Good-quality compost is sometimes called "garden gold." But it can feel like you're spending actual gold if you purchase a commercial compost bin to create it. You can easily spend $100 or more on a high-end composter. For this reason, many gardeners create their own bins for creating compost out of scrap lumber or by repurposing various types of storage containers. If you don't have much space to compost or just want to start on a small scale, consider this project for making a compost bin from two ordinary plastic storage containers. It is an easy project that will give you finished compost in about three months.
When to Compost
Composting can occur done at any time of year, provided air temperatures are above freezing. In cold-weather zones, some people like to position a compost bin in a utility space, such as a basement or attached garage where temperatures remain above freezing. You can still continue to add organic materials to an outdoor compost bin in freezing conditions, but the breakdown of materials won't resume until the weather warms again in spring.
Before Getting Started
The ideal situation for good composting is often described as a mixture of dry (brown) and moist (green) organic materials, in conditions where there is a good amount of air and enough water for the mixture to be just damp but not soggy. Compost naturally generates heat, but there should be no unpleasant odor. If your compost feels warm, this is a good sign that the composting is occurring efficiently. But if the material in your bin is cool to the touch, it probably needs a bit more moisture. Adding green materials—grass clippings, vegetable scraps, etc.—can improve the moisture content and add nitrogen. Or you can add a small amount of water, thoroughly mixing it into the compost.
A composter that is smelly, on the other hand, is probably too damp, which can be remedied by adding some dry brown materials, such as dried leaves or sawdust, or by stirring the contents of the bin to mix in more air.
Many kitchen scraps can be composted, but don't add meat, bones, dairy, whole eggs, grease, or other animal-based scraps. These can develop pathogens as they decompose in the compost bin, causing odors that attract rodents and other pests. For the same reason, never add solid waste from pets.
To turn the compost easily, give the bin a shake every one to three days. This blends in air and distributes moisture, creating the perfect environment for the materials to decompose. You can speed along the composting process by adding a handful of nitrogen fertilizer or commercial compost starter.
Learn How to Make a Compost Bin From a Storage Container
Equipment / Tools
- Drill and sharp drill bit
- 2 Plastic storage containers (18 gallons or larger)
- Sealable lid to fit one of the containers
- Kitchen scraps, yard waste, shredded newspaper, and other compostable materials
- Wire mesh or hardware cloth (optional)
Select Plastic Bins
Plastic storage bins are widely available, and you might already have a couple in your home that you're willing to repurpose into a compost bin. The bins should be no smaller than 18 gallons, and one must have a lid. The second bin is helpful to catch the liquid that leaches out of the first bin. This nutrient-filled liquid can be used as a fertilizer, called "compost tea", in the garden.
Prepare the Bins
You must have air circulating around your compost to help it decompose faster. To provide this, drill holes throughout the containers. Space holes 1 to 2 inches apart, drilling on all sides of the containers. Also, drill holes in the bottom of the top bin that will nest inside of the bottom bin. It doesn't matter what size drill bit you use. However, if your holes are large, consider lining the interior of the bin with wire mesh or hardware cloth to keep out rodents.
Position the Bin
Once you've drilled air holes, find a good spot for your compost bin. Thanks to its small size, it should fit on most patios, porches, or balconies. Consider putting it outside the door nearest to the kitchen, so you can easily compost kitchen scraps. Or place it near your vegetable garden if you have one, so you can toss weeds or trimmings into it. It can also go inside a garage or storage shed if you'd rather not look at the composter.
Fill the Bin
Anything you would throw in a normal compost pile can go in your storage container composter. Leaves, fruit and vegetable peels, rinsed eggshells, paper egg cartons, coffee grounds, coffee filters, tea bags, shredded paper, paper napkins, and towels, toilet paper rolls, and grass clippings all work well. Whatever you add to your composter should be chopped fairly small, so it will break down quicker. Chop fruit and vegetable trimmings with a knife or by running them through a blender or food processor. And you can shred leaves by running a lawnmower over them a few times, then use the bag attachment to suck them up for adding to the compost bin.
Maintain the Bin
Every day or so, aerate the bin by giving it a quick shake. If the contents are staying very wet or are smelly, add some shredded fall leaves, shredded newspaper, or sawdust to the bin. This will dry out the contents, and help to restore the ratio of greens to browns, which speeds the development of compost. If the contents are very dry, use a spray bottle to moisten them. Or add several moisture-rich items, such as fruits or veggies that are past their prime.
Harvest and Use the Compost
The compost should be ready for use after roughly three months. The easiest way to harvest the finished compost from your bin is to run it all through a simple compost sifter. Commercial sifters are available, or you can create a makeshift sifter using a piece of wire hardware fabric with a 1/4-inch grid. Any large pieces that still need to decompose can go back into the bin. And the dark, crumbly finished compost can be stored in another container for later use or immediately spread in the garden.