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How to Make a Composter

A couple weeks back, I purchased a would-be composter from Costco. Rejected: too complicated to put together, too obtrusive, and at around $100, too expensive. Lucky Costco has a generous return policy.

You may recall that I had a wonderful composter, a gift from my friend La Bethulia. I really loved it. In the first place, its design was the soul of simplicity: a round plastic barrel that fit in a base, allowing you to turn it like a ferris wheel to mix and aerate the compost.

It died a gruesome death at the hands of a so-called “beekeeper” who wrongly decided the feral honeybees that had invaded it were nesting inside it. This idiot filled the thing with powdered insecticide—after I told him not to. It not only destroyed the compost inside, I couldn’t get the contaminated compost out because every time I tried, clouds of powdered poison flew up into my face.

These things are surprisingly expensive: around $170 at Amazon. They’re probably worth it, because of the simplicity of their design, their effectiveness, and the fact that they do not contribute an eyesore to your garden.

However, in my current state of chronic unemployment, that’s a little more than I’d like to pay. Hence the unsuccessful attempt at the cheaper model from Costco. Ninety-nine bucks looked pretty good for a 75-gallon tumbler. w00t!

Having returned it, I was depressed. A big old plastic plant pot covered with its (now sunlight-crumbled) pot saucer was decocting a small amount of compost, mostly compiled from the pool’s leaf-catcher and pump pot. But it wasn’t enough to do much for the garden, and a plastic plant pot the world’s most efficient composter does not make.

Then the other day I cut back the cat’s claw, which after reviving from its drubbing by last fall’s hail and the winter’s hard freezes has decided it’s a jungle plant. Had to scissor it back from around the pool equipment so the Leslie’s guy could service the filter. Along the way I pulled spent veggies out of the garden, harvested the leeks and trimmed off their tough outer leaves, and raked some leaves. The result: a large pile of highly compostable vegetable matter that I really, really, really did not want to throw in the garbage.

The yard needed a composter. It needed one that did not take three men and a horse to put together, would not cost upwards of $150, and would not be plug hideous.

So I decided to make one. Here’s how that came down:

The trash can

First: the Home Depot run. There, purchase a plastic trash bin (round, not square, and not the kind with wheels). Be sure it has a lid that snaps on securely.

Drag this home and take off the manufacturer’s glued-on stickers. Place it in the backyard near an electric outlet.

Haul out your trusty electric drill and a handy-dandy extension cord. Install the heftiest drill bit you own.

Beloved drill

And yes, gentlemen! I know that’s a masonry bit and I do know the plastic is gonna melt all over it, but I’m past the time in life when I crave to drill any more holes in concrete. Besides, as a practical matter, the plastic didn’t melt onto it at all.

Okay. Flip the trash bin upside down and take the drill to the bottom of it. You want to drill plenty of drain holes all around the bottom, because compost likes to be damp but not soggy.

While you’re at it, drill a bunch of holes around the trash can’s sides, too. The idea here is to let enough air in to please the little compost bugs. Although much of composting is an anaerobic process, compost bugs go a long way to break down vegetable matter, too. These useful little creatures will suffocate unless they have enough air. Voilà…

Once the bottom and sides are thoroughly punctured, set the can upright in the corner of the yard where you’d like to keep it. Throw in some stuff you’d like to compost—just about anything organic that is not meat or animal waste—and sprinkle lightly with a little water. Don’t overdo this: moist is good; boggy is not.

I topped my recent cuttings with the half-composted stuff in the plant pot. If you already have a little compost, it’s a good idea to put it in with the new material, because it acts like starter dough: the organisms that break down plant matter are already thriving in it, giving you a head start on the new batch.

Snap the lid on firmly, and then just go away. Over time, the organic material in the dark, warm, damp environment will cook down into lovely black compost, which will make your plants extremely happy. You can keep adding kitchen waste and garden trimmings ad lib.

Now and again you should toss compost to aerate it and mix it around. A small pitchfork would work with this contraption, but I have a much better plan: when the time comes, in a few weeks, to shake it up, I’m going to secure the lid with a tight bungee cord run through the handles. Then flop the thing on its side and just roll it back and forth a few times. That will accomplish the same thing the fancy tumbling composter does, for about a quarter of the cost.

Speaking of the garden, here’s what’s been growing lately…










































7 thoughts on “How to Make a Composter”

  1. Oooh. Pretty flowers! Too bad this isn’t smell-o-vision!

    Do you put any critters in the bin? I’m thinking red worms. Or do you let it go au naturel? I was going to make a composter with two regular rubbermaid bins — an outer or top one to “grow” the compost, sitting inside a second to catch the runoff moisture (and navigationally-challenged worms).

    • @ Julie: I’ve never tried adding critters to compost. For one thing, if you turn compost it creates what’s called “hot compost,” which kills off weed seeds and the like but also can kill the creatures. Cold compost, which happens when you pile up organic stuff and just let it sit for a year or so, is safe for the little animals. When I’ve made compost inside bins, some insects and small animals (like lizards) seem to move in, but that’s probably because I’m too lazy to turn it often.

      In my yard, it seems that after the soil has been improved enough, by a combination of digging in compost and getting certain kinds of plants to grow in it, eventually the earthworms just move in. How they get there, I’ve never figured out — caliche is not conducive to life, and so it’s an open question how an earthworm makes its way to newly hospitable soil. They always seem to, though, eventually.

  2. In the UK everyone just uses old palettes to compost. 4 palettes attached to one another to form a cube and a piece of plastic or tarp over the top to keep things warm. Toss the mixture occasionally and you have compost galore. Pretty much everyone has this set up in the back corner of their garden.

  3. @ Fuji: That’s a neat idea! Here’s a PDF describing how to make one:

    The rain and cool weather in the UK would help a great deal.

    I expect you might want to find out what chemicals the wood had been treated with. Some kinds of treated wood ought not to be used around soil that’s used for growing food; presumably the stuff could leach into compost as well as into soil. It’s apparently possible to tell by inspecting the wood: In 2009, a great flap arose when a batch of Tylenol was contaminated by a chemical in wood pallets; however, an Australian study ( suggested that most pallets do not contain this toxin.

  4. Yep, that’s the one! 🙂
    My local community is very big on composting so they seem to be knowledgeable about checking the quality of wood. There are even local volunteers who will come to your home to help you get set up. Yes, the weather here is good for composting, but even with very hot dry weather, a clear plastic tarp loosely thrown over the top will create an idea composting environment. If you sprinkle grass clippings, wet leaves, or a little water once in a while it will create a greenhouse effect. Good stuff.

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