Compost bins are open on the bottom and set directly on the ground. Compost tumblers are sealed drums which are raised off the ground and can be spun to aid aeration. While compost tumblers make compost faster, and keep pests out of the compost, compost bins are cheap to build and do an adequate job of making compost.
Why Build a Compost Bin?
The purpose of building a bin is to keep the composting materials together, where they build heat as decomposition breaks down organic matter. The bin should be big enough to allow you to ‘turn’ the compost with a shovel or pitchfork, as this promotes aeration and speeds composting. Compost bins are best when covered, since too much rain will cool the compost and slow the composting process. You can just set a sheet of polyethylene plastic on the pile to use as a cover, or you can build a proper lid which makes tending the compost more convenient.
A compost bin can be the simplest of constructions. Some gardeners take four wood pallets, often available free from shipping companies, and stand them on edge to form a square. The pallets are then nailed or lashed together to form an instant compost bin.
How to build a compost bin is determined in part by the materials you have available. There is satisfaction in building a compost bin from scrap or recycled materials, so check what materials are available before you settle on a construction style. The instructions on this page are for a very simple, but adequate, compost bin. You can build your bin using recycled or scrap lumber, but don’t use plywood: it will delaminate quickly in the damp environment of a composter. The plan below can be embellished by adding a second cross-piece on the front, and a lid on top to keep the rain from over-watering the compost.
How to Make a Compost Bin
Anyone can build a compost bin, it’s the simplest of carpentry jobs. Try to avoid using treated lumber for your compost bin. For more info, see “Is treated wood safe?”
- 7 lengths of 2 x 6 lumber, each cut to 3′. Your lumberyard will make the cuts for you. Get exterior wood, like Western Red Cedar. Rough, unplaned wood is fine. The wood does not need to be treated with preservatives – untreated lumber will last many years.
- Four lengths of 2 x 2 lumber (or 4 x 4 ), each cut to 3′ lengths.
- Galvanized common nails, 2 3/4″ long. 28 nails. An alternate choice is to use coated decking screws.
- Sharpen one end of each 2 x 2 to act as stakes. A hatchet works best – it doesn’t have to be pretty. This will keep your bin in place.
- Nail the 3′ boards to the 2 x 2’s as shown. Leave space between the boards to help aerate the pile. Pre-drilling the nail holes will make nailing easier and prevent the wood from splitting.
- Set bin in place and drive the corners down into the ground with a sledge or heavy hammer.
The drawing above is not to scale. You could add another row of 2 x 6 boards if you want. (The bin can be two-boards high or three-boards high, depending on your estimate of how much compost you would be generating.) The spacing between stakes should be kept to 3′ or less. Or you could staple some 1/4″ galvanized mesh (hardware cloth) to the inside and leave the spaces big.
Your compost bin is ready to use. If you have the space in your garden, it’s great to have a double bin, or two bins side by side. When the pile is high, you can “turn” it by shoveling it into the second bin. Then use the empty first bin to start a new pile while the other pile finishes off.
Tips for Successful Composting
Activate Your Compost
‘Activators’ can be added to your compost to help kick-start the process and speed up composting. Common compost activator materials are: comfrey leaves, grass clippings, young weeds, well-rotted chicken manure.
Flying Insects Attracted to Your Compost?
Small fruit flies, especially, are naturally attracted to the compost pile. They can be discouraged by simply covering any exposed fruit or vegetable matter. Keep a small pile of grass clippings next to your compost bin, and when you add new kitchen waste to the pile, cover it with one or two inches of clippings. Adding lime or calcium will also discourage flies.
Unpleasant Odors from Your Compost Pile?
This can be a concern in urban and suburban areas with small lots and neighbors living close by. Odors can be reduced, or eliminated, by following two practices: first, remember to not put bones or meat scraps into the compost; second, cover new additions to the compost pile with dry grass clippings or similar mulch. Adding lime or calcium will also neutralize odors. If the compost smells like ammonia, add carbon-rich elements such as straw, peat moss or dried leaves.
Is Your Compost Pile Steaming?
No problem. A hot, steamy pile means that you have a large community of microscopic critters working away at making compost.
Is Your Compost Pile Soggy and Slow in Making Compost?
This is a common problem, especially in winter and early spring when dry, carbon-based materials like dry leaves are not available. If you bin is set on the ground, be sure a drainage channel is in place to drain excess moisture. You can source carbon materials to lighten and the compost and absorb moisture. To learn more, read our article How to fix a soggy compost pile.
Matted Leaves, Grass Clipping Clumping Together?
This is a common problem with materials thrown into the composter. The wet materials stick together and slow the aeration process. There are two simple solutions: either set these materials to the side of the composter and add them gradually with other ingredients, or break them apart with a pitchfork. Grass clippings and leaves should be mixed with rest of the composting materials for best results.
Problems with Raccoons?
If there’s a population of raccoons in your area, they will be naturally attracted to your compost pile. The best solution to this problem is to bar their entry to the compost. (Traps and poisons are usually more trouble than they’re worth.) A wood or metal lid can be easily hinged to the bin described above on this page, or you can buy a commercially-made compost bin with secure fitted lids which are pest-proof.
A Moveable Feast
The soil beneath a compost bin becomes enriched as nutrients filter down with successive waterings. You can place your bin on a plot of earth which you plan to use for a future vegetable or flower bed, or fruit tree. Each year, you can move the bin to a different area; you’ll get a double benefit – the compost from the bin, and a bed of nutrient-rich soil ready for new plantings.
Compost should be used as a soil additive, and not as the 100% growing medium.
If You Would Rather Buy Than Build a Compost Bin
Jora JK270 Insulated Tumbling Composter
The Jora JK270 Insulated Composter simplifies and speeds up the process of making compost. Because the unit is insulated and sealed, it converts kitchen waste to compost in as little as two weeks. Mounted on a horizontal axle, the composter has handles which are easy to grip.
EZ Compost Wizard
This tumbling composter holds 12 cubic feet of compost, and has a large, 16′ wide lid. The lid keeps your compost safely closed off but is easy to remove and doubles as an extra turning point.