A Homemade Compost Bin For A Few Dollars

homemade compost bin

You can modify a standard plastic trash can like this one into a compost bin.

There are hundreds of compost bins for sale online and in stores, but they all share the same two problems: size and price.

For those of us with large gardens, most retail compost bins are either too small or too expensive.

Being the frugal gardener that I am, I sought a better way – after all, compost will break down in any number of containers. The stirring mechanisms in retail versions are a great idea, easy to use and speed the breakdown, but are they worth the price?

The zero cost solution if you have the room, is to make a cold compost pile: throw your table scraps and yard waste in a big pile at the edge of your yard and let it break down, turning it once a week. This is called cold composting. To get the pile to heat up a little more, surround it with bales of hay which will break down and add good carbon material to your pile. You can also trench compost – dig a trench in a fallow garden bed and add table scraps and yard waste directly into the soil.

The next best solution is to make an inexpensive homemade compost bin with a modified large black plastic garbage can, available at any hardware store for about ten dollars.

Watch the video How to build a compost bin with shipping pallets

What you need to build this homemade compost bin:

  • Large black plastic trash can
  • ½” drill bit and drill
  • Two bungee cords
  • Bricks or wood blocks

Air circulation is critical to composting, so the can needs holes – without them, the odor will be unbearable. With a 1/2″ drill bit, create 4 vertical sets of 6 evenly spaced holes around the can and 6 evenly spaced holes in the bottom for drainage. Also drill 6 holes in the lid of the can to allow rainwater in and air to flow through the pile. Oxygen encourages aerobic bacteria to go to work on your compost, which will keep it odor-free and speed the breakdown.

You’ll also need two bungee cords: one to hold the can’s lid on securely and one to tie the bin to a stationary object (like a porch railing) so it won’t blow away in a storm. Chasing a compost bin across your neighbor’s lawn in a thunderstorm while the can is spilling its ingredients is ugly.

Finally, raise your bin off the ground by placing it on a few bricks (or something similar) so that air can get under it and it can properly drain. If you like, you can place a receptacle under your bin to catch the fluid that drains out – it’s a great liquid feed for any plant.

You now have a homemade compost bin.

When you want to stir your compost, take the can off the bricks while keeping the lid intact with the bungee cords and give it a few rolls on the lawn.

Perfecting the art of composting can be tricky, but it’s essential to the health of your garden. Compost adds beneficial microbes to the soil and provides the highest nutrition for your garden plants.

The Art Of Composting.

The key to fast compost is getting it to heat up. If your balance is correct, the pile should create heat on its own within a week or two (steam will actually rise from your pile) and you should have finished compost in one or two months. The heat is created by the biological activity in the pile, not the absorbed heat from sunlight (although the solar heat helps somewhat). Stir it frequently – the more oxygen that reaches the bacteria, the faster the compost breaks down.

When you add fresh ingredients to your compost, take a handful of soil from your garden and throw it on top – the soil contains microbes which will kick-start the fermenting process. Wet the top of the compost thoroughly, but not so much that it’s soaked.

At least once a week, give your compost a stir and check the smell. If it has a foul odor, either your carbon to nitrogen ratio (brown material :green material) is out of whack, or it’s too wet. Let the pile dry for a day or two and if it still smells, then you have too much green stuff (nitrogen), so add more brown material like wood ashes, cardboard, black and white newspaper or dried corn stalks.  The smell should go away in a day or two.

What Do You Put In Your Compost Bin?

Years ago, the standard ingredients of compost were horse manure and straw, and this combination has never been topped for fertilization. But for those who don’t have access to this great gift, other ingredients will be necessary. Table scraps are excellent: use anything that’s fruit, grain or vegetable, but avoid meat scraps, because the smell may attract animals like raccoons, which will tear your bin to shreds trying to get it. Meat scraps may also turn putrid in your bin and create a horrendous odor. You can also add tree leaves, newspaper (black and white only), brown paper bags (shredded) non-glossy paper plates, plain cardboard, vacuum cleaner wastes, grass clippings, leaves, stalks, pet or human hair, wood ashes, coffee grounds, used tea bags, etc. The key to fast composting is to shred everything into very small pieces – the smaller it is, the faster it will break down.

How Do You Know When Compost Is Finished?

When compost is finished, it will look crumbly, be the color of chocolate and have a pleasant, earthy smell, not foul in any way. It will also be much smaller than the pile you started with – about two-thirds smaller, depending on your ingredients.

Dump it on your garden and start again! Your plants will thrive on it and you’ll reduce your personal garbage stream to practically nil.

Buy on Amazon: Mike McGrath’s Book of Compost

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About Todd Heft

Todd Heft is an organic gardener and freelance garden writer who lives in the Lehigh Valley, PA and has gardened for most of his life. When he isn't writing or reading about organic gardening, he's gardening. His first book, "Homegrown Tomatoes: The Step-By-Step Guide to Growing Delicious Organic Tomatoes In Your Garden" is available on Amazon now. Google

18 Responses to A Homemade Compost Bin For A Few Dollars

  1. tammy says:

    I’m using an old roll around trash bin it one day I found enough things to fill it half way up so far… drilling holes in it today

  2. Jan says:

    I love this idea but you have not said how large the can should be. Ten dollars sounds cheap for the size of the can pictured. I am not in the US but a garbage can of 30 gallons would cost a bit more than $30. We are two people and the garden is a fairly small one with raised beds. The total area of gardening equals less than 2,000 feet. I also wonder about my ability to turn over and roll a very large can. I am 74 and my husband is 63.

    • Todd Heft says:

      When I wrote this post a standard garbage can of that size at big box stores here in the U.S. was about $10. Of course, prices vary and may be more where you live. If your garden is small, that size can will be sufficient for your needs. I would get two: one for holding yard waste and one for the actual composting. That way you won’t have to disturb the composting in progress with new, raw materials and can just let it “cook”.
      However, at 74 you may have difficulty rolling or turning the can – some I know have no problem with it and some can’t do it, it all depends on your health. The more expensive ones that tumble may be a safer play for you.

  3. Melly says:

    i’m wondering if i started a compost bin using this method do i stop adding stuff at a certain point to allow it to turn into soil and have a back-up compost bin in the meantime? i’m very very new to this so i just dont understand i guess how to put this into action. thanks for any help anyone has to offer! 🙂

    • Todd Heft says:

      Your assumption is correct. It depends on how much compost you need, which would depend on the size of your garden. Many people use multiple bins – one for “cooking”, one for holding ingredients for the next cook, and one with finished compost. If you have a small garden, you can usually get away with one bin – fill it to the top with your ingredients and then let it “cook” for a couple of months – just remember to stir frequently.

  4. Catherine says:

    I love your video, you porevd how simple it is…..question, can you compost in winter? I live in Michigan.

    • Todd Heft says:

      Yes, you can compost year-round. Of course, not much progress occurs in winter, but once the outdoor temps start to heat up, your pile is ready to go.

  5. Christian says:

    I am all about it! However, Hubby fell off the bandwagon when he found maggots in the compost box and dry heaved into the bushes for five minutes. True story. Sorry so vivid.

  6. Karrie says:

    Our city has recently begun a compost campaign by collecting
    food scraps with our yard debris, and all households have been issued a standard compost caddy to collect our table scraps. The program is still in its infancy, and meat scraps are included in the mix – a concern for those of us who are already familiar with composting. It is great that the city is taking strides to a greener environment, but we will be picking up compostable bags to hold our meat scraps because like you posted, the smell may attract pests.

  7. James Harper says:

    I’ve been composting for forty years and here is my method. Get a good shredder (I am using a bearcat presently) Keep a small flock of chickens in an enclosed area. Throw your shredded vegetable material in with the chickens. The vegetable material balances the chicken manure so there is no smell from either the composting material or the chickens. The chickens continually turn the shredded material. As the material turns back to dirt it settles under the newer material. Periodically remove the bottom dirt material and put it in compost containers (the earth machine is my favorite) since the material has gone through it’s heat you can add worms into the container. The worms finish the composting process and create a super soil. The last thing I do is run the material through a screen. The larger material is returned to the shredder and the process is repeated. The plant roots are happy now, but don’t forget the plant blooms. Start a small bee hive and your plants will have everything they need to produce healthy food for your family.

    • Todd says:

      Well, that’s just about the most efficient way of composting I’ve ever seen. If my town allowed a chicken coop in the backyard, I’d certainly be trying that, but alas, it’s a zoning violation.You seem to have it down to a science, to say the least.

  8. Victor Skrzypinski says:

    As a Newbie, I am always searching online for articles that may help me. Thank you

  9. Albert Antonini says:

    incredible stuff thanx

    • Peter says:

      I’m DYING to compost. Every time I throw something away, I think, I WISH WE COULD COMPOST! But we don’t have a yard, being in a second floor apartment. Some day…

  10. Flowers says:

    Thanks for sharing the information on art of composting. It was nice going through your blog. keep it up the good work. cheers 🙂

  11. trheft says:

    Thanks for the comment-sounds like you’re doing cold composting in a pile? That’s great – just remember to chop everything into small pieces and flip it over once in awhile. I always have a cold pile in the garden, basically a “waiting” pile, as I’m waiting for the stuff in my bin to break down. It’s amazing how long full length corn stalks and sunflower stalks will remain unchanged. Yet when I chop them down and put them in the bin, they’re gone in a few weeks.
    Also for the winter, I would suggest covering your pile with a clear plastic tarp so that the snow and rain don’t leach too many nutrients. The clear tarp will let the sun’s UV rays through, which will keep your pile a little warmer to help break things down a bit faster. The fermentation can drop to practically zero in the winter due to the cold temperatures. Bacteria love warmth (but not hot heat)!

  12. Jason says:

    Great post on composting. I’ve been enjoying watching the yard waste I normally had to fill trash bins with and send to the dump shrink up in my yard. Still waiting for it to become nutrient rich soil.