Compost Bin of Dreams

Living in a new HOA has some up sides -like my basement didn’t leak a drop in the 15″ of rain Wisconsin got in the past 2 weeks. But the same reason my basement is bone dry, also means growing things here is a labor of love. See our home was backfilled with a 4-8′ layer of clay and rock. The only topsoil on site is the 3″ vaneer I trucked in to cover our half acre. So I spend alot of energy trying to literally build soils on site for my little Garden of Eatin. Year 1 had us going form over function as I struggled to plant an entire half acre by hand, including a lawn and 2000 sq ft of perennial beds, and 1000 sq ft of prairie. But the next year I went up to a nice cedar two bin system that was intended to be a display model for our side business. That bin is/was gorgeous, but even with 2.5 cu yards of capacity, we still outgrew it in the winter when nothing was breaking down. We make about 5 yards annually, so I had Bigger Plans. Imagine that… So I sold the 2 bin system to the daycare that lives in our Church during the week, and Got Busy.

When we built our Earth Victory Gardens, we discovered a source for 3x12x16′ reclaimed fir boards. A company had salvaged them from a warehouse that was being torn down. And they were selling them for $20. Sure they’re full of nails, but that is an INSANE amount of lumber. The day after I visited the salvage yard the idea for this bin was born. It was to be 4 bins wide, and made almost entirely of these Titan Sized boards. It was to be a bin that just may become an heirloom in our family for generations. I bought 6 3×12’s for $120, and purchased another $100 in cedar and got to work this past Saturday. The pile of lumber at left weighs over 600 pounds and I had to borrow a circular saw that takes a 8.5″ blade to cut them. From Great Beginnings come Great Things! I will spare you the play by play -the design is amazingly simple and should be apparent from the pics. So here it is:

Each “Stall” is 36″ deep by 39″ tall for no other reason than that is the max I could eck out of a 16′ board with little to no waste. The cedar slats in the front are made from decking so they are 5/4″ thick and pretty dang stout. Here is another shot from the side to show the interior:

You can see the 3×12’s are spaced about 1.5″ to allow in some air, and the stall sides are assembled with 2×2 cedar to set the spacing, and the back 3×12’s, which are 153 inches long, are screwed into the stall sides using 5″ long lags. Once they were drawn tight this thing is Rock Solid. In fact it didn’t even tweak out of square when I levered it into place with a 6′ pry bar! The doors to the stalls are just decking run in slats formed by a 2×2 and a piece of decking screwed into the front edge of the stall divider. Spacing for the front slats? A galvanized roofing nail:

This set up will be able to hold 3 separate 1 cu yard piles in various stages of decomposition with an empty bin to allow me to turn the piles into to… which should be just right. I am VERY pleased with the results of a weekend’s labor -as Mia said, its a nice mix between Farm practicality and HOA looks. And it is so tough not even I should be able to break it! Why do I need so much compost space if I don’t have any trees?

The buckets are 3 weeks worth of “gorp” that the local Coffee Shop saves for me -to the tune of about 25 gallons weekly. The barrow load is weeds from half of one of my large perennial beds. True its been a while since I weeded, but that is a 10 cu ft wheel barrow… We are essentially a “pioneer” ecosystem that I have yet to fill all the niches in, and Nature is filling them for me with thistle, quack grass, and bladder campanula.

But that still begs the question of WHY I go through all this. The answer couldn’t be simpler:

The Smooth Penstemon is in bloom in the prairie…

Be the Change.


21 Responses

  1. […] (Onestraw) has built a compost bin that might bring tears to your eyes.  She is a beaut.  Head on over to his site for a look at how he did it. For those who are still in the one bin stage of composting check here and here for some information […]

  2. WOW! if only I had the space for one of those beaut’s. Now THAT is how you make dirt!

  3. […] Rob (Onestraw) has built a compost bin that might bring tears to your eyes.  She is a beaut.  Head on over to his site for a look at how he did it. For those who are still in the one bin stage of composting check here and here for some information […]

  4. Thanks!
    It is reassuring to know that there are some who are finding and showing the way to sustainable existence.
    The audience may now be small, but circumstances will change.
    And composting is a most important (but until now, in the non-sustainable mode, neglacted) step in completing the cycle of sustainability.

  5. You got the wheels spinnin’… I’m currently redesigning my compost bins (how DO they fill up so fast?!?), and while I’m trying to watch the budget I’m trying to stay away from p/t lumber. Reclaimed lumber like that hadn’t occurred to me- there are enough salvage yards around that I’m sure I could snag some. Your setup looks great- why underbuild when you can overbuild?

  6. Wow – that is huge. That is almost the size of my entire yard! Ha. 😉

  7. Thanks everyone, I have been dreaming of this system for years! I now have a 5 x 20′ area of my lawn devoted to soil making, and another almost 500 sq feet in green manure crops to feed to the bins. Glad to hear that this inspired some people -it too came from an inspiration from a home I visited on a rain barrel delivery -they had a 3 bin system made from decking that looked uber stout -I just happened to come across these behemoth boards for a song so now my bin can double as a storm shelter -and given the weather lately in the upper Midwest that is not a bad thing!

  8. I Feel you pain. Not top soil in here. Some people do not understand why people in HOA only have some raised beds and a lot of grass. It is very expensive and takes a lot of time to get good top soil.

  9. I am new to the whole gardening and composting experience, and I am planning on building a similar set up. Are you going to use this for hot or cold composting? I have read some designs that lift the bin off the ground in an effort to allow air circulation from underneath to get into the heap, do you think this is worth the effort?

  10. Alex,

    This set up is for hot composting -I leave one bin empty and that allows me to have an empty onto turn the others into -basically one of the end bins is always empty as I rotate the full bins left to right. the system would work just as well for cold composting, like leaf mould or whatever.

    I always leave my beds in contact with the soil -any design that would let air in the bottom, would also let finished compost sift down, creating a maintenance headache. I do not think it is worth the effort -a yard of finished compost weighs over 600lbs so the floor would hve to be uber stout and it would add significantly to the expense of the bin: 20%+ for not much gain -if you are turning weekly you do not need the air flow. Also, soil contact is a create source for compost bugs, bacteria, and fungus. Actually I have been know to keep a compost bin over an area I want to turn into a garden in 2-3 years and use it to kill the sod and enrich the soil.

    Good luck!

  11. can you help me figure out the movement of your compost ingredients? you have four bins, and say you use them left to right, So if you started out, your bins being A,B,C,D, left to right. When A is full to turn into B, or are you turning it into B and then back to A while filling?

    I picked up several pallots from craigslist and bought some really long tie wraps. Right now I have two bins. one is entirely empty, but if I wanted to turn the compost, since it’s only about 2′ high, it’d be back and forth A to B, B to A, etc.

    I get the First in First out thing, (I think!) so since you have one always empty, it seems you’re getting finished compost fairly quickly!

    I’m structurally ready I think to ask at least one neighbor for their mowed/mulched Fall leaves.

    QUESTION: I want to save some mulched Fall leaves to help layer wet stuff the next season, would you recommend mulch into black bags? and then keep pile by my bins?

  12. PJango, Sounds like you are onto a great project!

    Here is how it currently looks here: A-B-C-D

    Bin A: Compost I am currently adding to
    Bin B: Compost that is currently cooking actively
    Bin C: Compost that is mellowing (I actually have added red worms to it from the vermiculture bin as it no longer heats up at all (its done).
    Bin D: Empty

    The decision to turn is based on the temp of the “active” bin (Bin B). When it drops below 120 it is time. All bins then shift towards the empty bin (Bin C goes into D, etc) until Bin A becomes the empty bin. After a few days the “active bin” heats back up and a week or so later it cools down again and the process shifts again. Turning weekly typically produces material in under 3 months in my system.

    Depending on the amount of material I have, I may have 2 empty bins (early summer), or two active bins (Spring and Fall). The bin (C) that is in a worm holding pattern will go onto the tomato and veggie bed in a few weeks, and that extra empty bin will allow me to continue to take material from the coffee shop all winter.

    Leaves are great to store for next season. If possible try to reuse the bags again after they have leaves in them. I have found that leaves tend to mat fairly bad – if possible break them up as much as possible by running them over with an electric mower or something to break them up. Straw also works great for carbon in piles. If some of your neighbors use bales for decoration, ask if you can have them when they are done.


  13. I’m glad I checked back, Rob, thanks…

    so my 2’pile I’m building isn’t active, I’m guessing. I set it up about a month ago, and spent some time figuring out where to put stuff. I realize that since I typically leave lawn clippings on the lawn, I’m mostly adding greens to the pile. that’s the reason for saving some mulched leaves from previous Fall. (I’m in zone 4).

    so to track your movement (sorry to beat it to death),

    you move C to D, B to C and A to B, then A is empty, I’m imagining that D

    to clarify, you still only add to a new pile, you don’t introduce anything to the others, in process? then A is always going to be your bin you add to, regardless of where the other stuff is.

    I don’t figure out how you’re taking from C before D?


    Here’s what I’m figuring for the winter: assume that I’m utterly lazy enough to not boot up and tromp to the compost bins!

    keep kitchen waste in current pail, when full, transfer to five gallon bucket held attached garage. lid as needed (it’ll be COLD), when full, push aside and start another pail.

    my thought is that come spring, I’ll have alot of frozen kitchen waste to plop into the compost pile, layered in all those HELD OVER BAGS OF MULCHED LEAVES/.

    am I on the right track?

    straw is great, I have to be careful as I have a BEAGLE who loves to litter the back yard with straw and sticks and such, so if she sees it, she’ll go nuts.

    thanks.feel free to volly back any concerns of kitchen waste hold over.

    summer months when I can keep really current I just blenderize the stuff into liquid mulch. also getting coffee grounds at the coffee shop.

  14. Wow,
    Nice Compost bin Rob,
    Getting reddy to build one and it is going to be lots like it. Should I have a roof on it? Im in the west. Washington, Kennewick..we get all 4 seasons and can get to -10 below but not common. We get snow, but Chinook winds usually melt away in a few weeks. Whats this GORP? Is it just the grounds and do I just put it in the compost pile with the green layer? I told my mom I was going to make a composting bin and she said not to put it near the garden where I wanted to put it due to the smell. AS long as They are taken care of they dont smell much do they?

    David McNeill

  15. Thanks David!

    I usually do not put lids on my compost, but the top layer also dry outs fast then inthe summer. In August I often put a hat of 6″ of damp straw on it to keep it moist and out of the sun. If you have a Full Sun site, then a lid may be needed -mine is on the north of my garage, and only gets about 3 hours in the uber late afternoon. Compost bin hibernate under about 40 degree sustained. It is possible that this bin will have the ermal mass to sustain heat through Christmas, but I doubt it. One of the reasons I have 4 bins is so I can keep adding all winter when it isn’t breaking down.

    The Gorp is the slop buckets from a local sandwich/coffee shop. Tea bags, LOTS of coffee grounds/liners, banana peels, apple cores, lettuce heels, etc all go in. It is often rank and anerobic when I get it, but that dissapates. Other than the first time I build a pile, I don’t pay much attention to grren/brown layers – I just through in what I have and eyeball if I think the pile needs more “green” or “brown” as I go. Coffee grounds are very slow to breakdown (they’re roasted) so they act almost like a mild carbon. Typically I need to add greens to offset this -I keep a large patch of Russian Comfrey and Red Clover for this.

    A good compost bin that is well managed will not smell. Mine only smells when I turn them, but if I paid more attention to carbon ratios they wouldn’t smell at all. It is not rank -that would mean the pile was too wet or had waaay too much nitrogen, it is just stale and just short of unpleasant. If you are diligent about adding carbon with your greens you should be fine. Keeping it by the garden reduces labor by shortening trips, and any nutrients that leak out the bottom (alot does) can be used by the plants near the bin. Put a Zucchini over by it -it will be a 4′ shrub!


  16. […] north side of our home – and that space is taken with my “recycling center” of compost bins and vermiculture area.  Instead I chose a spot on the east end of my large rain garden which is […]

  17. […] bins.  Building up my capacity to handle 4 months of gorp was the primary driver of our new Bin Of Dreams.  That bin is located on the north side of our garage and without direct sun, it takes a LONG time […]

  18. […] of grounds and sandwich trimmings every week.  That volume eventually inspired me to build by Compost Bin of Dreams to handle it.  The gorp from the shop was good, though it was heavy and was difficult to aerate. […]

  19. […] nails and sanding them you have a super solid bed – they are also the boards I built my Compost Bin of Dreams from.   After this little feat that my son pulled off, I am tempted to try to run 1 or 2 beds for […]

  20. […] scrounged over 5000#’s of brush, run it through my chipper / shredder and all but filled my Compost Bin of Dreams.  In fact, I am one trip away from it being maxed out which is about 5.5 yards of compost.  Dang […]

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