Illustration by Pia Alizé Hazarika

DIY Guide: How to Make a Kitchen-Composting Setup for the Home

There are many ways to compost, depending on where you live and what you wish to compost. Here’s how to make a kitchen composter that will service the needs of a small family. It does not occupy much space, so it works for apartments too.

The System

My home set-up has two parts: the kitchen, where I collect scraps, and the composting unit, into which the scraps are emptied every evening.

The kitchen-collection vessel can be anything: a plastic box, a terracotta chatti, a ceramic bowl. A lid can be loosely placed, if you’d rather your scraps were covered, but ensure it is not airtight.

The container should be placed in an airy location—mine sits on the kitchen platform. There’s no need for drainage, as the scraps don’t sit there longer than a day.

Next is the composting unit. You can purchase a ready-made one (Daily Dump sells beautiful terracotta khambas online and delivers across India). Or you can spend a Sunday making one of your own.

DIY Composting Unit

To make your own composting unit, you’ll need:

  • 2 paint buckets with lids—recycled works well
    (Any plastic buckets work if you can fashion a lid. Paint buckets come with them.)
  • A drill machine
  • A handful of soil from the foot of the oldest tree around. This is your precious inoculant, alive with thousands of microbes to get your composting unit started. You can also supplement this with a handful of store-bought compost or skip it altogether: microbes are omnipresent—they’ll find their way to you eventually. The starter is like a boost.

Instructions:

  • Drill about five holes into the bottom and another five into the sides of the bucket, so liquid can drain out. The holes can be 2–8mm in diameter. Make similar holes in the lid too.
  • Lid the buckets, then place them one above the other, like a tower.
  • You’re done! Your kitchen composting unit is ready for use.

Let’s Start Composting

There are two things we need to compost efficiently: wet matter (your kitchen waste) and dry matter (dried leaves, straw or cocopeat, made from coconut coir that is washed, dried and sieved until it becomes a fine, light-weight material). If you live in an area with fallen leaves, you can gather them. Else, I purchase compressed cocopeat blocks (available at nurseries and online), which are easy to use and store.

I keep some cocopeat in my kitchen, next to the collection vessel. Every time I add scraps or food to the vessel, I add a handful of cocopeat, which keeps the fruit flies away.

At the end of the day, empty the kitchen collection into the compost unit. Add an equal quantity of dry matter, and replace the lid of the bucket. When the top bucket fills, bring the empty bucket to the top.

How Long Will It Take?

The rate of composting greatly depends on the temperature. Usually, the warmer the place, the greater the speed of composting. So composting in Goa is different from composting in Kodaikanal. In the middle altitude of the Palani Hills, kitchen waste takes a month and a half to compost from the time the bin is full, as this is when I stop adding daily scraps to the mix.

The food you’re composting also matters. Veggie peels break down faster than meat and bone. Some composters avoid adding meat altogether, to hasten the breakdown, but I put almost everything in my wet waste: cooked and uncooked, veggies and meat.

The size of the food is another factor. Smaller the pieces, the greater the surface area for microbes. To make haste, consider chopping your waste into smaller bits.

What If My Compost Is Smelly?

The way your compost smells is valuable feedback. If it’s getting stinky, it needs more dry matter, so simply add more cocopeat or leaves and give it a good stir.

If your kitchen waste seems unchanged for months on end, it could mean there’s either too much dry matter or a lack of microbial life. Reduce the dry matter and add a handful of soil from the foot of an old tree to your compost set-up. Or get a handful of compost from an organic gardener in your vicinity.

Avoid adding oil, lard or milk to the compost pile; fats slow down the decomposition. Curd is fine because it is fermented and has a living culture of lactobacteria.

How Do I Know My Compost Is Ready?

Your compost is ready when all the organic matter has been converted to soil-like matter that is finely textured, dark brown and wonderfully aromatic. Your compost might be a mix of soil and pieces of partly decomposed organic matter. If this is the case, simply sieve it: use the finer stuff for your growing needs and pop the un-composted bits back into the paint bucket. This is the starter for the next round of kitchen scraps.

To keep the compost full of nutrition and teeming with friendly microbes, it must be kept moist until it is used. I keep mine in a bucket covered with a damp jute sack and use it for germinating plants in the nursery. You can use this compost for vegetable gardening, flowering plants, even ornamentals like monstera. If you don’t have plants at home, give your compost to a beautiful tree in your neighbourhood—as a gesture of thanks and to ensure its beauty remains a part of your world.

For more about composting and what Neha Sumitran learnt from it, see ‘Cosmos in My Dustbin’.

Neha Sumitran

Neha Sumitran spends her days gardening, cooking, and writing about food, biodiversity, and the joys of sustainable living. She lives in Pethuparai and hopes to have a self-sustaining homestead one day.

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