How to turn a 5-gallon bucket into a compost bin

Compost bins come in many different shapes and sizes. There are massive wooden boxes, intricate multi-chamber structures, and even plastic ones that rotate. You don’t need anything fancy or large to make a decent compost bin, though. Whether you lack time, energy, and resources or it’s just a preference, you can forgo a big bin. You can make compost for your garden in a much smaller space. Here’s how to create your very own simple compost bin starting with just a 5-gallon bucket from any hardware or general store.

A metal bucket labeled compost, laying on its side against a blue background. Food scraps spill out of it.
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Materials and supplies

To start your compost bin, you’ll need:

  • A 5-gallon bucket with a lid
  • A drill or other hole-punching tool
  • Several small sticks, dowel rods, or an old strainer
  • A mix of veggie scraps and dry leaves, paper scraps, or grass clippings to get your compost started
  • Optional: If your bucket has a metal handle, you may want pliers to remove the handle.

Test your materials before starting 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.

This method can easily be downsized or upsized to meet your needs. If you’re living alone or don’t produce many scraps for composting, you can follow these same directions with a smaller bucket. On the other hand, if you’re living with multiple people or produce a lot of scraps, these instructions apply just as well to a larger bucket or multiple buckets.

A white plastic bucket with a lid on a dark gray background
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Preparation and use

The first step to prepare your compost bucket is to 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. If your bucket has a thick handle, you may want to remove it with pliers. This isn’t necessary, but it does make it easier to roll your bucket.

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.

Start with a layer of brown material. Dried leaves, straw, hay, newspaper, or even a little cardboard will work. Then add a layer of green material, like fresh lawn clippings, vegetable scraps, and fruit peels. Keep alternating layers until your bucket is halfway full, then add a light sprinkling of water, and continue layering until your bucket is full or you’ve run out of material.

Anything organic can be added to your compost, but there are a few things to keep in mind. Kitchen scraps, such as peels or rinds, should be rinsed or washed first if they were treated with pesticides. Meat and fish can be added to compost, but they smell when breaking down and often attract animals. Wood and bone can break down but take significantly longer, so you should avoid putting them in your compost.

Every time you add scraps to your bucket, secure the lid and then roll the bucket across the ground. 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.

White bucket partially full of compost, sitting in the grass.
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Common issues and solutions

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. Compost that is beginning to smell like rotting food typically has too much green material, so add brown material and mix.

A buildup of moisture and lack of airflow can both cause smelly compost. 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. If your compost seems tightly compacted, 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 compact, take a shovel, pitch fork, or a sturdy stick and mix it manually.

Now you’re ready to turn any bucket you own into a compost bucket. This is quite possibly the easiest way to make a compost bin, making it a great fit for almost any person, place, or situation. 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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