Pot composting on the 21st floor balcony!

24th September, 2014

The gentle, always smiling, Rupali looked a little skeptical, asked me, diffidently, so as not to rupture my evident euphoria, whether the pot will attract flies and rats. I baulked for a moment and then responded that we will deal with it. So began our composting saga!
When Ramesh (my supportive better half) arrived in the evening he was shown the pots and told the science and his mild question about whether we should compost waste right outside the bedroom was brushed aside with my confident, “it will not give us any trouble”?.
Rupali and I began to put all our peels into the pots, we decided not to put leftover food as we were not so confident whether it would smell or attract rodents, birds etc. I was stirring the posts everyday to air the contents and peering into it like an excited school kid waiting for her seeds to sprout, to see whether the decomposition was happening. After about a week I felt that things were not going well, the waste looked watery, mushy, maybe had a little smell ( despite my confident assertion earlier) and I could see some maggots and I panicked!
I took a deep breath and told myself that worst case I could always dump the whole thing into my waste bin. With that reassuring thought, I decided to buy a couple of more pots to deal with our large quantity of fruit and vegetable waste. At the Lower Parel station-road shop which sold pretty diyas, cute jars and large water pots I told the bemused shopkeeper to make a hole each under the two drinking ““water pots I purchased and assured him that I would pay for them even if they broke in the process!
The new pots arrived and Rupali and I decided to “rest”? (give the compost time to decompose) the old pot and I decided to consult Monisha Narke , a good friend and a composting expert. She gave me some science about composting and some practical tips on how to get my pot to behave well; the former just sailed over my head and the latter I applied to my pots. She said that I could start my new pots with a “starter”?, no it was not a chemical or a bio-enzyme she suggested , but simple cow dung and soil. (Later Preeti and I discovered that Amrit Mitti is an amazing starter for the compost pot and works miracles).
The starter helps the decomposition process with the existing microbes. In addition Monisha pointed out that since we had a lot of watery fruit peels there was a lot of nitrogen content in my pot and I should balance it by increasing the carbon content -brown matter like dry leaves, saw dust, maybe even some paper or some dry soil sprinkled on top of the waste every day. Another item I used in the pots to reduce the moisture is coconut fibre, which decomposes over a very long time ( that’s why we use coconut fibre to create articles ) but the brown matter along with the fibre adds carbon content to the pot. (That is my understanding)
Where was I to get brown matter, that’s when I came up with the brilliant idea of picking dry leaves from the building garden when we went for our daily walk. Ramesh was a little embarrassed at the idea of my picking dry leaves from the garden. But what the heck the pots needed dry leaves!
I began with renewed vigour armed with three pots, more “knowledge”? and undiminished enthusiasm and the resolve to collect dry leaves without feeling embarrassed. My first small pot was rested after adding dry leaves, some soil and then we began filling the second and third pots, and we used the method of filling each pot for about four ““ five days in succession and then resting that pot while using the second one. We used this method as the pots were not too large and like I mentioned above, we had a lot of fruit waste.
Then things began falling in place. Every day after putting our waste ( all kinds of kitchen waste) in we sprinkled some soil on top or a layer of dry leaves to cover the wet waste and closed the pot, we also stirred the pot everyday or once in two days to aerate the contents, to enable aerobic composting. Six weeks after the first pot was rested, we found that the waste had dried, turned black and was turning powdery and also smelt like soil. I poured the contents of the pot into a paper and filtered out completely un-composted material and added it to the other two pots and the ready compost went into our garden pots.
In between we did notice some flies around the pots and found that keeping the area around the pots clean (we tend to drop waste on the shoulder of the pots and some falls on to the floor nearby, thereby attracting flies)and closing the pot lids helped considerably. However during the rains I did see some flies and the composting also seemed to slow down.
My plants( tulsi, tomatoes, lemon grass, chowli beans, aloe vera ) flourished and a few days later I found new plants sprouting, the seeds lying dormant in the compost pot had begun sprouting, seeds of fruits and vegetables we ate! (The sad part of this is that some of these plants may not be reliable producers, as many of the seeds are from hybrids therefore are not good for second generation seed saving and growing).
Mid-day article about Urban Leaves : http://www.mid-day.com/lifestyle/2009/nov/241109-FYI-home-gardens-urban-farmers.htm
I like telling people that it is like bringing a puppy home, just get through the first month and then everything will work smoothly. Composting with three pots, with no external inputs ( except some dry leaves, amrit mitti, cow dung), I did successfully for the two years that we lived in Mumbai and when we left I passed on the pots , compost and all to my friend Neesha”¦.
During that period I have proudly displayed my compost pots to anybody who visited us (against Ramesh’s objections that it would put them off dinner ).Thanks to Rupali’s diligence, the area was always clean and people didn’t look disgusted -don’t know if anybody was impressed. Bharat, a good friend and keen farmer, during one of his visits, sniffed the almost-turned”“into-soil-compost and appreciated the quality of it and I felt like I had won a medal! Today I can say with confidence that composting can be done successfully in an apartment balcony!

Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty

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1The Health Awareness Centre run by Dr.Vijaya Venkat and her daughter Anju Venkat promote wellness and health through a healthy plant based diet and promote eating significant amount of fruits and raw vegetables
2 Monisha Narke runs RUR an organization that encourages sustainable waste management and eliminating plastic.
3 Preeti Patil founded Urban Leaves along with three friends, including yours truly and promotes Amrit mitti for creation of healthy soil for urban farming.
4 By then we had created Urban Leaves, our urban farming group and had also begun working every Sunday at urban garden we were creating at Maharashtra Nature Park (MNP). I also began to bring some dry leaves from MNP to season my pots.

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