Creating A Compost Heap: How To Do It On The Cheap

Gardening is often like one of those puzzles from your childhood. You have a board of eight tiles, nine spaces, one empty, one hollow so you can move around the tiles to make a picture. In gardening sometimes you move a plant, sometimes when designing you move an area, a greenhouse, a shed, a compost heap. As we walked the Hopwood site, we wondered what we should move, what pieces needed sliding around. For us, straight away was the compost heap. There are large bins located to the top of the site. it's a fair walk and taking barrow after barrow up there is somewhat time hungry. These large industrial composting also have another large problem. One of the three bins has grit in it for winter, we have enough stockpiled to keep the paths clear but then the other two bins are unknown quantities. We have animals on the site tended to by students and we're not sure whether they have been dumping fresh manure onto compost that has been turned ready for use. We could put in a green/red light system, a simple disc on the wall to tell students they can dump manure there or not but sometimes accidents happen and accidents with fresh manure on gardening beds can mean that plants are scorched or worse, we all end up with E.coli O157 in lettuces or in other water hungry crops. For those of you have not come across E.coli in manure then you need to know quickly, E.coli O157  can cause the deaths in children younger than five years of age, the elderly and people whose immune system is compromised, that can just mean you have a bad cold and you end up with E.coli on top, and as we move into winter that is an ever present problem.

growing, E.coli O157, manure

E.coli O157 can be found in manure and manure that is less than six months old is in danger of transmitting a bacteria into food. Hence why we need compost heaps that we can control, manage and oversee in the coming months. Now compost heaps don't have to be pretty, they just have to do a job and that job is to start the decomposition of materials into organic matter - compost (you need to also add nitrogen to start the process, forget the compost heap makers you can buy, just use urine). Walking around Hopwood we soon see that we have a glut of pallets too and pallets make great compost bins. All we need is three half tree stakes, four short stakes taken from a pallet we have broken up, bracing wood from the same pallet we broke up and flat headed nails and some hammers. We start by placing the pallets out in the size and shape we want. In a compost system you are looking to create three bins or bays, so that you are continually turning the decomposing material from one bay to another. That means each bay should house the rotting compost for two months, working from left to right until the compost is sweet smelling and crumbly. If your compost still smells of manure, it's still manure.

gardening, how to build compost bins

After laying out the pallets we drive in three stakes between the top and bottom of the pallets, meaning that we slot the pallets over the stakes, you can see the tops of them poking out of the back wall of the compost heap. We drive in these stakes with a post driver but you can use a sledgehammer and a steady hand, just wear a hard hat. These stakes give a stability to the back of the compost heap. We then slide the back pallets apart to slot in the two interior pallets in between them to create three bays, see below.


We use bricks and broken flags to make sure these side walls to the bays are relatively level and then we start to brace the compost heaps with the spare pallet wood. You can see in the photo below that we join the pallets together with wood nailed from the top down and use additional pallet stakes on the opening of the compost heaps to hold the walls of the bays straight. We also use wood to brace the back of the compost heaps. Again, it's not pretty but by gum it does the job. You will also notice that the pallets are positioned so the wooden slats run from top to bottom, this can actually lessen the loss of compost spilling out through the gaps.


The whole job takes around two hours. We have three pallets left over to close the bins with. We could have made a front with boards that slide in but placing the pallets in front will do the same job as the heaps grow. This is about using materials we have and those materials must include compost. We have compost heaps planned for the potting shed yard and the large greenhouse cutting down on any cross contamination. We can still bring in manure from the large bins at the top but it means we can control the addition of animal manure and cut down any threat of E.coli O157.


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