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How to make a compost bin from a 5-gallon bucket

Here's how to set up a compost pile in a bucket — your DIY guide

If you want to compost at home to reduce food waste or improve your garden's soil, then learning how to make a compost bin might be at the top of your list. Compost bins come in many different shapes and sizes. There are massive wooden boxes, intricate multi-chamber structures, and even plastic ones that rotate.

For a simple home compost bin, though, all you need is a 5-gallon bucket! With just a few alterations, you can transform your bucket into an easy to use and convenient compost bin.

Difficulty

Easy

What You Need

  • 5-gallon bucket with a lid

  • Drill or other hole-punching tool

  • Several small sticks, dowel rods, or an old strainer

  • Vegetable scraps and dry leaves, paper scraps, or grass clippings to start compost

  • Pliers to remove metal handle from bucket, if necessary

A small bucket labeled compost on a counter
Daisy Daisy / Shutterstock

Getting started

Before you can start your compost bucket, you'll need to make sure your materials are appropriate.

Step 1: Test your materials to make sure everything fits together snuggly.

The lid for your bucket should fit securely, and the sticks, dowel rods, or old strainer should likewise fit in the bottom of the bucket.

Step 2: Drill air holes in the top, bottom, and sides of the bucket.

You’ll want more holes on the top and bottom than on the sides, and the holes should be less than an inch in diameter. This is an important step to ensure your compost bin has proper drainage, which it needs to properly compost.

Step 3: Remove any thick handles with pliers.

This isn’t necessary, but it does make it easier to roll your bucket.

Step 4: Fit the sticks, dowel rods, or old strainer into the bottom of your bucket.

These are there to keep your drainage holes from getting clogged with compost. If the holes get stopped up, excess water can build up, which leads to mold.

Turning scraps to compost
Jerome.Romme / Shutterstock

Starting the compost heap

Now that your bucket is set up, it's time to get started on the fun part: composting!

Step 1: Start with a layer of brown material.

Dried leaves, straw, hay, newspaper, or even a little cardboard will work.

Step 2: Add a layer of green material, such as fresh lawn clippings, vegetable scraps, or even some fruit peels.

Step 3: Alternate brown and green layers until the bucket is half full and then add a light sprinkling of water.

Step 4: Continue alternating layers until either the bucket is full or you’ve run out of material.

Step 5: Secure the lid and roll the bucket across the ground after adding scraps.

You don’t need to roll it far, just back and forth a few times. This mixes the compost, which increases airflow and helps to prevent excess moisture buildup. You can also mix the compost with a shovel or large stick.

White bucket partially full of compost, sitting in the grass.
Kolpakova Daria/Shutterstock

Issues to be aware of

Your compost bucket will mostly take care of itself, but there are still some matters to keep in mind.

Step 1: Place your compost bin in the sun to speed up the process.

It can be placed in either the sun or the shade, but if it’s in the sun, the compost materials will degrade much faster.

Step 2: Only add organic materials to your compost.

Step 3: Rinse vegetable or fruit scraps before adding them..

Step 4: Cook meat or fish before adding them to compost, or avoid adding them entirely.

Fish and meat can be added to compost, but they smell when breaking down and often attract animals. Cooking them first reduces the smell and helps them break down faster.

Step 5: Break wood and bone into small pieces before adding to compost.

Wood and bone will break down, but they take significantly longer to do so. Smaller pieces will break down faster than large ones.

A small kitchen compost bin with vegetables in front of it
Lenka Dzurendova/Unsplash

What to do when your compost bin is full

Once you start using your compost bin regularly, you might run out of space to add more scraps. If your compost is ready to use, then you can apply it to your garden to free up more space. Here's what you should do if your bin fills up before your compost is good to go:

Step 1: Stop adding new scraps.

While you might be able to fit more material into your bin by squishing the older material down, this will cut down on airflow. Lack of airflow in a compost bin can lead to many problems.

Step 2: Create a second compost bin or a compost pile.

If you've run out of space quickly, then you may benefit from having multiple bins, a pile, or a larger bin.

Step 3: Cut your existing compost into smaller pieces and mix it thoroughly.

This will help speed up the composting process, so that your compost will be ready to use sooner rather than later.

A metal bucket labeled compost, laying on its side against a blue background. Food scraps spill out of it.
j.chizhe / Shutterstock

FAQs

Why is my compost drying out?

Most issues with compost bins are caused by an imbalance of brown and green material, a moisture buildup, or a lack of airflow. If your compost is drying out, decomposition will slow to a crawl. Add more green material or a light sprinkling of water and mix thoroughly.

Why does my compost smell like rotting food?

That typically means it has too much green material. Add brown material and mix.

Why is my compost wet?

If your compost is more than slightly damp, there is too much water. Add brown material and mix your compost. You may also need to check that all your air and drainage holes are clear.

Why is my compost tightly compacted?

That usually means there isn’t enough air and your compost needs to be mixed. Roll your bucket like you normally would, then check it again. If it is still too compacted, use a shovel, pitch fork, or a sturdy stick to mix it manually.

Now you’re ready to turn any bucket you own into a DIY compost bucket. This is quite possibly the easiest way to make a compost bin, making it a great project for just about anyone. Be careful when using the drill, make sure all the parts fit together, and mix your compost thoroughly whenever you add something to it. It really is just that simple!

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Cayla Leonard
Cayla Leonard is a writer from North Carolina who is passionate about plants.  She enjoys reading and writing fiction and…
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