Look up compost bins online and the choices are overwhelming. There are a ton of different compost bin designs for different composting methods, and that’s not even including the DIY plans. But do you even need a compost bin to get started composting?
You don’t need a container or bin to compost. You can compost by either 1) making a compost pile on the ground or tarp (compost pile; hot or cold composting) or 2) using a trench in a garden bed to bury kitchen scraps in (trench composting; cold composting).
However, it’s important to remember that whether you choose to use a bin or a pile for hot composting, you still need to adhere to composting principles like the ratio of carbon to nitrogen (30:1), turning the pile so it can heat up, and keeping the compost moist and aerated.
Trench composting is different (it’s a cold composting method), as you’re burying kitchen scraps and carbon sources in the ground, but the tradeoff is that it takes a lot longer to decompose and you may have to rest that garden bed for a year before planting.
While it’s easy to get caught up in researching the perfect composting method, the truth is, there’s no one best method for composting. Each method has its own pros and cons.
Choose the best method that works for you and your garden. If you’re caught up in research brain fog mode, then just pick one to try it. If it’s not right for you, you can always try something else.
Ready? Let’s begin.
Do You Need A Container For Compost?
No, you don’t need a container for compost. Compost bins offer a few advantages, like keeping your compost looking tidy and speeding up composting, but you really don’t need one to get started.
You just need a patch of soil and some composting knowledge. You can just as easily start a compost on a bare patch of earth or on a tarp, which is called a compost pile.
This is the fastest way to start composting, as you don’t need to buy anything. (More on the pros and cons of compost piles and bins below!)
Or you can dig in kitchen scraps and garden debris directly into a garden bed in either a trench or a pit, which is called trench or pit composting.
But composting in a container doesn’t need to be expensive. You don’t need to buy a $200 compost bin, and you don’t need to be a carpenter.
You can DIY an excellent compost bin out of a 30 gallon plastic bin. Total cost? Between $10 – $30.
If you like the look of wood, there’s wood compost bins that are easy enough for a beginner woodworker to make, and you can make one out of free shipping pallets (check that it’s heat treated, not chemically treated).
You can even compost in a garbage bag. Just poke some aeration holes in it. Composting bags, while more expensive, are reusable and less likely to tear than garbage bags.
Can I Compost Directly In The Ground?
Yes, you can compost directly in the ground, either through trench composting or an in-ground/in-situ worm composter.
Trench composting or pit composting is digging a trench (or a pit) in your garden bed to bury the kitchen scraps and organic material into. Fish bones are a great source of nitrogen!
The trench or pit should be 12 inches deep, and you’ll want a thick covering of soil overtop as mice, rats, raccoons, and other furry creatures may think you’re preparing them a buffet, dig up the garden bed, and leave a mess.
Trench composting is best started in the fall after clearing the garden bed so the organic matter can decompose over the winter. In the spring, the level of soil will have dropped.
An in-ground or in-situ worm composter is using a vermicompost bin dug into the garden bed with the top few inches (and lid) exposed. The vermicompost bin will have holes in it for the worms to enter and leave.
Then you care for it like you would a regular vermicompost bin – add your kitchen scraps and cover the contents with damp newspaper and the lid.
You will need a suitable vermicompost bin, but they’re easy to DIY. Use food grade plastic, and don’t use a PVC pipe – it’s not food safe, and it’s too narrow. A 5 gallon pail or plastic garden pot works great.
In-ground vermicomposting is a great method if you love the idea of worm composting, but you (or someone else in your household) aren’t in love with the idea of worms in your house.
Is It Better To Compost In A Bin Or On The Ground?
Properly cared for and maintained, there’s no difference in the quality of compost between using a compost bin or a pile. The differences are all in how they’re managed, and which one is easier for you.
Whichever you use, you still need to use proper composting methods, like managing carbon to nitrogen ratios and turning the compost.
Compost Bin Pros:
- A bin keeps your compost looking tidy, and keeps the compost confined.
- A good bin makes it difficult for rodents to get into the compost.
- Bins are designed to help regulate moisture, heat, and odors for more efficient composting.
- If you take care of your compost, you’ll get compost faster than a pile.
- Depending on the design, it can be easier to turn. You can build a wooden compost bin with one side that comes off fully, letting you get right in.
Compost Bin Cons:
- You need to pick the right size and type of compost bin for you. A compost tumbler can make turning easier, but they may not be big enough to heat up properly. If the bin size is too big, you may have difficulty turning the pile.
- The harder it is to turn, the less likely you are to do it, turning a hot composting method into a cold composting method that takes longer and ends up smelling.
- Using two or more compost bins for hot composting makes it easier to turn (you just scoop it into the next bin), but takes up more space and requires more purchases or DIYing.
- Expensive if you need to buy a purpose-built compost bin. Some municipalities give away compost bins for free, which is great if the chosen design works for you. However, a good composting bin should last you many growing seasons and save you from having to buy compost, so it may work out in your favor over time. DIYing a compost bin can save money, depending on the cost of materials.
Compost Pile Pros:
- A pile is easier to turn because you’re not having to dig down into a container.
- A pile gets more sun and natural elements.
- You don’t need to buy or build anything to start – although a waterproof tarp above will protect your pile from getting too much moisture, and a tarp underneath will keep nutrients from running into the ground.
- It can grow or shrink depending on how much organic material you have, but you do need to maintain a minimum size or the compost won’t heat up enough for decomposition.
Compost Pile Cons:
- Piles are more vulnerable to rodents, flies, fruit flies, and other pests. The smell of rotting food may attract them or, in the winter, the warmth that a good compost pile makes.
- They take longer to compost – up to a year – depending on conditions.
- They don’t look as attractive. Some municipalities have regulations against compost piles because they attract rodents, can smell terribly if you’re not managing it properly, and can look terrible. Even if your municipality allows it, your neighbors may not appreciate it.
Can I Use A Normal Bin As A Compost Bin?
Yes, you can use any kind of large container, whether it’s a plastic rubbermaid bin or even a garbage can, into a compost bin. It should be at least 24 inches tall, and needs to be big enough for the compost to heat up and wide enough that you can turn your compost.
If it’s too tall and narrow, you’ll have problems turning the lower levels of compost. It also needs to have a tight lid to protect it from the elements.
The plastic should be food grade to prevent chemical contamination, especially if you’re using your compost to grow food. If you’re keeping it outside, the plastic must have UV resistance, or it’ll break down over time from sun exposure.
You will need to add 8 – 10 air holes each on the sides, the bottom, and the lid. Don’t make the holes too big or fruit flies or fungus gnats will take advantage.
A 3/16 inch drill bit is the perfect size. The bottom holes will drain excess moisture away. Excess moisture will attract insects and cause anaerobic decomposition (it stinks!).
The simplest way to turn a DIY compost bin is to use a shovel, just like a regular compost bin. If space is an issue, you can find smaller folding shovels that may fit better into a smaller bin.
You could also make two composters – when you’re ready to turn your compost, you just pour it into the second bin, and let that mix up the contents.
If you don’t want to or can’t turn your compost, then try vermicompost. A vermicompost bin is just as easy to DIY, using the same materials, but you’ll need to follow vermicompost guidelines and buy red wigglers meant for vermicompost.
Don’t buy bait, as those worms aren’t healthy. Look for a local worm breeder.
Compost Storage Ideas
While you can leave your finished compost in the compost bin or pile overwinter, if you have a small compost bin, you may wish to store it somewhere else.
Your compost needs 4 things to store well with the beneficial microbes healthy:
- Protection from excess moisture, whether that’s from humidity, rainfall, or melting snow.
- Aeration, so that the microbes still living in the compost can breathe. The aeration holes also allow excess moisture to drain or evaporate away.
- Moisture. Too much moisture is a bad thing, but to keep the microbes alive, the compost needs to remain moist. Check periodically and moisten when necessary.
- Cool temperature and shade. Keep the compost out of direct sun or it’ll heat too much.
So how do you properly store your compost? It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Here’s 5 ideas for storing your compost:
- Cover compost with a tarp, either in the compost bin or on top of another tarp.
- Garbage can or bin. One with rollers will allow you to easily move the otherwise heavy container. Drill holes in it to allow some air through.
- Plastic containers, like rubbermaid bins or plastic buckets. You don’t need a lid if you keep them covered and out of the elements, and you can stack them on top of each other so long as there’s a bit of compost exposed to breathe. You can, of course, cover the bin loosely with a lid or other material that still allows the compost to breathe, or drill some aeration holes in it.
- Fabric shopping bags or grow bags. The fabric allows the compost to breathe, although they need to be stored on a surface that won’t rot as the bottom of the bag will be moist.
- Poke holes in a plastic bag. If you get a sturdy bag, you can reuse it. You can leave store-bought bagged compost in the plastic bag, as that bag has been manufactured to store compost correctly.
Composting without a container works well if you have plenty of space or garden beds, but if you need to keep your compost looking tidy, use a compost bin. You can also easily DIY your own container using a plastic bin and a drill.
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