How to Make a Composter

wooden composter outdoors

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Overview
  • Total Time: 2 hrs
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $15 to 40

Compost is the secret to many gardeners' thriving plants. When you save certain organic items meant for the trash—such as banana peels, apple cores, leaves, and grass clippings—you can turn them into a nutrient-rich medium that will transform your garden. With a sturdy vessel, some organic scraps, and minimal cultivation, you'll be on your way to making your own compost to feed your plants.

fruit and vegetable scraps in a compost bin
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When to Compost

Building a robust compost pile can be a year-round endeavor. But the magic happens in the warmer months when aerobic organisms, such as bacteria and fungi, decompose organic waste and transform it into a soil amendment.

Early spring is a good time to build your composter and begin the process. Each spring, add spent plants from the previous year's garden. Then, come summer and fall, add produce waste and other organic scraps. You can even toss scraps into your composter when snow starts to fly. Although cold temperatures can halt the decomposition, the composting process will restart whenever warm weather returns.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Work gloves
  • Drill and bits
  • Saw or utility knife
  • Wire cutters
  • Gardening shears
  • Hammer
  • Garden fork or shovel

Materials

  • Plastic storage bin (18 gallons or larger)
  • Garbage bag or weed cloth
  • Bungee cord
  • Chicken wire
  • Garden stakes
  • Metal rebar
  • Zip ties

Instructions

How to Make a Composting Bin

The first consideration in learning how to compost is figuring out what you're going to compost in. This will depend on the size of your garden and your preferred aesthetics. People with small gardens often choose a composting bin, such as a storage container or trash can, that hides the decaying matter while providing enough compost to fortify their plants.

  1. Find a Location

    Determine a location for your composting bin. Pick an area that is close to your garden yet out of sight to maintain a manicured appearance. Lay down a garbage bag or weed cloth in the selected area.

  2. Select Compost Container

    Select a plastic storage container to be your composter. It should be at least 18 gallons and include a tightly fitting lid.

  3. Cut Bottom of Container and Drill Holes

    Put on your work gloves. Cut off the bottom of the container with a hand saw or utility knife (optional). Then, using your drill and a large drill bit, drill holes all over the outside of the bin to create airflow. If you chose not to cut off the bottom, make sure to drill ample holes in it.

  4. Fill Compost Bin

    Place your composter on top of the garbage bag or weed cloth, and begin filling the bin with appropriate organic waste. If animals frequent your yard, secure the top of the bin with a bungee cord.

How to Make a Fenced Composting Pile

A large garden usually requires a sizable composting pile to serve its nutrition needs. That's where a fenced composting pile comes in play.

  1. Choose Location

    Decide on a location for your composting pile. Near your garden, yet hidden from view by a shed or garage, is often the best option.

  2. Measure Space

    Measure your space. A 3- to 4-square-foot area is typically recommended. Place a stake in each corner.

  3. Cut Cloth

    Cut your weed cloth to the size of the composter area.

  4. Hammer Rebar Through Cloth

    Hammer a piece of rebar through your weed cloth and into the ground in each staked corner, so all four corners are marked with rebar.

  5. Roll and Cut Chicken Wire

    Roll out the chicken wire, and cut it to span each side of the composter area. Secure each corner to the rebar with several zip ties. Then, using a wire tool, bend the sharp edges around the rebar.

  6. Add Organic Waste

    Start adding appropriate organic waste to your fenced composting pile.

Maintaining Your Compost Pile

While compost maintenance is minimal, regularly turning the pile and sustaining optimal moisture for decomposition is crucial to your success. In about one to six months, you should have usable compost.

Roughly once a week, work the pile with a garden fork or shovel, making sure to turn it so the organic material from the bottom covers new additions on the top.

Add water to your pile if necessary to maintain dampness and speed decomposition. If your climate is hot and dry, you might need to water as much as every other day. However, if it's been raining regularly, watering might not be necessary. In fact, you might even want to cover your pile with a tarp, so it doesn't get too soggy.

If your pile is too wet, add shredded newspaper or dry leaves. This material will soak up the excess moisture and prevent mold from forming. Refrain from adding organic scraps until the pile returns to its normal level of dampness.

Composting Tips

In general, only plant matter can be composted. Meat, bones, and dairy can harbor harmful bacteria and should never be added to a compost pile. For the same reason, pet waste also generally should not be composted.

Decomposition of organic matter will happen no matter what. However, regular composter maintenance on your part can speed up the process. If manually turning compost is difficult for you, consider a compost tumbler or other pre-made bin that makes the process easier.

No matter what variety you choose, place your composter in an area that is easy for you to access, preferably in partial sun. The warmth will help the contents break down.

Finished compost looks and smells like dark, rich soil. Use it in garden beds, on your lawn, in container plantings, and even as an ingredient in seed-starting mix. It's nearly impossible to add too much compost to your garden.