out and removed some of the old soil and replaced this and added some more of my own compost. Fingers crossed.

The other tree is a pine tree. It, too, was pot-bound in a too-small pot so I did the same trick as with the willow and put it in a larger pot to boot.

If you don’t have a garden or live in an apartment, you can still do your bit and recycle food waste. As described above, get a small caddy (you can collect small brown ones from your local authority) and keep this in your kitchen. It has a small lid so no flies should get in.

If you’re stuck for space, you could find your local community garden or allotment – dcg.ie would be a place to start – and make it a routine when you’ve a day off or in the evening, to bring your vegetable food waste there and add it to their larger compost pile.

Several years ago, we kept hens – yeah, deep in inner-city Dublin, it’s possible. I doubled down on my recycling as I got some bags of shredded paper from a friend and used this for bedding for the birds.

And I collected the daily clear-out of the coop poop into the above-mentioned caddy and brought it to the South Circular Road Community Garden in Dolphin’s Barn, where they have three large bays of compost. One is for fresh stuff, a second is for waste that is in the process of rotting down, and the third is the finished article. Always check with someone who is there.

It was good, it was a routine, and I got to know the gardeners in the community garden there, who were happy to help with any queries I might have. You would pick up some good tips during these chats.

There is another, slightly esoteric method of recycling your kitchen waste and that is by using a wormery. If you’re in an apartment, it is possible.

I have seen it done, but only online. I’d prefer it to be outside. But apartment balconies, by their nature are situated where it’s sunny. For the most part and worms don’t take too easily to a lot of heat, so I am to be convinced that it is a viable option. Please get in touch if you have experience of this, I’d love to know how it works in practice.

In theory, it’s a fine method. Earlier this year, the Paris government said it was giving away 500 to residents, and then increased that to 1,500 due to demand.

The fresh food waste goes into the top where the worms digest it, and they break the waste down for you. They eject an odourless material, the consistency of potting soil. If your soil is too clay-based, it lightens it. If it’s too sandy, it acts like a sponge. I am intrigued and tempted.

I saw one outside the kitchen of the St Andrew’s Community Centre in Rialto. The Rialto Men’s Group meet there once a week on a Wednesday, and they maintained it. But I think it needs more than daily maintenance for it to flourish and between one thing and another that didn’t happen.

It’s definitely an option to pursue if you’re interested.


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Ciaran O’Byrne: Ciaran Byrne is a guerilla gardener from Rialto.

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