When living in Finland as a child, we always spent the warm summer months in our cottage. The cottage was quite basic with limited facilities. At the end of every summer, my parents had to take the garbage we accumulated from our cottage back into the city to be disposed of. In order to mitigate the waste buildup, my parents maintained a compost bin. The soil produced from the compost was then used for a small flower and vegetable garden we had in the parcel. For me, composting has always been an option for getting rid of organic waste in a way that benefits something else altogether.
What To Do With the Organic Waste in a City?
A year and a half ago, my husband Carlos and I started to think about what we could do with all the organic waste we created in our city apartment in Madrid, Spain. We’re big fruit and veggie eaters and a huge part of our landfill waste consisted of fruit skins and non-edible bits of vegetables. I just felt a bit guilty to throw that much trash into the landfill!
We have an urban terrace where we have planted various plants, vegetables, flowers, and we even have some pines growing there! So, after doing a bit of research we decided to try composting. Initially I had some doubts about it as I thought it would smell or attract flies as in Madrid summer months are very hot but anyway we wanted to give it a try.
Composting on our Terrace in Madrid
So, we bought a 1 m plastic compost bin and put it in the corner of our terrace. We started to fill it with food waste. We also added in some dry leaves and dry garden waste.
After a few months, we were pleasantly surprised to find some black, nice smelling, new soil in the bottom of the compost bin! (Side Note: Compost bins normally have an opening in the bottom part where you can remove the black nutrient-rich soil and use it for your garden or flowers while the rest of the waste is still converting to soil). We mix composted soil with soil we buy in bags because we have so many plants to feed, but I guess you could use only composted soil also. See for yourself the results of our composting on an urban terrace:
I recommend composting to everybody who has space on their own urban terrace or in their garden. It’s so easy, rewarding and inexpensive! And when composting your garden and kitchen waste, you throw less waste to landfill, which is good news for all of us who hate waste. 🙂
So You’re Saying that Compostables Don’t Smell?
No, compostables don’t smell at all – not even in the sweltering Madrid heat. Many people associate the compost smell with an extremely unpleasant odor, such as backyard dunghills. Let me tell you — there’s no comparison! Our friends like to spend time on our terrace, and normally they don’t notice we have a composting bin there. Just remember to turn the compost every once in a while so that the fresh air gets in to allow the material to degrade properly.
Doesn’t Composting Attract Bugs?
The compost of course has its own ecosystem with tiny cochineals and worms that help convert the waste into soil. But that’s really all it consists of. Compost that’s working well does not attract flies, cockroaches or other insects.
What Can I Compost on My Urban Terrace?
Anything you can compost anywhere! A compost bin should have about 50% greens (i.e., kitchen waste such as vegetables, fruits, coffee grounds, and grass clippings) and 50% browns (i.e., autumn leaves, paper bags, and dry plant waste). I have often read that animal products such as meat, bones, and dairy should not be composted because it creates unpleasant odors and attracts flies, vermin… and even your neighbors’ cats and dogs!
Composting For Me is a Way of Life
In my hometown Vaasa, Finland, for example, all households are now required to put their food waste in a separate bin to be transported to the municipal compost. The waste is then transformed into biogas and soil. The biogas is used for heating and electricity. A project in Finland is now looking into ways in which the biogas from the compost can be used as a future fuel source for public transportation. Can you imagine that? A world that runs on waste!
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Marja, I love Madrid and I love this! I like how you were influenced by your family growing up and you carried that into your practices today. It’s also comforting to know that the compost does not smell as I would imagine that’s something that would deter a lot of urban dwellers who want to keep their small outdoor spaces as livable as possible. And in fact, you gardening on your terrace proves that composting can even help turn urban spaces into oases. ¡Buena suerte con la jardín! 🙂
Gracias Katie! Setting up a compost has been one of the best green decisions we have made. I hope this post gets you inspired to start your own! 🙂
Marja, it’s great to see others making the effort to compost even when they live in a city. My mother grew up in Madrid, and I very much doubt there was much terrace composting going in the 60s and 70s. It’s a great development, and it’s happening in cities around the world.
I recently graduated from Columbia University, which is right in the middle of New York City, and I was always very proud of my university’s efforts to provide their students with the tools and resources to compost. There were composting stations on several terraces that were used frequently by many students including myself, and I only wish that some of the misconceptions about rooftop composting that you mentioned in the article (smell, bugs, etc.) weren’t so prevalent. Thank you for the article, and onward with the effort to educate!
Thanks Chris! Indeed, there’s a lot of misconceptions about composting. People think it’s difficult to do or that is smells but as we know, that’s not correct. I also hope that composting would become more common in cities all around the world, we have enough rooftop space for it! 🙂
Marja, as someone who has recently moved from a rural area in North Carolina to New York City, it’s so inspiring to see your urban terrace, and how you have successfully composted! I am going to start working on my very own terrace soon, and I’m so glad to hear that most of my concerns (flies and smell) are invalid. I especially found your pictures very helpful. Thanks for the information and best of luck to you and your urban terrace!
Hi James! I’m happy to hear that my post inspires others to start composting! And don’t worry about smells or flies, if the compost is well maintained (means you need to turn it once in a while and have a mixture of wet and dry material in it) you’ll not have those problems. Good luck and happy moments in your urban terrace!
I can’t tell you how happy I am to have stumbled across your blog while searching the net for info about the possibility of composting on a terrace. Then I saw you were in Madrid and I think I may now have to obsessively use your blog as my go to page!
I’m in Madrid too and have just inherited a kids sand play box on the terrace of our new apartment. I want to turn it into a veggie growing box but I am a complete novice and I have never grown anything other than tomatoes in a ready made for bag (in the UK). I didn’t think composting would be possible because I thought they were always smelly but you have made me open my eyes! Thank you. Mel 🙂 (Now I’m going back to read more of your blog!!)
Growing your own veggies is not so difficult, especially in Madrid where you have plenty of sun. You’ll just need to make sure that they get enough water, especially in August! Tomatoes are easy or you can try with lettuce or onions for example to start with.
Good luck and let’s make Madrid greener! 🙂
I recently was reminded of composting when I saw the separate bins for compostables, recycling, and trash in my local Whole Foods. It sparked such an excitement with me because it felt like the next step to making my family’s habits even more sustainable. I can proudly say my family recycles more than we trash, and since we cook so often and eat so much fresh produce, most of our compost is organic vegetables scraps. Thanks for sharing this information, I can’t wait to show my family!
Composting is so easy and rewarding that everybody should do it. I haven’t seen so many composting bins here in Spain though but I’m happy to hear that some supermarkets are doing that. It’s a small step forward.
Composting is great especially if you have a lot of organic scraps as you wrote you have as you can convert them to something useful. I wish happy composting moments to you and to your family! 🙂
Is there a particular type of compost bin that you recommend works well for a terrace or rooftop? Thank you!
Sonia, Marja may have some recommendations. To supplement, one of our good colleagues who runs a composting business here in NYC uses this one in her courtyard. The bottom is open so she has it on a piece of wood:
She also notes that tumblers are good for rodent prevention, easy turning; the 2 chambers ones make a lot of sense.
She says “People have different preferences but this is a good place to start, I would suggest reading reviews and having an idea on volume you generate.” Her name is Laura Rosenshine of Commonground Compost if you want to look her up. She’s really into composting!
Sorry for replying you so late, I became mother a few months ago so you can imagine that I have been pretty occupied. 🙂
About your question, we use a very simple plastic compost bin as you see in one of the pictures. It´s open from the bottom. I can not remember anymore where we bought it from… The only recommendation I would give is that make sure the bin is big enough so that you have space for both greens and browns and that you can easily turn it arond once in a while.
Hello Marja and friends,
I live in Barcelona and currently I am working on renovating my terrace. I would like to start composting and grow a couple of vedge myself. Would you have any recommendations for the compost bin and plant pots seeing that I am at an ideal moment of planning everything? Thanks a mill.
Regarding the bin, you can see my comments to Sonia. About the pots, we have used the big ceramic pots that you see in the pictures because these already were on the terrace when we moved in but I suppose anythink works. The really important thing for us has been the installation of an automatic watering system which frees our time and also saves water.
Good luck! 🙂
I’ve come across your blog post because I just moved to Madrid and I am interested in composting! However, I don’t really have a terrace and I’m not currently growing my own plants; I just want to reduce as much waste in my life as possible. Since I don’t currently have a need for compost soil and I am living in a tiny apartment, I am wondering if it is still possible to compost. I have heard that you can keep compost in the freezer; do you know if there are any composting centers in Madrid that I could bring my scraps to? Or any other way that I would be able to compost?
Thanks a lot in advance, and I look forward to hearing back from you!
What part of Madrid are you in? I was just reading recently that the ayuntamiento have pilot programs in place and I think there might well be huertos urbanos in your area that are more than willing to accept your compost. Another option is to look into bokashi which is a kind of pre-composting that you can do in the home, and which ferments the waste. No personal experience on that yet, but from what I have read it will greatly reduce the mass of the waste and you can even put meat and dairy in it, and there should be no smell.
I also live in Madrid and my flat has a decent size terrace. I have been composting since I got here but I want to get more serious about it, upgrade my bin, and also want to do bokashi in the kitchen. The floor in the terrace is those thick red tiles cemented together so I had been looking for composters with a base, or where base was offered as an optional extra, but now I am not sure if it’s really necessary. I get that I would need to add some carton and soil to the bottom (and maybe some sticks to let air get in from below), as well as the contents of the old bin (which hasn’t fared so well with UV light and climate extremes) and then new scraps and whatever else I come across. But the bases seem more intended to allow the worms to come up and keep mice and rodents from getting in, rather than protecting the tiles… I’m guessing if you are in Madrid too it’s quite likely you don’t have a lawn with dirt underneath but rather some sort of hard and manmade surface, so I am curious to hear your thoughts 🙂
Maam if we wish to construct composting bin for apartment or society what relevant factors should we consider?
Uff this is amazing! I want to start something like this with Columbia University in the city of New York, they own a lot of buildings that are housing for students. It would be amazing to create spaces where students can do their composting. This also could create a communal space to share ideas about how to reduce waste in general at the building. This could work as a pilot project that could be replicated in other universities in the city!