There are many ways to build a compost bin. However, you’ll want to choose a design to meet your needs. Here are six compost bin designs to choose from.
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There are a lot of different compost bin styles out there, but serious gardeners will want to be able to easily access the finished compost. The following are some of the compost bin styles that I’ve used.
6 Ways to Build a Compost Bin
1: The Compost Heap
Growing up, we composted by using a heap. We collected kitchen scraps in a compost pail, and my brothers and I took turns emptying it onto a giant compost pile in the corner of the yard. This heap is also where we put grass clippings and other yard waste.
Thirty years later, my parents are still using the same heap! Although you might be imagining a compost mountain after so many years, the truth is that the contents biodegrade, keeping the pile a consistent, inconspicuous size.
This is the easiest way to compost! The problem with the heap method is that there’s no easy way to access the finished compost underneath recently added materials. So the rich goodness was rarely used.
2: The Round Wire Compost Bin
When Mr. TAF and I began composting together as newlyweds (romantic, right?), we started with a heap for sticks and brush and a simple, round wire bin that we made with 16-gauge galvanized wire fencing (48-60 inches tall) to compost kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and leaves.
It’s pictured below on the right.
To harvest finished compost from a wire bin, you simply knocked it over. Harvest the finished compost from the bottom, then straighten it back up again to continue composting. If you’re new to composting, this bin is 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. However, that’s an easy problem to solve. Just make more wire bins!
Would you like to yield delicious harvests while partnering with nature? Check out my mini guide, The Permaculture Inspired Vegetable Garden.
3: The Worm Compost Bin
Worm castings (i.e., worm compost) are the richest known natural fertilizer. So why not try vermicomposting, i.e., worm composting? It’s a simple and cheap method.
Worm bins can even be kept inside, which is what enticed me to give it a try. When the weather is bad, I love being able to walk downstairs to the garage with my kitchen pail rather than outside.
Here are my plans for making a worm bin. You’ll also want to check out worm bin problems for beginners.
I add worm compost to my garden beds, seed starting mixes, and even to the planting holes for fruit trees and other perennials.
The next two types of compost bins are variations of the same design: The Three-Bin Turning Unit.
Years ago, Mr. TAF completed a Master Composter course, and the three-bin composting system was the holy grail of all compost piles. That’s because the frequent turning helps the contents compost faster, and it’s easy to harvest the finished compost from it.
The only drawback to this turning unit is that it’s a more active way to compost and requires a bit more effort than the more passive compost bin designs above. But if you want finished compost more quickly, and you like a neat-and-tidy aesthetic, this is a good system for you.
4: The Wood-and-Wire Three-Bin 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. Next to the Add-to-Pile bin I keep a round wire bin (our old wire bin!) filled with leaves. When adding food scraps, I cover them with handfuls of leaves.
Some people use straw, sawdust, or other types of “brown” material if leaves aren’t available. Whatever material you use, it’s important to cover food scraps to avoid pests and odors, as well as to speed the composting process.
Once the Add-to-Pile bin is full, I use a pitchfork to scoop it into the middle bin. The wooden slats on the front of each bin are removable to make “turning” (moving the contents from one bin to the next) easier. This turning process aerates the pile, which speeds up composting.
When the Add-to-Pile bin is full a second time, the existing contents of the middle bin are moved to the Finished Compost bin on the right. Contents generally take about 2-3 months to compost completely.
By the time you’re ready to turn a third time, the contents in the Finished Compost bin should be ready to spread in the garden.
This is a really nice setup that keeps composting nice and orderly in the urban or suburban backyard. However, it’s not the cheapest to build.
Would you like to learn more about making and using compost to improve soil and reduce cost and waste?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my award-winning book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
5: The Pallet Three-Bin Turning Unit
We needed a cheaper option at our community garden, so we built the same three-bin unit using free pallets.
We secured each corner using a steel T-post, 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 a snack in between classes.
6. 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 piles. 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 heats up faster than adding little bits of 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’ll need at least three different types of materials, plus a bit of soil, which inoculates the compost with beneficial soil microbes.
- The first (woody) layer includes small sticks, twigs, and dried stalks.
- The second (brown/carbon) layer consists of dry vegetation such as leaves, chemical-free straw, or dried grass.
- The third (green/nitrogen) layer consists of green vegetation such as weeds, fresh grass clippings, food scraps, and even coffee grounds.
- The final (microbe) layer is soil.
Be sure to select the right ingredients to keep persistent herbicides out of your compost bin.
Measure out the space for the heap and loosen the soil using a digging fork. Each layer is about 2 inches thick. Alternate in the above order until you reach the desired height, topping with the soil.
This heap doesn’t require turning, and should be ready in about 1-2 months’ time.
Summary: Building a Compost Bin
For many people, a combination of composting methods is the best way to turn free resources such as food scraps, coffee grounds, livestock bedding, and yard waste (grass clippings, leaves, weeds) into a rich garden amendment.
The combination of composting methods you use will depend on how much space you have and other unique factors.
This book is a great resource: Compost Everything
Which compost bin designs meet your needs?
>>> Get my free 19-page Guide to Organic Soil Amendments for more ideas:
We used old magnolia logs and oak logs for our sides and then some cedar posts for the front to keep the compost semi-organized. It has turned out well and is now two years old and doing great. Eventually the logs will rot and we’ll have to re-think our compost pile but until then we have a great pile for adding compost to our garden.
That sounds like a great setup!
If the compost bin is out in the yard, uncovered, won’t the rain wash away some of the nutrients?
Good question. Keeping compost moist is important, which is why it will do well under a deciduous tree that can help keep it from drying out in the hot summer sun. The tree will also help to keep it protected from heavy rains and wind.
If a compost bin is out in full sun, it will need to be watered regularly to keep it moist, so either way, whether from rain or from hose water, I think some nutrient leaching will be inevitable.
Some compost bin designs, including the unit we built, include a cover, which can help keep rain out. We opted to not use a cover since our bin sits under two large trees.
I cover my pile with an old sheet of plastic and top that with cardboard to keep the sun from deteriorating the plastic so fast. The plastic keeps the pile moist and is easy to pull back when adding more material. The cardboard also provides shade for the bugs. When the cardboard gets too weathered to be useful as a cover it goes under the plastic to finish decomposing with the pile. I use pallets and pipe or t-posts to make a 3 sided bin and just divide it into thirds visually, filling up the ‘sections from right to left and uncovering just the newest section to add more materials. Last year I found huge mushrooms growing around the edges of the cardboard under the plastic and cardboard on the older areas of the pile. I lined the pallets with cardboard also to keep the dirt” from washing out thru the slats of the pallets. It holds up pretty well as it’s on the vertical. I hope this makes sense.
Laura Skorczewski says
I cover mine with an old tarp
Great article, Amy. Just curious how far away you have your compost bins from your house, your garden and your neighbor’s houses? I currently have one of those tall plastic bins that came with the house which doesn’t do a good job, and is totally filled up currently. I am thinking about the 3-step system you described here. I’m just pondering where I could put it.
Our compost is about 50 feet from our house. It is connected to our gardens, which are spread all over the front and back yards. It sits at the edge of our property, so just a few feet away from two neighboring properties, but 60-80 feet away from four neighboring houses.
As long as the compost is kept neat and tidy, and good practice keeps it pest and odor-free, there’s no problem with having it border other properties. But that’s why we got rid of our heap – it was just too unruly to be bordering someone else’s small backyard.
Under a tree would be best 🙂
There is no perfect way to compost, just ask any gardener. Personally i use the 3 pallet method, under a nice oak tree in the chicken yard. The ladies even help to shred leaves and add poop. Where I still have stumps in the yard I use the round wire method to help decay the wood. When I am preparing a new bed or fruit tree location I use the Lasagne Method. Then there is the old reliable build and forget it and let the worms do their magic. (I used this method last year when the wife was sick, she hecame my only priority.)
Plant rhubarb near your bin, if it’s in the sun. I have a black plastic compost ball, the idea was that I should be able to roll it to mix it. It is too heavy to roll. It’s about 10′ from my back door, so it is easy to reach during MN winters. A rhubarb plant next to it gets the benefit of any nutrients that leach out. Recently, I’m trying “worm tubes” for small space gardening. Cut a 4″ pvc pipe in half. Use a hole cutting saw to cut some holes close to one end. Put that end of the tube into the soil in the garden. Put food scraps in from the top. Cover the top to keep critters out. It’s supposed to attract worms to the food at the bottom of the tube, depositing droppings as they come & go. When I pulled mine up this spring, there were worms near it.
My husband and I put our compost pile under a large Walnut tree. We put it there for all of the reasons you outlines above. It’s been there about 20 years now. At first it was great. Eventually though the old Walnut Tree “discovered” the compost pile. It has sent roots up to suck up the goodness. My husband used to use a shovel to cut the roots every spring. Life got busy and we didn’t remove the compost one year. Now the roots are much larger and have little “hair” roots all through the compost. We still add to the pile but have decided that it’s not longer compost but a “treat pile” for the old Walnut Tree. We’ve since started a new compost pile that is not under trees. The new compost pile has shade cloth over it so that it still gets the rain but not so much sun.
This is a good point about tree roots–thanks for bringing it up. I know exactly what you mean, because our compost bin was under a maple tree that did the same thing–took over the piles. I love the term ‘treat pile’, haha!
I think the recommendation for the compost pile being placed under the tree was for a temporary pile, but I tried it anyway with my permanent pile with the same results as you. It sounds like your new set up is much more human-friendly 🙂
That happened to one of my piles near an oak tree. The fine roots will find the nutrients in the pile and happily invade the soil. I managed to chop thru and shake out the roots from the soil which was a bit of work but I ended up with enough soil to fill a long 2 ft wide raised bed for my new raspberry canes. I mixed in some minerals and phosphate and compose tea made out of llama manure. Then I top dressed the bed with organic alfalfa. The raspberries seem to be doing fins.
Another tree that sends roots far and wide in search of compost bins is the madrone tree. It is a water loving tree that competes for soil nutrients, so it is not good to have one near the garden. I have used it however to give partial shade to several pots of rhubarb positioned on the south side of the tree. They seem to be happy there and the moist soil under the tree is happy with the runoff from the pots and gives a nice home to worms and other bugs. Maybe its a symbiotic sort of relationship.
I forgot to mention in my other post that the fron of my modified pallet compost bin is contained by a black polyproylene runner that is an unrolled compost bin itself. I just decided to use it another way. It has holes throughout the material which allows for air circulation and helps me tie it to the palelets on the ends.
My mother in law built her compost bins from three sides cinder block, front stacking tight wood slats, filled from the top, all covered with a tight lid. They live in the city, and it’s to keep out rodents of unusual size. What are your thoughts on such a bin? Am considering this myself. My other idea is just to dump everything in the chicken run and shovel out the stuff when it’s broken down.
I think your MIL’s cinder block compost bin sounds great, as does your chicken run solution. I wonder, though, organic matter from the chicken run will need to compost for a certain amount of time before it is safe for the garden, so perhaps that could be added to a regular compost bin when it gets cleaned out to continue composting?
Good point! I already do a six month composting minimum on the coop shavings to avoid pathogens. will continue brainstorming….
My MIL has a much, much smaller garden.
I look forward to hearing what you come up with 🙂
Maureen Erdwin says
I find ‘ Bokashi – Bran’ added to my composting has good results by way of my worm bins and to my compositing bins, gets faster results and helps in the recycling process of food that would otherwise be sent to the refuse
The worms like the feed and do well.
With the egg shells I bake in the oven, when cooking other food items there is no need to wash egg shells as the
drying process kills smells and makes it easy to crush into smaller pieces either by rolling pin or by hand held blender.
By Bokashi system allows the keeper to not waste spoiled cooked food/or uncooked items that should find their way to the back of the fridge/store cupboard.
The inoculated bran, does not smell but does transfer to the food items aiding to assist in the breakdown of the
food structure with the microbes so produced.
The cost in all of this, some would say is wasteful in itself but wake up there, for every once in a while there
is bound to be some small amount of leftovers on a plate but on a whole the same can and does come into play with
banana skins, apple or maize/corn cores, lettuces outer leaves, tea leaves/bags, coffee grains, very stale bread
(worms appreciate bread in winter it helps to keep them warm), potatoes peelings, pineapple peelings, pea/bean pods and also moss does a similar job as egg shells which aids grit to worms diet, again helpful if using worms for fishing
as the moss hardens the worms up a little and makes adding to the hook easier and may even help catching
something more for dinner.
So apart from fish on it will also be dinner on, no bad thing, what say you?
I’ve composted my whole life and for the past 20 years, in the city. I have in my tiny back yard two bins, one laying fallow, one in use – they have been, up until now, a black plastic surround that I just pile all manner of scraps and greens into – once it’s full (about a year) I just let it sit and start using the other bin. When bin #2 is full, I empty bin #1 and start all over again. Recently I started getting concerned about “wildlife” so I’ve slowly switched over to enclosed tumbling bins – it’s yet to be seen if these will work. They are smaller than my other bins by about half, but supposedly decompose faster. I’m dubious. Wish me luck.
I have tumbling bins and they work well. Only problem I have is that the stands on mine have not lasted well being tubular galvanised iron, so one bin has a bad lean and the other one, I fill and roll around the yard. Seems to work ok and I get some severe exercise when standing it back up again!
Catherine Barrett says
I have a question about covering food scraps with fallen leaf matter. Our leaves from last Autumn are wet and rotting, black and fragile after one winter sitting in a pile. Are they still suitable for covering food scraps with, or does it need to be dry brown matter? If so, do you store leaves indoors for this purpose?
We are in Germany, close to the Rhein, so climate zone 7a.
Yes, these rotting leaves will be great for covering food scraps in a compost bin. However, if your compost bin is also saturated, then you might consider putting a cover over your compost bin and/or leaf pile because that would likely be too much moisture for proper decomposition. You want your compost/leaf piles to be moist, but not over saturated. One or the other is usually okay.
Karen Morris says
Do you have plans anywhere for your three bin compost bin?
There is a link above in the article that will take you to design plans and building instructions. 🙂
Hi, this post really helped me figure out what I need, I love the simple wire design you started out with! Just wondered what size does it need to be to compost effectively?
I would start with at least a 3-foot wide diameter. The wider diameter allows the pile to heat up sufficiently to fire the composting process. If you find that you enough food scraps and yard waste that it fills up quickly, a 4- or 5-foot diameter bin is better, heating up even more, speeding the process and better killing weed seeds.
Thanks Amy! I’m planning to put one together tomorrow.
Aryay Kalaki says
I have mostly built a compost bin with a cement base, aluminum sides with the front side removable, and a plastic top. Main use is for kitchen scraps. I plan a section with leaves or the like. Total space is about 30 by 48.
How much aeration do you recommend? At the top? Or where?
A compost bin needs to be breathable and moist to accommodate the organisms that break food scraps and yard waste down into compost. Something in your design has to give in order to allow composting to happen: the cement base, aluminum sides, plastic top… they don’t allow air or rain in. Why not use hardware cloth and/or wood as I’ve recommended above in examples 2, 4, or 5?
Rick S says
Hello Amy. I am going to build your 3 section composter, have lots of room in a corner that we never plant, anyways. What is the wire/mesh recommendation ? I didn’t see it anywhere in your building Materials list. Do you use just regular chicken wire, like a pea row fence ? Or what about the tight weave of replacement screen-door mesh ?
You’ll need 1/2-inch hardware cloth; the link referenced above includes a materials list. Wood-and-Wire Three-Bin Turning Compost Bin
Laura Carpenter says
These are the plans I have been looking for and am going to buy your book! During the pandemic I build a built a large garden as want to work on creating my own compost. I have 7 acres and many trees and want to put all of those leaves to work! What is the completed size of the 3 bin system? I definitely have room for something pretty large.
Hunter Scott says
Thanks for the info. In the palate bin – how do you get the pile from one bin to the other?
We secured the hardware cloth “doors” so that they could be removed and replaced easily. I’ve used garden twine to tie it closed, I’ve also used screw hooks or eye hooks.
I have a lot of black walnut trees on my property. A lot of garden plants will not grow around black walnuts. If I use their leaves as brown matter in my compost, will they imbue the compost with those unfriendly characteristics?