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  • Writer's pictureAtiqah Nadiah Zailani

DIY Balcony Composter - Updates & Progress

How-to guide on turning your food & kitchen waste into compost, using it to grow your own food, and living more sustainably.

Full compost bin

[If you don't know what a composter is or why I'm telling you to make one, go here. If you want to make your own DIY Balcony Composter, go here.]

One-Month Update:

At the time of writing this, I’ve had my composter for over a month – and contrary to my earlier expectation of taking half-a-year to fill a crate up, the first one is already almost full! (Guess we eat a lot more than we thought…)

kitchen waste in compost bin

It smells a little funny when I don’t cover my food waste properly and have it exposed on the pile, with the added bonus of flies buzzing around. Solution: Add more dried material or compost maker until the food waste is buried underneath. I also put a sheet of newspaper on top as added protection.

cover with newspaper

Otherwise, it has been smooth-sailing. The setup sits behind a giant pot of lily plants on the balcony and is hidden from view, so other people hardly notice it.

The only other challenge I’ve faced is getting others in the household to stop chucking organic waste into the trash can.

y u no compost!?

I have set up a strainer-bowl right by the kitchen sink to catch all the food waste when we do our dishes. I also drew out a list of compostable things that should go into that strainer bowl and put it where it can’t help but be seen:

please compost sign

Feel free to use it yourself - download it here.

Two-Month Update:

Recently, I found small maggots crawling in the compost and was aghast, thinking I had failed. There was no smell, just a lot of small creepy crawlies. I did my research and found out that maggots are GOOD, they help to eat and break down the food faster. So I shrugged and left them alone - but I still made sure not to look too closely the next time I poured food down.

Consistent with the previous trend, I have managed to fill up the second bin in a month's time. To continue composting, I either had to empty the first bin that has been sitting pretty (with occasional mixing and turning on my part), or I had to go buy a third bin.

Decided to go with the first option (emptying the first bin). I was afraid it was a bit too early to be 'harvesting' since it's only been a month since I finished filling this particular bin up - reports say it can take up to a year... I was delighted to find out that for the most part, all the food I've stuffed in the bin has decomposed!

full compost bin

There were big chunks of dried leaves, dried okra, rocks, chicken bones and eggshells that evidently found a month too short to finish decomposing. The chicken bones, I expected, but eggshells and leaves? Why are they taking so long to break down? I suspect my compost is too dry, which slows the process down. Will be sprinkling water in the future to ensure a nice moist pile that will help speed things up.

In the meantime, I simply filtered them out and put them back into the composter so they can continue doing their thing.

sieve compost

And what I got in the end was this gorgeous brown goodness:

filtered compost result

Remember, the above used to be a medley of noodles, rice, vegetables, fruit peelings, garden waste and God knows what else. Now it's highly nutritious stuff for my soil and garden, just as nature intended!

I sprinkled my newly-finished compost onto my potted plants, and now I have an empty bin to continue composting with. The experiment goes on.

Three-Month Update:

My top bin got filled up again within one month, so I harvested my bottom bin for compost in order to empty it for the next round. Remember how I found creepy-crawlies in this bin the last time? Well, they were completely gone - either they graduated into the insects they were meant to be or they died out.

This time around, I used a a filter with larger holes. I found that my previous harvested compost was way too fine, and when applied to my plants, tended to float when I water the pots, or scatter at the slightest gust of wind.

plants growing on balcony

My plants seem to be very happy with the compost, nevertheless.

I bought a roll of mesh with bigger holes from a hardware store for RM10 (I got way more than I needed, actually, and should've bought half or quarter that amount), and placed it on top of the empty container that I would capture the filtered compost with.

Bigger mesh

Like before, most of the food had decomposed, with the exception of bones, dry leaves and eggshells. I put those back into the bin to continue decomposing.

Now, I am left with a massive bag of compost! I'm generating compost faster than I can use it up, so if you are interested in having some, (and assuming you are within reasonable distance from me), get in touch!

bag of compost

3 months on, and it's still going well! I can't imagine going back to the old way of tossing food into a plastic bag and leaving them to rot by the trash.

Five-Month Update:

There is no fourth-month update because I was gone for an entire month, traipsing around northern India and reliving one of my favourite movies of all time, the 3 Idiots (if you haven't already, I highly recommend watching it!)

Nothing was done to the compost during my absence - they didn't get turned as they were supposed to, nothing was added to them (as far as I know...) and they were left pretty much untouched. Not turning your compost as often isn't really a problem, it just makes the process slower.

Upon my return to a house that was still intact, I checked on the compost and found them just as they were when I left. Because the top bin was full again, I went through yet another round of harvesting the bottom bin to empty it out.

In the interest of not sounding repetitive, I won't go into details - just scroll above if you really want to re-read how the process goes.

emptying compost bin

Emptying out the bottom bin to make way for a new compost pile

filtering large items out

Filtering out large items that still need time to break down and returning them into the compost pile

I will, however, show you a great video by Gardenerd (love the name) on how she harvests her compost. Also note when she says her biodegradable utensils have been in the bin for 3 years and still look brand new. Don't trust 'em 'biodegradable' products that only greenwash you but don't actually meet their promise!

Six-Month Update:

It has already been half a year since I started composting on the apartment balcony, and it's become a routine that I've already started taking for granted despite having dreamed of doing this for years and years before I finally took the plunge.

As you may have guessed, I'm a little weird - I get hot and bothered about strange things, and I'm anal about things people hardly give a passing thought to, like waste. It means a lot to me to finally have a solution (an environmental and even logical one) to my food waste, and I still find it magical to have them turn into something as useful and important as good soil.

In fact, my compost seems to be so good that the papaya seeds that I discard after eating the fruit insist on sprouting out in the dozens, even though there is no way I can grow them within the limited confines of the balcony and the apartment.

Baby papaya trees that grew out of compost bin

Baby papaya trees that popped out of my compost

I ended up having to give away the papaya trees to family members who do have the space to grow them, and now I weed out the papaya sprouts the minute I see them (which is a shame, but this apartment is not designed to be a papaya farm).

Nevertheless, I think it's the perfect and beautiful illustration of how the rules of nature work in our favour when we get a bit more conscious about how we handle what we consume and what we discard - instead of sending the food waste to the landfill where it will remain as a massive, stinking mess, that same thing is instead composted and becomes something that brings about even more food.

produce from small balcony garden

Other than papayas, I also get basil and Brazilian spinach from the little balcony garden.

This will likely be my last update for the compost as everything is running smoothly now, and there is really nothing new to share. The cycle of putting in food scraps and then harvesting the compost after a certain period continues on, and is very much already a part of my lifestyle that I hardly notice it anymore.

The whole endeavour has been a lot easier and simpler than I thought it would be, and the rewards have been more than satisfactory. I hope you feel the same way about your compost! If you don't have one, well, what are you waiting for?

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