How to Make a Compost Bin and Manage it Properly

Compost bins

Compost piles can be free standing or they can be contained in a compost bin. If you have plenty of land, I suggest you place one pile next to the garden and one close to the house for kitchen wastes.

What to create a compost bin from

You can create enclosed compost bins from straw bales, cinder blocks, old snow fences and wood pallets. You can also use an old garbage can with holes placed in the sides and one large hole on the bottom for the final product, or you can purchase compost plastic bins on sale at a garden store. There are even plastic bags with holes used for compost bins. The possibilities are endless. The ideal scenario is to have three bins built next to each other, the first holding fresh stuff, the second for compost in process and the third for completed compost. And then you just keep rotating them. By the way, most compost are in open piles, not bins. Go figure.

How to manage your compost

Backyard compost bins generally don’t have enough nitrogen. That’s why they just sit there and take longer to break down. My neighbors supply me with nitrogen in the form of fresh lawn clippings and some even like to throw their vegetable scraps in my backyard compost bins. Turn your piles at least once. If you don’t turn the compost heap it will just take longer to decompose, but it’s not mandatory. Do what you can. Most commercial operations turn the pile at least twice and some as many as five times.

How to start – begin the process by placing old mulch at the bottom of the pile to soak up all the juices. Add any remains of an old compost pile. Clean up your garden and put all the weeds, stalks and sod on the pile. Throw in leaves and old mulch, wood ashes, kitchen garbage, manure and whatever else you have. If you have any well-ripened compost, use it as a starter-inoculant. Most of the time backyard compost needs to sit about a year to decompose properly once the pile is built. If you keep adding organic materials to the top of the pile, it only makes sense that the bottom half or more will break down into compost and the top part will need more time to break down. Creating black gold takes patience and experience like anything else in life.

Woodchuck trick – place heaps of compost over your garden beds in the fall and then cover them with leaves. For some reason, earthworms seem to be attracted to leaves more than mulch hay and other organic materials. The worms literally pull the leaf down by the stem into its home, and have a meal. In the spring you will find worm castings, the richest compost in the world, spread throughout the beds. The results are warmer soil, easier tillage and earlier planting as compared to the garden beds which hadn’t been covered with leaves or other types of mulch.

Four stages of compost breakdown: Fire, air, water and earth

A fresh manure pile goes through a succession of four phases of change. In the first phase, a kind of primal condition arises in which microorganisms proliferate in the breakdown of organic substances. The microorganisms create the heat by decomposing the organic material. The second phase, in which the quantities of microorganisms and fungi continue to increase, is characterized by an interchange in the air with oxygen respiration and the escape of carbon dioxide and ammonia gas. In the third phase, the transformation of the substances takes place in the fluid medium in which proliferation slows down to an inner structuring of the solid element. The fourth and final phase completes the structuring in the solid element.

The roles of bacteria, actinomycetes and fungi in the compost pile

The compost pile supports a food chain with three main characters: bacteria, actinomycete and fungi, along with guest appearances by worms, slugs, mites, snails, ants, beetles, flies, centipedes, and more. Bacteria do most of the primary breakdown of the waste and generate heat. Then the fungi and actinomycete get to work when the temperature begins to cool. They’re joined by white worms, round worms (nematodes), slugs, earthworms, mites, millipedes and flies.

Later on, the waste encounters protozoa, flat worms, springtails, mold mites and beetle mites. Chomping, chewing, munching, these critters finish off the physical breakdown of the waste. Finally, compost is almost ready except for the centipedes, ground and rove beetles and the ants that continue to eat and aerate the pile.

What’s fascinating is how different insects permeate the different stages of breakdown. In the first stage, the insects show little relationship to light with slight coloration and their eyes are reduced or absent. As the pile goes through the four changes, the number of insects increases and they develop eyes and more coloration. When the heap changes in the fourth stage to humus-rich soil, worms begin to appear with few insects left. Eventually, the worms leave the pile in search of other food sources.

Ron Krupp is an organic gardener from Vermont and the author of The Woodchuck’s Guide to Gardening. Visit his website at
image: kirstyhall (Creative Commons BY)
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