Making A Compost Bin From Pallets

Ever since we started composting back in 2008 at our old house, we’ve enjoyed doing it (snaps for free fertilizer, reusing “trash,” and getting some subtle encouragement to eat more compost-able foods). But our composting adventures have been somewhat limited by the size of the DIY compost container that we made 3 years ago (we did eventually make a second bin, but it’s nothing like those bigger composting systems that we’ve seen at stores or in DIY magazines).

Even back in 2008 when we created our little bin, I initially wanted to make a more “legit” system out of shipping pallets (like I read about here and here) but hunting down and transporting a bunch of bulky pallets was a bit more than I was ready to sign up for. So I figured starting off with a bin and later graduating to something more built-in might be the way to go. And now just three short (ok, loong) years later, thanks to our patio supplies having arrived on pallets, I finally had my excuse to upgrade our compost system. It just took us a few months to decide where we wanted our new bin to sit. We finally agreed on this corner:

In case you need a clearer reference point, here’s that little not-at-all-to-scale map of our yard (the house is way too big and the almost-an-acre yard is much too small) that  Sherry whipped up (marked with an arrow where we added our little “compost station”):

We picked that spot because:

  • it was fairly hidden from view
  • it didn’t disrupt the landscape very much (i.e. it wasn’t in the middle of the grass or anything)
  • it was convenient enough to get to without being right against the house (we know compost isn’t supposed to smell – and our old bin never did – but we didn’t want to risk getting whiffs of nature’s miracle at work if this system was any different).
  • the only “landscaping” that we’d be sacrificing was some ivy and a few weeds (how will we ever live with ourselves?)

One perk to losing some of the ivy is that I uncovered some unexpected treasures in the process, like this ancient Hooters frisbee and a random plastic tire. Looks like this upgraded composting system is already paying off in major free-stuff dividends.

After a bit more work with my shovel and rake, I was eventually left with this clearing. Some of the online instructions that I googled around for suggested putting an extra pallet down for your base, while I read others who complained that a pallet on the ground made turning the compost a big ol’ pain (picture pitchfork tongs or shovels getting stuck between the slats). Some others even suggested a slanted base to help collect the tea (the nutrient-rich “run off” from your compost pile), but I just opted to keep things simple and make my life easy – at least for now. So this flat square of dirt did the trick:

With my area cleared, I gathered my supplies:

  • Three shipping pallets (which I was thrilled to finally move out of our basement)
  • A few 2″ wood screws
  • Electric screwdriver
  • Work gloves
  • Shovel

Fortunately these were all things we already owned, so our project cost rang in at a big fat goose egg. Even better than a free project? The whole thing only took me about 20 minutes (not counting photo-snapping time). Which was a nice unexpected surprise. Remember, I go into all small projects expecting them to take forever and throw me ten curve balls so I don’t get my quick-project hopes dashed by an obstacle or two (which I’ve learned are par for the DIY course). So yeah, it was awesome that this quick and easy project really was quick and easy.

First I dug a small trench (about 4″ deep) at the back of the compost area so that my pallet had a little groove to stand in while I secured the other sides:

Then I put the second pallet next to it to create one side:

Notice how the side with the more closely-spaced slats faces in (otherwise we’d get lots of compost spilling through). But that doesn’t mean you should use a completely solid piece of wood (the slatted pallets help air circulate, which helps the decomposing process while also keeping odor down).

To secure the pallets together, I just drilled three screws (one in the top, middle, and bottom) to connect the two pallets. Some tutorials that I read called for zip ties instead, which I’m not surprised to hear (they, like duct tape, can accomplish almost anything). I just had screws on hand, and since that was another recommended method I went for it. I also enjoy projects a little more when I get to break out my power tools (I can almost feel Sherry rolling her eyes at this sentence). The funny thing is that the pallets were practically sturdy enough to stay together on their own so the screws kinda felt like a formality, but they were nice “insurance” so I’m glad I took a moment to add them (and say hi to my drill).

Then I rinsed and repeated the whole joining shebang with the third pallet on the other side.

Then, um… ta-dah? That was pretty much it. Some of the instructions that I read included using a fourth pallet to create a hinged door in the front (I guess a fifth if you added an extra pallet on the bottom). I wasn’t inclined to do this because (1) that seemed more complicated than I wanted to get into – at least off the bat, and (2) I didn’t have any hinges on hand. Initially I was just going to leave my bin open-sided and not stress if my pile started to migrate a bit beyond its three borders…

… but I realized it probably wasn’t the best idea in practice, especially since it was on a slight slope and one big rain could wash our pile-o-decomposition into the yard. Gross. So I improvised a bit and found a nearly-perfectly-sized piece of scrap wood that could act as a fourth wall (with the help of two leftover wood stakes). It stays in place just fine and can easily be picked up when it’s time to turn our pile (or grab a big heaping batch of nurtrient-rich soil when it’s ready).

As the pile grows, I’m thinking I could easily upgrade my system with a few more boards stacked up or a taller piece of wood with taller stakes or poles to hold them flush against the pallets. But this’ll do for now:

And to kick off the competition composition, I threw in a layer of nice brown leaves from the backyard. Ooooh. Ahhh.

Now we’re the first to admit that we’re still kind of novices at this whole composting thing. Even after three years of doing it. I’ve thrown out references like “turn the pile” as if I know what we’re supposed to do (and how often and why) but I’m really just going off of tidbits that we’ve picked up online. When it came to our old system we just stirred things when we tossed in a pile o’ stuff (we had a lidded plastic container that we kept under the sink for compost scraps and emptied that into the bin twice a week or so). And we printed out a list of compostable stuff and taped that to the inside of our under-the-sink door near the compost container so we could consult that if we didn’t know if something could be added. So admittedly I’m not quite Captain Compost yet (so if anyone has any pointers or resources for us, we’re all ears). The good news about compost is that it seems to just do its own thing for the most part (you can read about a few of our experiences with it over the years here, here, here, and here). We’ve never had any issues with smell or anything, so it’s a pretty painless auto-pilot process.

Oh, and I should mention that if anyone is hesitant about using wood that might be chemically-treated (like pallets) for their bin, you can limit your use of the resulting compost to non-edible plants (i.e. use it in your flowerbeds, not in an herb or veggie garden). That’s definitely what we’ll be doing just in case. We’re a bit late in the season to have much usable compost this year anyway (darn, no accidental pumpkin growing for me this Halloween) but hopefully next year we’ll have more free fertilizer than we’ll know what to do with. And maybe some of that ivy will have grown around the pallets to help it “blend” in a bit more. You know, so we end up with a charming secret garden compost situation. Of course we could also stain or paint the palettes to help them blend in (dark green, brown, gray, etc). We’ll keep you posted.

Do any of you have a pallet compost bin (or other composting system) going on at your place? How has it been working out? Anything you think we should know as we start this new chapter in our composting lives? Has anyone else accidentally grown a pumpkin? That’s my crowning composting achievement thus far.

Comments

  1. says

    Did you put the plastic bins back there or are you just going to throw the compost onto the pile of leaves you threw in there? I love that you guys are composting. I’d like to start but I’m not sure our landlord (or for that matter, neighbors in the building) would love it.

  2. Carrie says

    After chucking out a forgotten rotten bunch of broccoli yesterday, I’ve been thinking about getting our compost on. So this post is perfect timing! With a set up like this, is there any worry about critters getting in, attracting rats??

    • says

      We never had any issues with that, I wonder if someone with this system could weigh in? I think in general you get lots of worms (our bins were full of them- haha) which break stuff down and keep the smell down (which probably keeps animals away?). Not sure though. We’ll definitely spill it if we have any animal issues though!

      xo,
      s

    • Amy says

      As long as you don’t put stuff like meat, bones and dairy (which you shouldn’t anyway) in, it’s OK. Animals are generally looking for stuff to eat, not actually eating compost. You can also make sure to bury “new” stuff in the existing compost.

    • Abbie P. says

      My dad has always had a compost up in Maine where he lives. He built something similar to this but, to keep the animals out, he attached another palet on top and another in the front which was basically hinged (to open and close easily). As far as I know it keeps the animals out. The only stuff they can get to is if some of it falls on the outside. I don’t know if it prevented them from showing up but at least they can’t get to it and you still have easy access! :)

    • says

      I started with a simple wire cage around four metal posts in my back yard. I thought for sure I would have problems with smell or rats, but I never did (I have since moved on to a real-for really real composting bin, as I decided that two years of composting earned me something a little more eye-catching than my jankified wire cages).
      I did turn the piles around once or twice a week and I watered the pile pretty regularly. I also have a heavy duty shredder at home, so I shred any cardboard boxes we get, plain paper, etc. That goes a long way towards keeping the compost balance.
      The only visitor I got who was larger than a worm were the gophers, and I figured they were aerating the soil and not eating my vegetables. A win-win.

  3. Amy says

    I’m a composter myself, so I am always happy to see projects like this. But my all-important comment, that I *had* to give, is that those are the nicest pallets I have ever seen!!

    P.S. The ad above, as I type this, is for composting toilets. Ewwww. I don’t go that far. The only poop I ever added was from my rabbits.

  4. Laura C in Indy says

    Love this idea. I think we’ll borrow this one from you too, if you don’t mind.
    I did accidentally grow a pumpkin one year. I had tossed my old pumpkin in the corner of the yard and next year was very surprised and excited when the vine started growing. I harvested 4 pumpkins off of that. I’ve tried to repeat that but it hasnt happened again :(

    • says

      My mother was wonderful about composting when I was a kid (she considered it part of our homeschool science class) and we were always getting surprise fruits and veggies. Our favorites were teeny tiny watermelons.

  5. says

    *Air five* for composting! The closest thing we have to a compost pile in our current house of 4 short months is the dog kennel the previous owners left in the back still filled with….ahem….fertilizer.

    The ad at the bottom of the post is for Composting Toilets…..innnterresstttinnngggg. Hahaha.

  6. Kimberly says

    I don’t have a yard, so there’s not much need for a compost pile on my end. I am planning to use pallets to make a coffee table on caster wheels for my apt. I found the plans on Ana White’s site after you made the console table. What a great resource! Thanks and good luck with the new project.

  7. Lindsey d. says

    Ha! My brother’s “decomposition” lesson with his kids using last year’s Jack o’Lanterns accidentally turned into a “growth cycle” lesson when the seeds took root. They’ve got three or four pumpkins going in the backyard now….

    My personal composting experiment isn’t going well… Thinking a more open set up like this would make it easier. Also, must remember not to put squash seeds in… Definitely made things a little too “grow-y” and not enough “decompose-y” in my compost bin last year.

  8. jess! says

    My family’s been composting for years – my dad’s got a rather, ah… intense system, consisting of three different bins (one for dog poop, one for leaves, one for food scraps).
    The dog poop and food scrap bins are the black plastic kind, which are good because in the winter (in Canada), the head from the sun keeps the inside of the composter hot and thus it continues composting.
    One tip I’ve learned is that if it’s dry out, you should water the compost, since it keeps the creatures living in it alive, and speeds the breakdown process.

    My brother grew a whole pumpkin patch once, and sold pumpkins to all the neighborhood kids for Hallowe’en. We also got a giant zuchinni once, and a watermelon. Awesome.

    • says

      Thanks for the tip Jess! We used the other side of that tip (add leaves if it gets any odor) and it definitely works! So we’ll be sure to water it if it dries out!

      xo,
      s

    • heather says

      Be careful on dog droppings (same with cat droppings or any non-100% plant based animal dropping). They can carry organisms that should never be ingested or used for fertilizing food you will ingest.

  9. jess! says

    Oh, also – In southern Ontario, homeowners were all issued with ‘green bins’, which are compost-holders that you put out at the curb every week and the city collects (they compost it at their own sites). It’s a great way for people to compost without having to set up a heap in their yard.
    In FACT – if the garbagemen catch you throwing compostables or recyclables out in your regular garbage, they won’t even collect it. It’s a good system!

  10. says

    I haven’t started composting but Martha Stewart had a great episode about it on her TV show this past spring. You should try to find it because she gave some great tips and made her guest squirm because he didn’t know as much as her!
    ~Blair

  11. says

    I envision you or Clara eating the banana to throw the peel into the bin for dramatic composting re-enactment. Thanks for the morning chuckle. Looks great. My mom gets lots of spiders who like her closed plastic composting bin. Don’t know if that’s the same with your open one but just FYI. Hers is in a woodsy spot like yours. She doesn’t mind the spiders, but we just throw in the compost and run so we don’t have to see them. PS – this post is getting pinned to my Pinterest board so I remember it. :) Tell Sherry.

    • says

      Haha, I’ll have to keep an eye out for spiders! Attracting some of those might be a good thing (even though they’re creepy) because don’t they take care of bad bugs? They’re like the Robin Hood of bugs. Haha.

      xo,
      s

  12. says

    Y’all might want to give some thought to a removable lid and gate…if you guys have any neighborhood cats wandering around, they might discover your compost pile and ruin your hard work (especially if you plan on using the compost for veggies and/or herbs).

  13. heather says

    We’ve been composting at our home since we moved in, and each of us growing up always had some form of one. They’re awesome. We started growing an oak tree in ours at one point (damn squirrels) but overall it’s been fine. I love that you can throw the occasional paper towel in too (unless it was used with meat/grease/chemicals). We keep a stainless steel compost bin fit with a charcoal filter in our kitchen, and when it gets full dump it in the big bin on our tree line. We use it every year for the garden cut with manure.

  14. Lisa says

    I started a pallete compost about 16 yrs ago. The pallets are now long gone. My neighbor helped me, he advised a layer of rocks/pebbles for airation and he gave me some starter from his compost. The only need I knew of for the starter was the earthworms. Don’t forget the earthworms!! They accelerate decomposition.