By Tammy Churchill
Building a compost bin from scratch enables you to customize it to your particular circumstances. Everything from size to materials to design can be personalized to fit your needs.
Before you get too far into planning your bin, check your local municipality’s requirements. Many have restrictions on size and location, as well as structural elements of your composting bin. These are to abate odors, deter rodents, and protect the watershed.
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What materials should I use in the construction of my DIY compost bin?
Nothing is more sustainable (and thrifty!) than using materials already on hand. The amount of material needing to be composted will guide you in selecting the type of repurposed items that will work best in your situation.
Easiest DIY Composting Bin
The simplest bin could be made from leftover chicken wire – galvanized if you want it to last for more than a season or two – or hardware cloth by shaping it into an oval to contain your compost pile. Wire hangers can be cut into a few inch-long pieces to connect the two ends together. Rebar can be weaved through chicken wire, or strapped to hardware cloth, to create stakes to give the sides more stability. This would work for smaller piles and is similar to the economy bin in the best composting bins post.
The University of Missouri Extension office has step-by-step instructions on building a wire mesh composting bin.
Upcycled Compost Bin
Two other types of composting bins that utilize readily available, pre-made materials are pallet and snow fence composters. Because these are common items you might already have on hand, and the bins are easy to assemble, you can get composting right away.
Instructions for building a wooden pallet composting bin can be found on the University of Wisconsin’s extension office site. This is a simple project, involving four or five pallets. What I like best about the instructions is they start with making sure the ground is flat – you don’t want runoff polluting nearby waterways.
The University of Vermont Extension Office has excellent instructions on how to build a snow fence composting bin. Similar to the chicken wire bin, it needs support to keep it from collapsing in on itself. They recommend either wood or metal posts.
For both of these types of compost bins, as well as the chicken wire bin, I would recommend creating a cover for them, which could be as simple as a weighted-down tarp, to help keep the pile at the right level of moisture – either to keep out excessive moisture or to retain it, depending on your climate.
While these bins are small, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t appropriate for a homestead: It’s possible to have multiple bins strategically located near the inputs. Having a smallish bin near the chicken coop could keep you from having to track chicken waste over to where other livestock are housed, for example.
DIY Wooden Compost Bin
When your homestead has a need for composting larger volumes of organic matter, wood is an excellent choice. Repurposed wood is obviously the least expensive option. An old fence, deck, or torn down outbuilding, or even ubiquitous pallets can live a new life as your composting bin.
For climates where there isn’t a concern of the pile drying out, using mesh on the sides can increase airflow and help the piles decompose faster, giving you compost quicker, and more importantly, if you have livestock, freeing up space for manure management. The University of Arkansas’ Extension Office has plans for a wood and mesh compost bin.
Because your bin walls will be in direct contact with the end product, there are some considerations to keep in mind.
Notes about wood choices:
Pressure treated wood
Older pressure treatments for wood included arsenic, which can leach into the compost touching it and in turn be absorbed into anything grown in it. Fortunately newer pressure treated wood does not contain that heavy metal. The current formulation does still concern some people. Because it lasts longer, modern pressure treated wood is frequently used for compost bins. Your homestead, your rules.
Since pallets are everywhere, they are a common choice for DIY composting bins. They are designed to be reused and are treated to ensure they don’t spread fungus and bacteria. The most common prevention method is heat. Pallets designed for the US market will not have any markings, and most have not been treated with chemicals. Unfortunately there is no visual way to tell for sure.
If you do see symbols on a pallet, they let you know what processing has been done: HT stands for heat treated; KD is kiln dried; and DB stands for debarked, which may or may not be the only treatment the pallet received. The symbol you want to watch out for is MB – methyl bromide, a pesticide that has been banned in some countries because it can be harmful to humans.
Design Elements for DIY Compost Bins
In order to compost quickly, all piles need four elements: nitrogen, carbon, air, and water. When it comes to building your compost bin, you will need to find a balance between allowing in air and keeping critters out. Mice can climb through gaps as small as ¼ inch (6-7 mm). If you’ll be hot composting, which is easy to do if manure is included, any items in your pile that would normally attract visitors will shortly lose their smell and be too hot to touch.
Another design feature for your composting bin is having a removable front. This allows you to use the whole area of the bin and keeps critters out (in comparison to leaving the front open, which is also an option if your municipality allows it). Having the bin fully enclosed helps with maintaining moisture levels that encourage decomposition.
For my compost bin, I elected to have the front be removable one plank at a time. As I build my pile I put the boards in place to keep the material in while preventing me from having to lift my composting materials up and over the top of the structure the whole time.
This modular method wouldn’t make sense for a homestead using heavy equipment to build or turn their pile. In that situation, the whole front could be removed or put on hinges to swing it out of the way.
What size should my compost bin be?
To speed up the decomposition process, you will ideally want your composting bin to be at least a cubic yard, as that provides enough volume for it to get hot enough to destroy seeds as well as the pathogens that might be found if composting manure. Keep in mind, however, that bigger is not always better, especially when dealing with animal waste. If the piles are large enough, and the carbon to nitrogen levels are right, it can combust. This is why in my local area compost piles cannot be more than five feet tall.
The best part about building a compost bin from scratch is that you can tailor it to your needs. If you’re on a homestead, you’ll want to determine the width of your composting bin based on the equipment you will be using to bring the material to the composting site. Having it wide enough will enable you to use your bobcat or front- or rear-loader not only to build your pile, but also to turn it, thus speeding up the decomposition process.
Hopefully, the tips here have helped you tailor your DIY composting bin to your needs. By reusing materials you already have, you can create the ultimate cost-effective enclosure to speed up the process of decomposing your homestead’s unwanted organic materials. Making compost creates a nutrient-rich soil amendment that will increase your land’s ability to retain moisture, feed your plants, kill off weed seeds and the pathogens found in animal waste, and dramatically decrease the volume of your outputs, thus helping with manure management.
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.
More on composting
If you have chickens and you want an all-natural, free fertilizer for your garden, see Composting with Chicken Manure: A Beginner’s Guide.
Ready to start composting? With so many composting bins on the market, it can be tough to know where to start. Our guide can help you find the perfect one for your needs.
Love listening to podcasts? Check out No Waste Composting: Small-Space Waste Recycling Indoors and Out with Michelle Balz.