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DIY Compost Bins: The Cure For The Common Cold (Snap)

Waiting For Spring

If you're like me, you were really excited for those warmer temps we had a week ago here in the Midwest. Even though spring was only a couple of days old, visions of seedlings freshly planted and trips to the nursery were dancing in my head.

But now, Mother Nature has reminded us here in Zone 5 (or is it 5b or 6 now?) that we're not quite there. The frost date is still in front of us, and we'll have to make do with what we've got for now: some lovely bulbs up and blooming, trees sending out their first leaves, and sub-freezing temperatures overnights.

So what can you do when you've got the garden itch and you're locked out of the soil by the threat of frost? How about compost?

Put On The Tool Belt

The temperatures are still a little low for active composting, but you can get that raggedy pile of shredded leaves and kitchen waste in order with a new compost bin.

I came across this design for a DIY compost bin from the folks at the University of California Cooperative Extension.

The idea is that with minimum supplies, tools, and skill (all necessary in this amateur's case), you can build a solid bin that is simple, easy, and efficient.

The design allows the gardener to build a series of three-foot-square frames that can be stacked as the pile gets larger and are quickly disassembled when the pile is turned or used.

A Take On The Original

The UCCE design called for 1-by-6 boards in two different lengths, but thanks to my insightful partner, I opted for boards of the same length attached in an interlocking pattern.

Here's what you need for one set:

  • 60 feet 1-by-6 utility wood (non-treated)
  • 10 feet 2-by-2 utility wood (non-treated)
  • 80 2-inch woodscrews
  • 1 quart of wood sealer (I used linseed oil for a non-toxic option)
  • Screwdriver (preferably electric)
  • Tape measure
  • Pencil
  • Wood saw
  • Wide paintbrush
  • Rubber gloves
  • Eye protection
  • One small aluminum loaf pan (wait for it…)


  1. Saw the 1-by-6s into 20 36-inch lengths; saw the 2-by-2s into 6-inch lengths. (I opted to have the local lumber yard cut the wood to length for me for a small fee.)
  2. Attach each of the boards to one 2-by-2 flush with an end but offset from the top edge by 1 inch. Drive two screws through the 1-by-6 into each 2-by-2.
  3. Attach the non-2-by-2 end of each board to the 2-by-2 end of another board, forming a 90 degree angle flush with the top, bottom, and outside edge. Attach with two woodscrews. Complete section by making a 36-inch square. Repeat the process for each of the remaining four frames.
  4. Apply two coats of wood sealer letting each coat dry in-between. This should be done in a ventilated space or outside.
  5. Now, here is where the loaf pan comes into play. You can pour a portion of the sealant into the pan, which is more easily maneuvered than the can of sealant as you paint on each coat, and it can be reused for future applications of linseed throughout your yard and house.

Once the sealant has dried, the frames can be moved outside.

A new pile is best started with two frames and can be added to from there until you have a pile five frames high and roughly three cubic feet in volume - the bare minimum if you're trying the hot pile method.

I built two sets of frames to have an empty set ready to add spring materials to and for easy turning of the existing pile. If you've opted for just one set, you can take off a layer at a time and turn a layer from the old pile into the new frames. Or go crazy with a three bin system.

But Wait, There's More

Not only are the bins easy to move around, but you can easily insert a soil or compost thermometer through the gaps left between the frames. And these gaps allow for a decent amount of ventilation and drainage for your pile throughout the season. You could even use them to start that raised bed garden you've been talking about.

So, shake of the not-quite-warm-enough blues, throw on a couple of layers, and get your heaps in order because planting season is just around the corner.

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