Composting 101

Your food is natural and organic. You drive a hybrid car. So why is your garbage ending up in landfills, contributing to climate change? Perhaps you think composting is only for people who have yards large enough to grow veggies. Maybe your only plant is a cactus. Whatever your hesitation, we have tips on becoming part of Philly’s robust compost community and helping our City reach its zero waste goal.

The Basics

To start, you need a metal, plastic, or ceramic container to keep in your kitchen in which to collect organic waste. This includes eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, rice, pasta, bread, other grains, fruits, and vegetables without oil, butter, or salad dressing. It cannot contain meat, bones, grease, fats, oils, dairy products, ashes from charcoal barbeques or fireplaces, pet waste.

You will also need a compost bin system to keep outdoors. The City of Philadelphia provides a Backyard Composting Guide which explains the three types of bins available. They all work the same way, turning organic waste into compost through a chemical process. 

Composting is about layering “green” materials and “brown” materials. Green material includes Food scraps, fresh leaves, plant cuttings, weeds, grass clippings fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, and tea bags. Brown material includes Dead weeds, dry leaves, clipped brush, wood chips, eggshells, and paper products.  Each time you add new green material to your bin, cover it with a layer of fresh brown materials to avoid odors and pests

Compost needs airflow. If you’re using a two or three bin system, use a pitchfork to turn the compost every 3-5 days. Turn the pile frequently during the initial three to four weeks and once or twice during the remainder of the composting period. Once the compost is mostly broken down, it can be moved to your second bin and you can start over in the first. If using a tumbler, just turn it once every few days. 

A typical compost pile will take approximately three to four months to decompose. It’s “done” when it is no longer hot in the center, crumbles when squeezed, and smells like fresh dirt.

Community Garden Composting

Philadelphia has 400 community gardens, always looking for new members to get involved in composting. You don’t even need to live in the neighborhood. An affiliate of Neighborhood Gardens Trust, Old Tennis Court Farm, at 5407 Wissahickon Avenue in Germantown, has 63 members, several coming from as far away as Center City and South Philly. 

Margaret Lea at Old Tennis Court Farm. Photo: Rob Smith

“We do a lot of onsite composting and have constructed eleven composting stations,” said Mark Kearney who has been an active member since 2013. “Initially, we used household waste, but soon found it was attracting groundhogs, raccoons, and rats. We now only use material that is generated in the garden.”

With 49 gardening plots measuring 12 x 12 feet, managing the compost at this community garden takes a lot of manpower. “It’s a constant process of turning and moving the materials until they are ready to be mixed with the soil,” said Kearney. But it’s worth it. This one community garden yields abundant fresh vegetables to its members and those in need. “We take between 35 and 75 pounds of fresh organic vegetables per week to the Whosoever Gospel Mission in Germantown and to SHARE,” Kearney said.

Be a good neighbor

Philly residents without access to backyards or community gardens can have their compost recycled by Bennett Compost. They pick up compost from nearly 4,000 Philadelphia households and businesses every week, keeping over 70 tons of material out of the landfill every month. Once a year, they offer up to 10 gallons of free compost to customers. 

Bennett Compost provides five-gallon compost buckets with air-tight lids and picks them up on a weekly basis, leaving you with a fresh bucket.  In keeping with Solo Real Estate’s commitment to sustainability, we recently partnered with Bennett Compost to offer tenants and owners in over 400 properties a trial offer with two free months of compost pick-up service. Not a Solo tenant? You can still take advantage of Bennett’s free one month trial by signing up on their website.

Other residential compost services in Philly and nearby include Circle Compost (Philadelphia), Mother Compost (Main Line), and Kona Compost (Bucks County).

Additional Resources

Interested. in learning other ways you can help reduce your environmental footprint? Check out our article on Four Ways to Minimize your Waste Footprint in Philadelphia or our list on 5 Things Philly Renters can do for the Environment. If you’re a Solo tenant or owner and want to sign up for the trial offer from Bennett Compost, please e-mail us!

From Vacant Space to Protected Garden: Hawthorne Community Garden

In the Hawthorne neighborhood of South Philadelphia, Hawthorne Community Garden – aptly named – sits on Kenilworth Street, shaded by a generous tree canopy. Betsy Way, a transportation planner, first became involved with the garden in fall of 2015. After working in the New York City MTA for most of her career, Way wanted to move to a city with young energy and infrastructure for sustainability. Shortly after moving to Philadelphia, a neighbor introduced Way to the garden, formerly the Hawthorne Middle School playground.  In 2015, the organization of the garden was rather ad hoc, housing ten boxes of different sizes, in different conditions, and no cleanup schedule. Even in these conditions, Way recalled the garden being meaningful to members. “Some people look at the garden as work, and some people find it therapeutic. Getting lost in the dirt and growing things can give you a sense of peace,” she said. However, the benefits of the garden, while legitimate, could be lost without a substantial and consistent membership. “People came and gardened when they wanted,” Way admitted.

Making the Community Garden Permanent

Members of Hawthorne Community Garden began exploring options for making the garden a permanent and protected green space. “There was always the question of whether we would stay a garden, or whether it would become a development,” Way said. After all, the space had great redevelopment value in the Hawthorne neighborhood.

Way and other members of the garden got to work. By the spring of 2016, the group had cleaned up the space, established a garden infrastructure, tallied up the gardeners from previous seasons who would be returning, and distributed flyers to attract new members. “It was hard to get people excited about staying in the garden for a long period of time,” Way said, but eventually, membership increased. The garden created signage for the space and cultivated a Facebook presence.

Volunteers working in the garden
Garden members spending time in the community space. Photo via Betsy Way

Enter the Neighborhood Gardens Trust

Then, the Neighborhood Gardens Trust (NGT) entered the picture. In 2017, Hawthorne Community Garden spoke to Philadelphia Parks and Recreation about protecting the status of the garden. The City redirected the group to NGT, an organization that keeps a portfolio of protected parcels of land in Philadelphia. “NGT has a critical role in supporting communities that want to install a sense of community and green space,” Way explained. “Their expertise is working with all the different agencies that deal with real estate transactions.” In 2017, the garden participated in Community Gardens Day and became part of the walking tour of  gardens working with NGT.

The difficulty of clearing the title of the land that Hawthorne Community Garden sat on became evident when NGT did their research. The land title was under the domain of the City of Philadelphia, but was associated with a low-to-middle income housing project from the early 2000’s. For whatever reason, the parcel of land that the garden sat on was not developed, but the title still remained with the Philadelphia Housing Authority. 

No Longer A Vacant Space

With the help of NGT, every agency involved with the land title agreed to keep the vacant space on Kenilworth Street as a community garden. The garden entered into a three-year trial with NGT, a period of time during which the Trust monitors the progress of the garden and assesses whether the space will be a good fit for preservation. It seems likely that Hawthorne Community Garden will be approved for protection, and NGT will take the case to City Council in order to create a lease for acquisition of the land. The garden will then be provided with insurance and support from NGT and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS)

According to the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, there are currently over 50 community gardens providing space for service work, music, gardening, and other activities in Philadelphia. Twenty-five of these gardens are protected by NGT, and the organization has partnerships to protect over 20 other open spaces across the city. NGT hopes to protect 70 community-managed open spaces by 2022. As Hawthorne Community Garden’s three-year trial with NGT comes to a close, Way looks forward to the next steps for the garden, which now has 40 active members, 28 boxes, and increasing membership every year.

Planting boxes in Hawthorne Community Garden
A handful of the 28 boxes in garden that are assigned to garden members every season. Photo via Betsy Way

More information on how to partner with the NGT.