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. bridget b. says

    how often will you guys be taking trash out to the new compost bin? will you have a smaller bin in the house still?

  2. says

    I went on a composting workshop a couple of weeks ago, and for one they had this amazing rotating compost thing – it was insulated and the rotating helped get enough air into it that it turned waste into compost in THREE WEEKS! Amazing. A bit beyond the need of the average gardener though…

    The best thing I learnt that actually applies to the average composter is that the stuff you empty out of your vacuum cleaner is REALLY good for compost! Which is such a win-win as it’s so much easier to empty the hoover out in the garden anyway.

  3. Carol N. says

    We tried to amend our soil in the back yard by digging holes and putting our compostable food in it before putting the soil back on top. Unfortunately, we have a huge number of racoons in the area and they would dig up whatever we buried – but they were not nice enough to put the soil back. So after about a week of that frustration, we just throw the scraps into the big leaf pile and if the racoons want it, they can dig in and get it.

  4. Hannah says

    Very cool looking, but just a warning that if you have any wildlife at all in your neighborhood, you will likely need to enclose the compost lest they spread it all over your yard. It does decompose, but not fast enough to completely disguise the smell from hungry animals. We have the black plastic kind and ended up surrounding the base with rocks to keep the chipmunks from tunneling into it and dragging eggshells all over the yard. Raccoons love it too.

    • says

      Thanks for the tip Hannah! We’re definitely planning to add more of a door. We’ve also heard from others that meat scraps tend to attract animals most (and we eat/compost mostly veg and fruit stuff, so hopefully that’ll help). We’ll keep you guys posted!

      xo,
      s

    • says

      My ex only composted fruits/veggies and yet the rats in his neighborhood gnawed through his compost bin to get to the goods inside. Just a word of warning! :)

    • says

      Thanks for the warning! You know we tell it to you straight, so if we end up with a rat party back there you know we’ll share the deets. Haha. Here’s hoping we don’t though. Ew.

      xo,
      s

    • Molly P-H says

      I’m pretty sure you can’t compost meat or dairy. We’ve been composting for a handful of years and that’s what most of the books said. Hope you continue to enjoy it! We love it!

  5. Meghan says

    Nice! I’m now setting a timer for how long before that sucker gets stained dark brown… I mean, you guys painted your exterior water heater, so I feel like a camouflaged compost bin can’t be too far off :)

  6. says

    We’ve been composting for a few years, and love it. In our new house, just this past weekend, we started building our three bin compost system. We have all the posts in the ground, and the wire almost all the way up. I like your “door” idea though. I was trying to figure out what to do to hold the compost in. I’ll have to use your idea and come up with something similar. :)

  7. CJ says

    My husband and I were both raised in composting families, so we’re huge composters ourselves. We love it!

    Our neighbors aren’t in the least bit intersted/inclined to compost, and they were mystified when we moved in and installed our bin. We had people asking us if it was everything from a place to stash pool toys (we don’t have a pool)to a dog-washing station for our two large dogs. :)

    I ended up planting some tall flowers (coneflowers, heliopsis) around the bin so it’s no longer visible, and it has actually improved the neighbors’ view of our yard.

  8. says

    What a great compost idea. I would love to make one. When I was little my dad made a HUGE one out of metal that opened at the bottom for us to get the best stuff out of as needed. It was pretty sweet looking back. I just remember shucking corn into it all summer.

  9. says

    Wow, that is a hard-core compost setup. You definitely doubled down on capacity! You may be better off hanging some ivy off it or something than painting or staining it. Either way, looks good!

  10. says

    We have been composting for about 2 years and finally have worms in there. Should anyone get excited about worms doing their business? Well, I am.

    How are you guys with winter composting? I feel that is when we kind of slack off because we are in New England and climbing a snow bank to throw in some apple cores is a bit much.

    • says

      We keep throwing things in and trying to stir our frozen pile. It doesn’t seem to break down much, but it doesn’t smell so we keep tossing stuff in and it picks up where it left off again when spring rolls around!

      xo,
      s

  11. says

    Nice work! Unlike you, I didn’t have pallets on hand when I constructed my compost bin this spring, so I had to use old fencing. It worked ok, though.

    As for “technique,” I have two compost bins side by side, and I do what’s called “Static pile.” I throw all my food scraps and yard waste into one side of the bin for one season, then turn it over into the empty bin in the spring. After another season of just sitting and mellowing and decomposing, it’ll be ready to use. In the meantime, I pile up my fresh stuff in the bin I just emptied out. Does that make any kind of sense? I’m no pro, but this system has worked great for going on five years.

  12. sarita says

    Now that your composite is outside you will want to think about wild animals getting in there. Raccoons love hunting through open piles for scraps and can make a big mess. Good Luck!

  13. says

    I’ve been composting for years. I use 4 t-posts and some chicken wire for containment and stir it once per month. A trick I learned early on is to add a few containers of red worms every year (late summer is the best time). They will help break down the materials and their ‘castings’ add nutrients to the soil.

    I also just recentlylearned we could add the cardboard tubes from paper towels and toilet paper so those have been getting shredded and then going in to the pile.

  14. Tammy L says

    We actually just finished installing our pallet compost this past weekend. We also installed a great door to keep our dogs out of the compost as well. We have a great stainless steel pail that we keep in our kitchen and we found biodegradable bags at World Market, making it even easier. We recently started a FB page all about renewing our 1947 home. “New Life in This Old House”. Thanks for all your inspirations.