DIY Compost Can

If you’re looking to get started composting your kitchen scraps and other biodegradable materials, but aren’t sure about a suitable container in which to break down your compost, there’s an easy do-it-yourself project you can build with just a little investment and a few tools.

While you can easily break down leaves, wood chips and hay in an open-air compost pile, it’s a good idea to let your food scraps degrade for a bit before adding them to the larger pile, as fresh scraps can attract unwanted pests. But while a compost bin from a home improvement store can cost almost two hundred dollars or more, you can build one yourself for much less than that.

What you’ll need first is a good-quality outdoor trashcan made of galvanized steel. The average hardware store likely has several sizes ranging from fifteen to thirty gallons, with the price not exceeding $25 for the largest size. For our purposes, the smallest size will probably do just fine, as you will be emptying it fairly regularly.

Once you have your garbage can, you’ll want to get a power drill with a ¼” bit. Using this bit, you’ll want to drill holes in three separate rows around the entire trash can, as well as a dozen or so in the bottom of the can and a few in the top. These holes let excess water drain out and let air get in. In effect, your compost can is now done and ready to be filled, for a fraction of the price it would have cost to buy a new plastic one from the same store.

Of course, the reduced price comes with some reduced features. Most pre-made bins, for instance, have a feature where you can turn the bin to aerate the mass inside, a critical component to any compost making. With your trash bin, you’ll have to get a small hand trowel or something similar to mix up the compost every now and then in order to allow air into the mixture. With a full can of compost, this can get somewhat tedious; however, as long as you regularly empty the can into a larger, open-air compost pile after the food scraps have suitably decomposed, it will never get full enough that mixing it is much of a chore.

Verdantly - Compost CanIn the photograph, you can see that the compost can is resting on bricks; this is in order to allow air to flow underneath the can and excess water to drain out. You can rest your can directly on the ground, but you’ll likely have overly moist compost as a result; you want your compost to be more like a damp sponge than a wet mass, and if you place it on the ground, it may get fairly soaked. Resting it up on bricks generally solves this issue.

As with any compost, of course, you’ll want to make sure that every time you add food scraps or anything else “green” (high in nitrogen), you add “brown” material (high in carbon) in order to strike the perfect balance that compost demands. The different ratios of materials needed is something of an art (for example, if you’re trying to decide what “brown” material to use, you’ll need less sawdust, which is very high in carbon, than you would need shredded leaves, which are lower in carbon), so you’ll want to do some investigating to find out the best mixture; in any case, you’ll definitely want to have more “brown” material than “green” material in the compost can. A common ratio is 25 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen, although this can change depending on the types of “brown” and “green” material you are using; read up on the various ratios to learn more.

You may also notice, in the photo, the strips of rubber coming from underneath the can’s lid; in this case, we cut up a bike’s inner tube and affixed it around the can’s lid. We did this so that we could roll the can around to mix the compost up, but we found this to be a fairly cumbersome approach, as rolling the can was often awkward and didn’t mix the compost very much. The inner tube kept the lid on tightly, but it doesn’t have much practical application apart from that (you can mix the compost easier with a trowel or a short rake), so it’s essentially optional.

Once your food scraps have broken down, add them to your larger compost pile, give the pile a few turns with a rake or pitchfork, and then start over again in the compost can. After a year or so, you’ll have an incredibly rich soil amendment to use on your garden or lawn, and you’ll be amazed at how much food and compostable material you used to throw away, and that you now use to fertilize your plants or your grass.

About the Author:  An English major, rabid reader and intensely dedicated locavore / greenie, Daniel divides most of his time between tending chickens, reading Sir Albert Howard and engaging in an eternal battle with the squirrels for supremacy over his backyard garden.

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2 Responses to “DIY Compost Can”
  1. Uncle Noel says:

    Excellent information and clear instructions.


    I really like this blog, Daniel. If I were not so close to 100 years old I’d follow your clear directions for compost bin. I hope many people will take advantage of this excellent way to use good leftovers.

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