There are many ways to build a compost bin, but serious gardeners will want to be able to access the finished compost easily and often. Here are some of the many ways we have composted and what works best for us now.
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Compost Bin Designs
1: The Compost Heap
I learned how to compost growing up by using a heap. We collected kitchen scraps in a compost pail, and my brothers and I took turns emptying it into a compost heap in the corner of the yard. This heap is also where we put grass clippings and other yard waste.
The problem with the heap is that there was no way to access finished compost without disturbing the rest of the pile, so all of that goodness never got used. The pile just got higher!
2: The Round Wire Bin
When Mr. TAF and I began composting together as newlyweds (romantic, right?), we started with a heap for sticks and brush, but we created a simple wire bin with 16-gauge galvanized wire fencing to compost kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and leaves.
When we were ready to harvest finished compost from the wire bin, we simply knocked it over, harvested the finished compost at the bottom, and straightened it back up again to continue composting. If you’re new to composting, this bin will be a perfect way to get started.
The problem with the wire bin is that once you get really serious about composting, it isn’t big enough.
3: The 3-Bin Turning Unit
At some point, Mr. TAF completed a Master Composter course, in which the 3-bin compost system was esteemed as the mother of all compost bins. That’s because the frequent turning helps the contents compost faster, and it’s easy to harvest the finished compost from it.
The wood-and-wire Turning Unit
Below is the wood-and-wire unit that we built. Get the plans here.
The way it works is that food scraps are always added to the bin on the left. To the side of the left bin we keep a round wire bin (our old compost bin!) filled with leaves, and whenever we add food scraps, we cover them with a few handfuls of leaves.
Some people use straw, sawdust, or other types of “brown” material when leaves aren’t available. Whatever you use, it’s important to cover food scraps to avoid pests and odors, as well as to speed the composting process.
Once the left bin is full, we use a pitchfork to scoop it into the middle bin. The wooden slats on the front of each bin are removable to make turning easier. This turning process aerates the pile, helping to speed up composting.
When the left bin is full again and ready to be scooped to the middle, the existing contents of the middle bin are moved to the bin on the right. Contents will generally take about 2-3 months to compost completely. By this time, the contents should be finished and ready to be spread in the garden. If I find any sticks or uncomposted scraps, I just toss them back into the middle bin to compost some more.
The Pallet 3-Bin Turning Unit
The wood and wire 3-bin unit is a really nice setup that helps to keep composting nice and orderly in the urban or suburban backyard. But it’s not the cheapest to build. At the community garden we needed a cheaper option, so we built the same 3-bin unit using free pallets. We secured each corner using steel T-posts, which you can barely see poking up from each corner in the picture below. We made makeshift doors using wire and hardware cloth. It’s not as pretty, but it does the job!
Because the community garden is on the campus of a university, we hung an educational sign about composting to give directions for anyone wanting to compost food scraps:
The community garden is a popular place for students and faculty to eat lunch or an afternoon snack in between classes.
At home it’s easy to throw uncomposted sticks or other items back into the middle bin as I use the finished compost, but I’ve discovered that we simply have too much brush and too many sticks, which take longer to compost. The 3-bin unit would work more efficiently if I didn’t add these in at all.
#4: The Worm Bin
Worm compost is the richest known natural fertilizer, and making a worm composting bin is really cheap and easy.
I add worm compost to my soil and seed starting mixes, and to the planting holes when I plant my seeds and seedlings in the spring.
Build a Compost Heap in a Day
For those without space limitations and access to composting materials in bulk, building organized compost heaps can yield lots of finished compost all at once, which is essential for anyone starting new gardens on a budget.
John Jeavons in How to Grow More Vegetables has an excellent chapter on building organized compost heaps. He recommends finding a spot underneath an oak tree or other deciduous tree because they provide shade throughout the summer as well as a windbreak.
The fastest way to yield finished compost is to build a compost pile all in one day. This way, the pile will heat up faster than adding a little bit of compost material at a time.
To try it, gather your materials. The pile will be a square that is a minimum of 4 feet long by 4 feet wide, and 4 feet tall. To create compost quickly and evenly, you will need at least three different types of materials, plus a bit of soil, which will serve to inoculate the compost with beneficial soil microbes.
The first layer will include small sticks, twigs, and dried stalks. The second layer will consist of dry vegetation such as leaves, chemical-free straw, or dried grass. The third layer will consist of green vegetation such as weeds, grass clippings, food scraps, and even coffee grounds. The final layer is soil.
Measure out the space for the heap and loosen the soil using a digging fork. Each layer will be about 2 inches thick and alternated in the above order, with the final top layer being soil.
This pile will not require turning, and should be ready in 2-3 months’ time. For more information on building this type of compost pile see A Return to Simplicity’s instructions for Compost in 30 Days and How to Find Free Composting Materials. We are lucky to get coffee grounds from a local Starbucks and a Whole Foods store.
The Right Composting Combination
Living on a small lot limits my ability to compost in an ideal way, but if I had my druthers, I would have a compost heap for sticks and brush. The 3-bin compost unit would make amazing compost out of food scraps, leaves, grass clippings, and weeds.
And my worm bins (two of them) would produce fertilizer-rich worm castings that, when mixed with finished compost, would make building garden soil a breeze for very little cost and external inputs. Worm bins, by the way, are an easy way to continue composting throughout the winter when the regular compost bin freezes up.
For us, it was important to get rid of the unruly heap and use the 3-bin unit so the compost looked orderly. We wanted to be nice neighbors. Having the worm bins in the garage (out of sight) is a bonus, too.
All in all, the combination of composting methods you use will be dependent on how much space you have and other unique factors.
Which composting methods will work the best for you?