Composting is essential for any sustainable home and garden. But deciding which composting system to use is not always easy. Should you choose a compost pile or a compost bin?
Is a compost bin or pile better?
Which is better for you depends on the size of your garden, the space you have available, and your budget. Compost piles are better for those with larger gardens and room for a compost pile. For those with smaller gardens and less space, a compost bin is a better option.
Both compost piles and compost bins can allow you to compost successfully at home.
|A Compost Pile is Better If…||A Compost Bin is Better If…|
|You have plenty of space.||You have only limited space or are composting indoors.|
|You are composting higher quantities of material.||You don’t have a huge amount of materials to compost.|
|You would like to compost in place and make new growing areas.||You have had issues with rodents or other pests in your compost before.|
|You would like to give chickens, for example, access to the composting materials.||You are vermicomposting, with special composting worms.|
Remember, it is not necessarily an either-or decision.
You might have a larger compost pile and a smaller compost bin or worm-composter indoors, or close to your back door. Heck, you might even opt for an electric composter in the kitchen.
You can also choose a compost tumbler, a different type of composting container which could also be a good choice. I recommend, if you have space, having both a small compost bin and a compost pile in your garden.
I also recommend making compost pile beds (and taking a no-dig approach).
To find out more about the pros and cons of compost piles and compost bins, and to learn more about all your options, read on.
Guide to Compost Piles
First of all, let’s take a look at compost piles:
How Do Compost Piles Work?
Compost piles, as the name suggests, simply involves piling up or heaping organic, compostable materials. Compost piles can be simple heaps, which are turned regularly to mix the materials (using compost aerators).
This ensures that the materials in the heap break down evenly, and the mix remains aerated.
Compost piles can be simply, cold composting systems, in which the materials take a year or so to break down.
Or, with careful design, they can also be hot composting systems. In a hot composting system, materials get hotter and higher temperatures are sustained, which means that the materials will break down more quickly.
A greater range of materials can also be composted in such a system.
A ‘compost pile‘ might also be created to make new growing areas in your garden. In no-dig gardening, new beds are formed on top of the ground. The area is not tilled, and organic materials are not dug in.
When you create a no-dig garden bed you are essentially creating a compost pile that will compost in place. This builds healthy soil that you can use to grow your plants.
Advantages of Compost Piles
Compost piles are easy to get started since you do not necessarily even have to build any form of containment for the materials.
At literally zero cost, you can simply start layering up brown (carbon-rich) and green (nitrogen-rich) organic matter in a pile (or in the places you have marked out for new growing areas).
This can be a low-cost way to get started with composting, and potentially to make new garden beds too.
Compost piles can be big, and allow you to deal with far more organic material than a smaller bin or other composting containers.
They can therefore be a good choice if you have a big garden, or keep livestock on your property and wish to compost manure and bedding.
If you keep chickens, a pile also gives your flock access to the compost, so that can pick it over and add fertility.
Disadvantages of Compost Piles
Compost piles can look a little messy. They can be contained with wood pallet edging, straw bales, or another containment structure to keep them neater. But they will often spread out and can take up a lot more space than typical compost bins may do.
If you have a small space, a separate composting pile may take up too much room. If you do not need to make new growing areas, bins may be a better choice.
Rats and other animals in compost piles are often a problem because they are more accessible. So when dealing with food scraps, you may prefer to use a compost bin if these are a problem in your area.
Compost piles also, will not contain special composting worms. So you’ll need to choose a container of some kind if you want to use them.
Types of Compost Piles
If you decide that a compost pile is the way to go, you might choose:
- A typical, un-contained, cold composting pile.
- Typical cold composting piles contained and kept neater within a reclaimed wood or other structure.
- A hot composting pile (with the right proportions and insulating carbon-rich organic matter to maintain higher temperatures).
- Lasagna beds – Raised bed edging filled with layers of compostable material which will compost in place to make new growing areas. The layers are like the layers in the classic Italian dish.
- Hugelkultur mounds – Raised beds which are mounded rather than flat on top, with a skeleton of rotting woody material covered with organic material in layers as above.
How to Start a Composting Pile
To start a composting pile, simply decide where you would like to place your composting area (or your new growing area) and start piling up organic, compostable materials.
Make sure you add brown and green materials in the right ratio for the system you have chosen, to avoid common problems.
And make sure you also ensure that the heap remains moist (but not too wet), and aerated (oxygenated) to keep micro-organisms happy and doing their job.
Guide to Compost Bins
As mentioned above, we favor compost piles where there is space. But we also recommend that you consider a compost bin.
How do Compost Bins Work?
A compost bin is simply a container for your decomposing materials. A compost bin can be made at home with a range of different materials. Or you can purchase one.
There are many different options available.
Advantages of Compost Bins
Compost bins contain the composting material, and when you choose the right ones, they can sometimes speed up the process of decomposition (like a hot composting pile).
Compost bins also make composting possible even when you do not have a garden or any outside space at all. Where space is limited in a garden, a compost bin can also reduce the amount of space composting materials will take up.
If you only have food scraps or perhaps just a small amount of garden waste to deal with, you might not need a larger compost pile and a small compost bin could be ideal.
A compost bin can also become a worm composter. You can add special composting worms to a compost bin and they will help you with compost creation.
As long as the bin or container you use for your worm composter is suitable for your worms, it can help keep them happy and contained, doing their jobs.
Disadvantages of Compost Bins
Compost bins, however, will have disadvantages. If you have a larger garden or keep livestock, for example, many composting containers may not be large enough to meet your needs.
It may be challenging to find a compost bin that can accommodate all the organic matter which is generated.
Compost bins have to be carefully designed. In some cases, they can be difficult to manage because they can make it more difficult to turn your compost and keep it aerated.
Some compost bins may not have the facility to remove excess moisture, which can cause waterlogging and might cause unpleasant smells (or drown your poor composting worms).
With some compost bins, finished compost may also be more challenging to remove. Not all compost bins have these issues. But it is important to choose (or make) a bin while keeping these things in mind.
Types of Compost Bins
Types of compost bins include:
- Home-made typical cold composting bins.
- Typical cold composting bins purchased from the store.
- Wormeries (DIY or bought).
- Hot composting bins (carefully designed with insulation etc. to speed up the composting process and maintain higher temperatures).
How to Start a Composting Bin
The first step is to think about which sort of composting you would like to do. (Typical cold composting, vermicomposting or hot composting.) You will then need to choose or make a suitable container.
Once you have your container, you will start layering in your brown and green materials, making sure not to add too much of either type of material.
As with compost piles, you will need to keep micro-organisms healthy by maintaining the right temperatures, moisture levels, and aeration.
Another Option: The Compost Tumbler
If you do decide to contain your compost then there is another option to consider: a compost tumbler.
How Compost Tumblers Work
A compost tumbler is a container that can be turned (usually with a crank handle). This aerates the mix inside and can speed up the process. It may also make a more even finished compost.
This is a simple type of machine which will do the turning of the compost, so you do not have to turn it by hand with an aerator or a garden fork.
How Long Does It Take to Make Compost in a Tumbler?
How long it will take to make compost in a compost tumbler will depend on the materials you are composting, and environmental factors such as temperature and moisture.
Typically, a compost tumbler can compost in around 3 months, though in certain cases, it can be even quicker – perhaps even as quick as 3-4 weeks in optimal conditions. You should turn your tumbler most days.
Best Compost Tumbler
You can buy a compost tumbler, or make your own. We highly recommend that to make your composting as sustainable as possible, you make your own.
There are tumblers on the market but in our opinion, none offer the most eco-friendly and sustainable solution and all have niggling issues that mean that they do not always work as well as they should.
DIY 55-Gallon Barrel Tumbler
You can tailor it to meet your own specific needs, and even fit your tumbler with a faucet to drain off excess fluid (which can be used to make liquid plant feed (compost tea).
Here are some other cool, low-cost DIY tumbler ideas.
What Can I Use as a Compost Container/ DIY Compost Bin?
There is a huge range of things that you can use as a compost container or DIY compost bin.
A 55-gallon barrel or metal drum can also be customized to make a compost container. You can also use large trash bins, or recycle a wide range of other reclaimed materials.
Even a small 5-gallon bucket or other reclaimed food containers can get you started with small-scale composting.
And if you are composting outdoors, and just want to keep things a little contained, a cardboard box could be a great short-term compost containment solution. Just be careful, because eventually, cardboard does compost.
Should a Compost Bin Be in the Sun or Shade?
A compost bin should be located in a position that allows the right temperatures to be maintained. Whether it should be in full sun or some shade will depend on where you live, and the climate and conditions to be found there.
A sunnier spot is generally best in cooler climes. But if you live somewhere warm, a partially shaded spot is generally best to avoid overheating and excessive moisture loss in summer.
The compost should be covered when there is a lot of rain, and when it is very dry, to keep the moisture levels right within the compost.
When positioning your compost pile, new growing areas, or compost bin, remember to think about the environmental conditions, but also about convenience.
Make sure the composting area is close to the sources of organic material, and not too far from where the finished compost will be used.
So, as you can see from the above, there are advantages to both compost piles and compost bins.
We recommend that you consider both options, and remember that you do not necessarily have to have one or the other – it may be beneficial to have both.