Composting Without a Bin

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By Tammy Churchill

A thrifty way of handling your homestead’s waste products is composting without a bin, just like Mother Nature does it. By using a method outlined below, you can speed up the natural decomposition process. Not only does that mean you will have nutrient-rich material to enrich your soil faster, more importantly for those of you with livestock, it decreases the volume of animal waste.

NOTE: Before you start on your composting journey, particularly if you would like to compost without a bin, please be sure to check your local ordinances to see if you are allowed open piles. There might be other restrictions you will need to know about, such as setbacks, height, or even footprint size. Even if open composting is permissible, you can be held responsible for mediation should animal wastes from your property pollute nearby watersheds.

Options for Composting Without a Bin

What options are available for composting without a bin depends a lot on your climate and how much you have to compost. In general, if you have over a cubic yard of compostable material that starts out moist but not soggy, it will heat up and break down on its own.

I live in an arid environment, where we go nine months a year without a drop of rain. Here, a compost pile left to its own devices will get to temperature if the original mix is right, and the center will break down, but the heat dries out the edges, and they won’t decompose.

If you are in an area that gets a lot of rain, a pile of organic material that gets super saturated would get smelly as the water fills the air holes in the pile, and it starts anaerobic decomposition. There’s also the chance of the pile washing away.

Of course, there are also goldilocks zones that get just enough rain to keep the pile at the right moisture level.

Regardless of your climate, there are methods of composting without a bin that will work for you.

hot compost

Pit Composting

If you don’t have an urgent need for compost and are looking for a way to manage your homestead’s organic waste, pit composting could be the option for you. As the name implies, this method involves putting your composting materials in a hole in the ground and letting nature take its course. This method is ideal if you already have a hole to fill – tree stump removal, leveling out some land – or you have only a small amount of material to compost since digging a hole is hard work.

Pit composting is almost as simple as it sounds: Start with a layer of straw or compost at the bottom of the hole to help absorb any excess moisture, add your compostable materials (manure or any non-diseased plant material), and then finish the process by covering the materials with a couple of inches of “brown” material — straw, grass trimmings, or leaves.

In order for decomposition to occur, you will need to maintain a moist, but not soggy, pile. If the contents of your pit are bone dry, your pile will not compost at all, and will possibly blow away. If it’s too wet, it will become a stinky mess. The huge advantage to this method is that direct access to the decomposition microbes and invertebrates in the soil means that everything will eventually break down assuming a minimum moisture level is maintained.

Part of the reason you finish the pile with a couple of inches of brown material is that it can help retain moisture in the pile and repel rain that falls during the decomposition process. That top layer also allows for air circulation and prevents flies from accessing the organic matter below before it starts to break down and become inhospitable.

Flies are more often a problem if you include kitchen waste. If you are pit composting your fruits and vegetable scraps, especially if you don’t have enough of them to create a hot pile, you will want to have several inches of brown materials on top of your pit.

Many people continuously add to their compost pits rather than digging a new hole. To do this, put them under the top layer of browns to keep pests away. You could also cover your kitchen waste with coffee grounds before replacing the top layer, which has been proven to deter fruit flies and other bugs.

Should flies become a problem for your pit composting site, the easiest way to handle it is to cover it with a thick layer of soil or compost. This will turn your pile anaerobic, but that new top layer should capture the smell, and the invertebrates will still be able to help break things down.

Because your pit composting is obviously below ground, turning the pile is more challenging. Most people who pit compost allow nature to take its course. If your pit is less than a cubic yard, which most composting pits are, it will not get hot, so it won’t kill weed seeds and will take longer to decompose. Cold composting has the advantage of not taking up your time and effort.

This method can also be done in out-of-the-way areas, thus not taking up valuable land that could be used immediately for other purposes. However, being in a remote area makes it harder for the initial dampening of all the materials if there isn’t a water source near your pit.


Windrows are the most common means of composting large quantities of material. This method involves creating rows of organic matter, typically twice as wide as they are high. The length of these rows is dependent on the space available for composting, unless otherwise restricted by local regulations.

Windrows allow you to hot compost (bringing the pile to a minimum of 130 degrees F and maintaining that temperature for at least 3-7 days). This dramatically speeds up decomposition and kills harmful bacteria in manure and weed seeds. If you are in an arid climate like me, it does take work to keep the reaction going — turning the pile every few days to maintain ideal moisture levels and even heat — as well as taking up space that might be used for other activities.

Note on the height of windrows: Because manure is so high in nitrogen, it heats up a composting pile quickly. If your pile is over six feet high, it is possible for the temperatures to be high enough to ignite the pile. That is why my local municipality restricts the height of windrows to six feet, and why specialized composting equipment is designed for that height as well.

If you’re homesteading, you probably don’t happen to have specialized composting equipment. That’s not a problem. You will simply want to leave enough space to turn your piles either manually or with equipment you already have on hand.

If you are lucky enough to get rain to keep the pile moist, you will save yourself a lot of labor, as these can be set-it-and-forget-it piles that get hot and compost fast.


Aerated Windrow Composting

If you don’t happen to be in an area where Mother Nature keeps your pile at the right moisture level, don’t worry. You can eliminate the need for turning the pile by adding air, either passively or actively.

Passive Aerated Windrows

If you want to set and forget your windrow, passive aerated windrows are for you. The process is much like a standard windrow, with the addition of a perforated pipe at the base, which remains open at both ends. PVC pipes with holes can be purchased at any hardware/landscaping supply store, or holes could be drilled into PVC pipes you already have on hand.

As the pile heats up, the chimney effect brings the air up through the pile. One of the biggest benefits of turning a compost pile is adding air to the materials, which is why this is so effective. Because of the passive nature of the aeration, these windrow piles are smaller, typically no more than 4 feet in height, to take the best advantage of the airflow.

Because these passive compost piles are not being turned, it is essential to mix the materials before building the windrow and getting the moisture level right to start. It is strongly recommended to add insulation to these windrows to help retain the moisture and deter flies. Flies are rarely an issue since these piles get hot fast, making an inhospitable climate after only a couple of days. They can be prevented, and the pile insulated, with the addition of a few-inch thick layer of compost over the entire pile, which can be blended in at the end.

If you consistently get enough rain to keep your pile moist, the outer layer isn’t needed.

Aerated Windrows

Aerated windrows are built like the passively aerated type, except the tube that runs underneath the pile is attached to a blower. This allows for greater control over the airflow and taller piles. Because of the improved air circulation, these piles compost much faster than their passive counterparts and can be much taller.

The obvious main disadvantage to the aerated static piles is that they need access to power. Compost piles aren’t normally located near a convenient outlet.

Like the passive aerated piles, the windrow needs to retain moisture inside. With increased airflow, it can dry out sooner. Another option for protecting the windrow, other than a layer of compost on top, is using a tarp or other form of reusable cover. My municipality uses this method for its organics processing, with custom covers for each of its multitude of rows.

If you are interested in learning more about how to set up a system like this, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations offers information on large-scale composting using aerated windrows.

Selecting Your Best Option for Composting Without a Bin

There are options for composting without a bin to fit any homestead’s needs. The best method for your homestead depends on the amount of material you have. Small amounts can be pit composted, even within active gardening beds. This process helps to continually renew the soil.

If you have a large amount to compost, windrows are your best solution. If you want to speed up the decomposition process compared to standard windrows and not have to worry about turning your pile, then either passive or actively aerated piles could be the solution for you. Passively aerated piles take longer, but the upfront investment in materials is only for PVC pipes with holes in them. Actively aerated piles need a power source and the addition of an air pump. The added expense means faster composting.

Whatever method you choose, composting your homestead’s organic materials can enrich your soils and help dramatically reduce the volume of waste. It’s a cost-effective and environmentally sound method of waste management.

More on Composting

If you’ve heard that composting is complicated, this class >> Composting: How to Turn Waste and Manure Into Black Gold << is for you. It’s simple to make and use, and it costs nothing other than your time and the tools that you use, which you probably already have on hand.

Tammy Churchill is a Master Composter and enjoys sharing the joys of sustainable living as an Eco Team Docent at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation. She spends her time spoiling her hens, wrangling worms, and creating gardening gold out of food scraps, yard trimmings, and chicken poop.

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