A Journey to Zero Waste Living

How to Build a Garden Bed
and a Compost Barrel at Home

 

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!

 

Now, I’m gonna give it to you straight…

 

  1. This project was a bigger investment than I expected (time, money, resources) but I am SO glad we did it. Now that everything is up and running, I will have tomatoes and cucumbers all summer long, herbs for the next year, and all of my food waste will be composted and used as fertilizer and to fill a second garden box. Oh, and I have plans to can tomato sauce and pesto at the end of the summer!
  2. The compost system I chose is not the most simple or waste-free design. It is largely plastic, which I can’t say I am thrilled about. I had a vision of using a wooden barrel and metal piping/ hardware, but the cost was high and the supplies would have to be shipped to me from all over the country, which didn’t make sense. Since I rent my home, I can’t just go digging up the yard for a pit or start a large pile on the property. I also travel a lot, so a worm bin didn’t seem sustainable. I don’t anticipate living in the house much longer, so I wanted a system I could take with me when I leave or that I can donate to a neighbor.
  3. There isn’t a step-by-step design plan for the composter. I have tried my very best to give detailed instructions for anyone who wants to build a similar system.
  4. No waste from this project went to the landfill! WAHOO!

 

The Garden Bed

SUPPLIES:

  • Two 8′ x 2” x 6” wooden boards @ $5 each = $10
  • Four corner blocks @ $3.50 each = $14
  • Four 12″ long pieces of metal rebar @ $1.25 each = $5
  • Biodegradable weed block, 24sq ft = ~ $4 (1 roll @ $21 will make 6 boxes)
  • Leafgro soil (locally processed), 10 bags @ $4.50 each = $45
  • Vermiculite, enough for 24sq ft = $7 (1 bag @ $21 will last up to 3 seasons)
  • Peat Moss, enough for 24sq ft =  $3 (1 bag @ $12 will last up to 4 seasons)
  • Tomato climbers = borrowed from my brother!
  • Tools: I found a hand shovel, rake, hoe, and assorted tools in the garage of my rental home, talk about second hand luck!

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!

 

PROJECT WASTE:

  • Plastic bags from the soil and weed block, which I will drop off at a designated ‘soft plastics’ recycling bin near my house.

 

Above: Garden-bed created with absolutely NO TOOLS (!) and with 100% sustainable materials:  wood, natural stone, soil, metal rebar, and biodegradable weed block.

 

3-Barrel Compost System

SUPPLIES:

  • Three 8′ long 2″ x 4″ @ $5 each = $15
  • Three 5-gallon buckets @ $2 – $3 each (price based on durability) = ~$8
  • Three 5-gallon bucket screw tops @ $7 each = $21
  • One 6′ long 1″ PVC pipe @ $2.00
  • Six male adapters (plumbing parts) = $8
  • Six 1 1/2″ flange (plumbing parts) = $10
  • Metal brackets, door locks, 4″ carriage bolts, large washers, nuts @ $8/ bucket= $24
  • Drill with 2″ hole saw and 1 7/8″ hole saw – Bro’s tool shed (these are around $8 each)
  • Circular Saw (or a hand saw) – Bro’s tool shed
  • Multipurpose tool (or a hand saw) – Bro’s tool shed
  • Sandpaper – Bro’s tool shed
  • Marker

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!

 

PROJECT WASTE:

  • Small scraps of wood from cutting the frame, which I have plans to upcycle
  • A few pieces of plastic from cutting doors in the barrels and trimming the plumbing parts to reinforce the holes. I put these little scraps of plastic inside of a larger plastic container and recycled the them together.
  • Metal handles with plastic grips from the barrels. The handles will go to scrap metal and the plastic pieces were recycled.

 

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2 comments so far.

2 responses to “How to Build a Garden Bed
and a Compost Barrel at Home”

  1. Faith says:

    Love your blog! I saw it mentioned in the Catholic Herald article. If you do facebook, I recently started a Catholics for Zero Waste group (recently as of yesterday! LOL We have six intrepid members so far!). I thought it could be a good place to dialogue and support each other as we strive for zero waste. I know I have a long, long way to go and need lots of help! You are welcome to join us. You could post links to your blog posts.

    Thanks for being such an inspiration!

    • janefrancescrosby says:

      Hi Faith, Thanks so much for reading! I will definitely check out your Facebook group, I think it’s great that you started a local group for Catholics to talk about their journeys.

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