How to Set Up a Backyard Composter


When you think about what's in it, compost---that rich, dark soil-like material that breaks up clay soils and renews gardens---seems rather overpriced at the hardware store. Set up a composter in your own backyard and save your money. Use grass clippings, leaves, leftover salad and other materials that you usually throw away to create your own compost to use as a soil amendment or mulch. With only a minor initial investment, your composter will soon pay for itself.

Step 1

Choose a place in the yard where your compost will be out of the way. A corner or area along the back of the yard that is still convenient to gardening areas is best. A shaded spot will not only keep the bin from getting too hot on summer days but shelter the contents against heavy rain.

Step 2

Build a bin by bolting shipping pallets together and lining them with wire mesh or build a smaller bin with chicken wire stapled to stakes arranged in a circle. Imitate the local municipal compost pile by building a three-sided box out of cement blocks with sides that slope downward toward the front. If you want to close in your compost, use a lidded plastic garbage can; you can add cans as your compost increases. Large pails will also serve well.

Step 3

Provide drainage for pails or garbage cans by pounding holes in the bottoms the containers. Add several rows of holes around the base and in lids or garbage can tops for ventilation; your "heap" will need air to percolate.

Step 4

Make a base of 3 to 4 inches of woody, brushy material or crumpled chicken wire to elevate the heap and promote aeration. If you use brush, do not mix into the heap. It will eventually break down, too---about the time you empty out the bin for mulching or soil amendments.

Step 5

Layer high-carbon "brown" materials like shredded newspaper, cardboard, corn stalks, fall leaves and pine needles with "green" high-nitrogen materials like grass clippings, food and garden waste. Brown and green materials must be added in a carbon to nitrogen balance, or "C:N" ratio of 25 to 1, meaning that brown layers will be thicker than green layers.

Tips and Warnings

  • Open heaps need shelter from heavy rain which can slow the compost process or stop it altogether until the heap dries out. A heap that gets too dry, however, needs watering to keep the bacteria that carry out the process alive. Some communities have ordinances controlling types and placement of composters. Check with yours before building or buying. Never put meat, animal fats or manure from carnivorous animals in a composter. It will make the heap rancid and attract scavengers.

Things You'll Need

  • Pallets and bolts
  • Chicken wire and stakes
  • Wrenches, staples
  • OR
  • Plastic pails or garbage cans
  • Hammer and large screwdriver or awl
  • OR
  • Cement blocks and mortar
  • Mortar board, knife and re-bars
  • OR
  • Store-bought compost container
  • Large shovel
  • Compost turner
  • Garden cart
  • Compost materials


  • New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service: Backyard Composting
  • Government of New Brunswick: Backyard Magic

Who Can Help

  • USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service: Backyard Composting
  • Composting 101: A Composting Guide for the Home Gardener
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Composting
Keywords: backyard composter, set up, soil amendment

About this Author

Chicago native Laura Reynolds has been writing for 40 years. She attended American University (D.C.), Northern Illinois University and University of Illinois Chicago and has a B.S. in communications (theater). Originally a secondary school communications and history teacher, she's written one book and edited several others. She has 30 years of experience as a local official, including service as a municipal judge.