Balcony Composting

Wormshop instructor, Farhat Khan, beside City worm bin.

Wormshop instructor, Farhat Khan, beside City worm bin.

The art of composting without a yard

Friendship can grow from just about every imaginable place and situation. For Farhat Khan, one blossomed out of the compost she creates in an indoor bin.

By Carlito Pablo
Georgia Straight
October 7th, 2008

Leaves—and plenty of them—are a back-yard compost maker’s most valuable resource, according to local urban-farming advocate Michael Levenston. Leaves are the primary ingredient in back-yard composting, the executive director of City Farmer explains.

“All year long, you want to compost some of your fruit and vegetable scraps”¦and in order to compost that waste properly, each time you put that waste into your bin, you want to put handfuls of leaves on top of your waste,” Levenston says.

That’s why fall is an important season for gardeners like him. “So we tell people now, rake, collect, put in plastic bags—as many bags as you feel you’re going to need, six to 12—store them, and use those all during the year,” he says. “They’ll need it for the winter, spring, and summer.”

Leaves serve as the first layer in back-yard composting bins that Vancouver residents can purchase for $25 from the city’s waste transfer station (377 West Kent Avenue North). City Farmer provides a guide on how to do back-yard composting on its Web site,

A few years ago, while Khan was volunteering for City Farmer, a Kitsilano-based group that teaches urban farming to Vancouver residents, a woman approached her and asked if she knew anyone who could give her some compost. The woman had a plot at a nearby community garden but didn’t have a composter.

“So I said I could do that, and that’s how I met her,” Khan says.

Since then, she’s been giving the woman compost she makes, and in return, the community gardener shares her produce.

“We have a really nice exchange,” Khan says. “It’s wonderful, and I made a wonderful friend that way.”

For more than three years now, Khan, who manages a call centre for a venture-capital company, has been teaching people how to turn raw food scraps into fertile soil right in their homes. Like many people, she doesn’t have a back yard. She used to live in an apartment and recently moved into a condo. In these small spaces, she has grown plants like geraniums and roses using the compost she makes.

For composting, she uses the worm bin that Vancouver residents can get from City Farmer (2150 Maple Street) for $25. Measuring 85 centimetres at the base and 85 centimetres high, the bin comes with a one-hour course on composting, an instructional book, and 500 wriggler worms.

Khan’s raw fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, and tea bags all go into this bin. But won’t this stuff give out a rotten smell and foul up a smaller apartment or condo?

Not so, says City Farmer executive director Michael Levenston. When composting is done properly, Levenston explains, “it should be a nice smell, the same smell you get in the forest.”

So far this year, City Farmer has taught 500 Vancouverites how to compost food scraps that otherwise would have ended up in the garbage and ultimately the landfill.

The group teaches residents how to manage their indoor bins, particularly how to deal with fruit flies. Here’s how it’s done. In a container, combine half a cup of fruit juice, two drops of vinegar, and two drops of liquid dish soap. Place the container on top of the compost bedding inside the bin. According to Levenston, the solution traps and kills the fruit flies that are attracted to it, but he recommends that bins be placed on balconies if possible.

A step-by-step guide to using a worm bin is on the City Farmer Web site ( The 30-year-old organization also maintains a composting hot line (604-736-2250).

People using indoor bins can collect their compost every three to four months. After separating the wriggler worms from the new soil, they can start all over again. Those who don’t have plants of their own can donate the compost to the landscaping of their apartment building or to nearby community gardens. They might even meet some new friends.

Michael Levenston