For the last 6 months, I have done what I like to call The Cheater’s Composting Method: I stored all of my food scraps in a brown paper bag in the freezer. Every 2-3 weeks, I dropped off my bag of organic waste in a compost collection bin at the local Whole Foods. For one person, this wasn’t a bad system and I saved a lot of waste from the landfill! But I always wondered if my food was being processed properly or if contamination at the grocery store meant a lot of the food waste ended up in the trash.
Above: Thyme, basil, and cilantro ready for the box. Between fresh and dried leaves, I will be set for the year!
It is estimated that the average American adult throws away over 200lbs of food each year. Although organic waste has the ability to break down rather quickly under the proper conditions, our overflowing landfills do not allow for this breakdown process to take place and so much good, edible food is tossed every day. If each family composted their food waste, the US could divert upwards of 220 million TONS of waste out of landfills and back to nature. You can have your pick of compost methods, ranging from pits to open piles to worm farms to contained barrels. And there are numerous ways that you can use fresh compost around the garden and yard. But if all else fails, cheat and head for the freezer!
So, I called up my very handy brother a couple months ago and asked him if we could build a composer and garden bed together this spring. He is a self-taught carpenter and always down to build something from scratch. Over the course of two weekends, we did all the shopping, scheming, designing*, and building for both projects. (*By designing, I mean that Joe made things up as he went along..pretty impressive!)
Left: Joe installing brackets on the barrel to create a door. Right: The building project became a family affair!
COST OF 1 GARDEN BED = $88
TOTAL SUPPLY COST = $128
I decided on a raised garden because I knew it would have the lowest impact on my rental property. Plus, this bed design is great because there are no tools required! The 2″ wide boards fit directly into the notched corner stones (see below). You can stack stones and boards to go 2 or 3 levels high if you want a deeper bed. I laid biodegradable weed block down before setting the stones, leveled the boards, and filled the bed with dirt. The biggest cost of the garden project came from buying soil since I was starting from scratch. Virginia soil is sandy and rocky with little moisture, so I invested in Leafgro, vermiculite, and peat moss. If I had planned better, I would have started composting last year to have soil ready for the bed. Next year I will be better prepared!
Above: Garden-bed created with absolutely NO TOOLS (!) and with 100% sustainable materials: wood, natural stone, soil, metal rebar, and biodegradable weed block.
TOTAL SUPPLY COST = $88
Many of my lovely Instagram followers have expressed interest in this composting system! There’s only one tiny issue…my brother created this design on the spot. Yup, we totally wung it! So I will do my very best to detail how we built it and PLEASE ask me questions if you want to build your own and need more guidance. Free Offer: Compost Barrel Design Consultation, courtesy of Jane and Joe! For some reference, we loosely based our plans off of this 55-gallon compost barrel video.
To start, we cut and assembled the wooden frame using three 2′ x 4’s. The frame stands 52″ tall x 20″ wide with 24″ long base boards. Using a hole saw (blade attached to a drill) we cut 2″ wide holes into each side of frame. There are three holes on either side of the frame, 16″ apart from one another vertically. The holes on either side of the frame are directly across from each other. We cut the 6′ long 1″ PVC pipe into three equal pieces (24″ each), and each piece easily slides through the holes in the frame with a couple inches hanging over either end of the frame. It is the pipe that supports the weight of each barrels.
Above: My 3-barrel compost system! It isn’t 100% sustainable materials but everything can be upcycled, recycled, or repurposed down the line. Maya Jane was snacking on her apple while I taught her about composting and how important it is. She had a lot of questions!
For the 5-gallon buckets with screw top lids, we used a 1 7/8″ hole saw to cut holes in either end of the bucket. We wanted to reinforce the holes on each bucket to prevent the holes/ bucket from cracking under the weight of the compost. We used plumbing parts (male adapters and flanges) and fit these around the holes. The pumbing parts screw together, so we placed the parts on either side of the hole (one inside the bucket, one outside) and screwed them tightly together. In the below picture, you can see the white plumbing parts on the outside and inside of the buckets. These plumping parts are actually hollow with a 1 1/2″ opening, so the 1″ PVC pipe can still easily slide through a hole on one side of the frame, all the way through the bucket, and through the hole on the opposite side of the frame.
Next, we used a multipurpose tool (small electric blade) to cut the doors in each bucket. This can be done with a hand saw. We drew the shape of the doors with a marker, cut out the rectangles, and sanded down the edges of the door and bucket. We then reattached each door using metal brackets and a metal lock. This allows for the doors to easily swivel open and closed, and to lock when spinning the barrel. We drilled three holes into each bucket and inserted three 4″ carriage bolts with washers/ nuts to lock them in place. These bolts are meant to help break up the food waste/ compost when spinning the barrels. Lastly, we drilled air holes in the sides and top/ bottom of each bucket.
To attach the barrel to the frame, you simply slide the pipe into the hole in the frame, through the two holes on either end of the barrel, and out the hole on the other side of the frame. The barrel sits snugly between the vertical walls of the frame but with enough room for easy spinning of each barrel. The mixing method is simple: lock the door of the barrel and use your hand to spin! The barrel is not glued or connected to the pipe for this reason. To remove the barrel, simply pull the pipe out of the frame and the barrel.
And VOILA! A compact, at home composting system for someone with limited space. I like this system because I can easily remove one barrel at a time to spread compost in the garden or the new bed. I fill the bottom barrel first and move up the row. By the time I have filled all three barrels with food scraps, the bottom barrel is nearly done breaking down. I use equal parts “green” or nitrogen-rich matter and “brown” or carbon-rich matter. Green = vegetable scraps, grass clippings, green leaves; Brown = dry leaves, newspaper (no color ink), straw, sawdust, wood chips, etc. Compost has the connotation of being smelly and hard to manage. It is my goal to master the process, though it may take me a few tries. If my compost goes bad, I’ll be dropping it off at the compost drop-off bin at Whole Foods and and starting fresh!