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Totally Together

Backyard Container Composting

March 5, 2014 by  

Make a backyard composter out of 3 stacked wooden crates -- can be found at Michael's or garden supply store. No tools needed!

You’ve heard of container gardening, but how about container composting?

I’m on a writing deadline, which naturally means that I am procrastinating by spending way too much time looking up gardening stuff on Pinterest. (that makes sense, right?)

wait. Don’t answer that.

We have a bit of a blank slate with the backyard in this new house, and I’ve been pinning up a storm on my small garden ideas board, and came across a pin for a container composter made from 3 stacked plastic milk cartons– the thick plastic cubes that the dairy provides to ship the milk to the store.

I was instantly intrigued. I’ve wanted to compost (I can use that as a verb, right?) for a few years but only wanted to do it without involving my husband. I liked the idea of the compost bins made from pallets but knew that even if I could find a pallet (and pinterest makes it seem like there are pallets lying around all over town, but even if they were, wouldn’t they belong to somebody?) I’d need Adam to use the saw and make it for me, which defeats my purpose of wanting to do EVERYTHING all by MYSELF.

(I’m sort of like a preschooler that way….)

Anyway — back to the milk cartons. I liked how they were stacked three high, and I liked how no sawing or nails or anything mathematical was involved. But I couldn’t get past the whole stealing them from the back alley behind the grocery store thing—-  so I went to Office Depot to buy some crates.

The only types they had were made out of terribly flimsy plastic and the bottom was solid, which wouldn’t work for what I wanted. I wanted the bottom to be open so worms could get in and for airflow between the stacked bins. Bummer.

plastic milk crate

In a pinch, I figured those could work, but I’d need holes drilled into the bottom, and my worry was that the plastic would begin to wear out pretty quickly in the sun.

I went across the parking lot to Orchard Supply Hardware and looked at their plastic crates. They had some pretty durable ones, plus they had some really cool cubes made of plastic-coated wire that would have worked. The cubes were $14 each, which are a bit pricy, but they would have worked.

And then I saw the bulb display by the door leading to the outdoor garden. In these beautiful wooden crates there were daffodil, garlic, and tulip bulbs for purchase. I didn’t want the bulbs, though, I wanted the display crates. I found three empty ones under the table and brought them to the front of the store. The lady at the counter wasn’t sure what to tell me, and didn’t know if she could sell them as “miscellaneous merchandise.” I was asked to wait about 20 minutes until Sam came back from lunch.

So I did.

The kids and I used the potty and daydreamed about patio furniture. We also picked out a few new paint chips (I limit the kids to 3 chips each — I think it’s wrong to take every color for an art project, but I see that kind of stuff online all the time…  but that’s just me. I got hit pretty hard with the ethics stick.)

When Sam tracked us down, he said that I wasn’t the only person to inquire about the crates and that I could just have them. He said his manager told him yesterday that they had no use for the crates in the store.

wooden crates from Orchard


The funny thing is, that I totally would have paid for them. I had already decided while I was waiting that if they wouldn’t let me buy them I’d go get wooden crates from Michael’s.

I got the crates home and the kids and I got to work rather quickly getting the crates ready to go outside. I wanted the bottom slats to be uncovered, but used garden fabric that we had leftover from our old house to line the 4 sides. This keeps dirt from falling out of the cracks, protects the wood a bit, and keeps the compost ingredients insulated and warm to get them to “cook” faster.



I cleared a space in the backyard against the fence and stacked the three bins. Since the dirt wasn’t perfectly level, I ended up propping up the front of the bottom bin up with two bricks. Not only did this make my stack pretty darn level, it also provides a bit more air flow to the bottom bin. Compost breaks down faster when it gets more air.

I’ve been reading an awful lot about composting and this stack method seems to work well when you don’t have a bunch of square footage available in your yard. To use, simply place your yard trimmings and kitchen scraps in the top bin, and once it’s full, move it to the bottom. Continue rotating the bins until all three have been filled, and hopefully by the time you are ready to use the first one again, the yardwaste and scraps have broken down enough to get incorporated into your garden. Your compost is fully “cooked” when it’s super dark and looks like a moist crumbled chocolate cake.

make a compost pile out of three wooden crates

make a backyard compost stack out of three wooden crates

I ended up putting a small piece of plywood that I had lying around in the shed for a top, and put a heavy terracotta pot on top. This is to discourage the cats or raccoons from digging through the compost and to keep rain out of the bins. You can help break down your kitchen scraps and yard clippings by adding worms to the pile. If the worms don’t find you on their own, you can purchase worms from a fishing supply or garden store, or simply go on a puddle walk with the kids after a rain!

I’m excited about this project — it was something that I really wanted to do for quite a while, but kept getting bogged down with the details. This method is simple, and if I run out of room, I can easily make another one on the other side of the yard.

I go through so many produce scraps when I’m cooking and since we no longer have guinea pigs (they lived a good long life, and were terribly well-loved!) I am happy to be able to put the scraps to good use.

DIY 3-part container composter in the backyard. No tools needed; crates can be found at Michael's or a garden supply store




Post a comment · 10 Comments »


10 Responses to “Backyard Container Composting”

  1. Terri on March 6th, 2014 1:35 pm

    I agree with you about the pallets and paint chips. And boxes/mailing envelopes at the post office, and ketchup packets and napkins at a fast-food place.

    It’s not free if your neighbor is paying for it.

  2. lisa on March 8th, 2014 9:18 pm

    I love your idea. I’m going to have to give it a try!! Thanks for sharing

  3. Lexie on April 8th, 2014 10:46 am

    Rockin’ … think I will go mill around ace hardware and try to score me some of these!

  4. Carissa on April 15th, 2014 10:04 pm

    Just came across your site today and will be adding it to my arsenal of resources…this post comes right on time for me as I have the desire to compost and have started collecting my kitchen scraps but had not figured out the best configuration of container to get it started on my back patio. I think this method fits the bill!

    • Stephanie O'Dea on April 17th, 2014 11:49 am

      I’m glad you found me, Carissa! :-)

  5. Tara on May 8th, 2014 1:36 pm

    I thought composting required a specific species of worms to eat your garbage. Was I misinformed?

    • Stephanie O'Dea on May 8th, 2014 1:59 pm

      Hi Tara, you can buy worms, but I just use the regular garden kind — they sort of “find” the heap on their own, but when I come across some on a walk or when digging around I throw them in! :-)

  6. Lynda on May 8th, 2014 1:43 pm

    Great idea Stephanie – I’m lucky enough to have a Hubby who built me two side by side as we have a fairly large garden. Just one thing though – did I spot Ivy in your compost? If so GET IT OUT or you’ll have Ivy growing everywhere ‘cos the stems do not always break down in the composter & will regrow (shock, horror!!!)

    • Stephanie O'Dea on May 8th, 2014 1:59 pm

      good thinking, Lynda. It’s growing behind the containers — I cleared a bunch away, but that stuff gets EVERYWHERE!!

  7. efran on May 11th, 2014 12:17 pm

    wish I saw this sooner..paid $30.00 for a wobbly plastic job………..
    however, an aside………….love the Ninja .Need to know how to clean the inside (where the button is) and the sides around it,,,, or is discoloration normal ? thanks

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