Compost Trials: 5-Gallon Bucket   11 comments

A word of advice to anyone who wants to try using a 5-gallon bucket for compost: it doesn’t work all that well.

My compost journey started early this summer with a free 5-gallon bucket from work. We’re going through a couple of buckets a month at work, so rather than throwing them away we’re finding other uses for them. I though the bucket would be a perfect small compost bin since the lid already had a large hole where a pour spout had been and it would be easy to turn the compost by rolling the bucket. Unfortunately, the lid had to be sawed off in order to open and clean out the bucket. Buying a new lid kind of defeats the whole purpose of trying a free compost bin. I tried laying cardboard over the top but it didn’t help keep moisture in, so I tried using a scrap of translucent plastic that used to be in the kitchen light. That works to keep moisture in the bucket, but there’s still no way to roll the bucket around on its side to turn the compost.

With a plastic scrap covering the top of the bucket, there’s no way for the compost to aerate. The bucket also needed drain holes. So I got a nail and hammer and started punching little holes along the base for drain holes. That went well. But when I tried to punch aeration holes along the bucket sides, I ran into difficulty. It’s hard to punch holes in a 5 gallon bucket! At least part of the problem is that the plastic flexes. In any case, I gave up and resorted to manually aerating the compost with a long-handled trowel on a “daily” basis. (Um, maybe every-few-days-basis would be more accurate.)

As a result, the bucket compost is dry on the top and saturated on the bottom because I can’t effectively mix the compost. Don’t get me wrong, the compost is definitely composing. There’s still lots of activity in the bucket. But it is smelly, and it is small (1 bucket holds about 2 weeks of organic matter for us, and it is too small to heat up.)

So far, I would not recommend this strategy to anyone. It might be different with a lid, but without it is definitely not ideal. I’m going to see it out as an experiment, though. What I do recommend 5-gallon buckets for are holding bins. Don’t have time to take care of your compost during the week? Use a bucket outside to get it out of the house where the bugs can start working at it in the meantime. Gardening? Drag a bucket along behind you to collect your trimmings.

Posted October 16, 2010 by mayakey in gardening

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11 responses to “Compost Trials: 5-Gallon Bucket

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  1. Can’t you use the electric drill to put holes in the bucket?

  2. Pingback: Compost Trials: 5-Gallon Bucket Update « Love Knowledge Zeal & Fortitude

  3. Pingback: Compost Trials: From 5-Gal Bucket Compost to 5-Gal Bucket Worm Bin « Love Knowledge Zeal & Fortitude

  4. Wow. So a few thoughts. You didn’t want to spend $5 for a bucket with a lid at Home Depot? That’s fine if you don’t, but you don’t mention it as an option. I mention it because it sounds like a lid would have solved your problems with keeping the pile moist and aerated, since you could roll the bucket around. (You mention in another post that you didn’t think of using a drill to make the aeration holes.)

    You also don’t mention whether you were trying to compost kitchen scraps only, or if you mixed that stuff with leaves, paper, cardboard, sawdust, twigs, etc. That is important for maintaining the proper carbon-nitrogen balance, which is important to fast composting and avoiding stink. They say for each pound of kitchen scraps, you need at least one pound of dry leaves or paper, etc.

    I am just starting out with composting, so I am trying to learn what I can. I don’t want to sound critical, but it seems like if you had used the proper materials and tools, you could have avoided all the problems you encountered. I just don’t want other beginners like me to be discouraged by your experience.

    • Critique well taken. My objective with this exercise was to see if it was possible to spend $0 creating a composter that would work for us when we had no yard but wanted to be able to compost kitchen scraps. I still think the initial design may have worked, but because of the size it may have just been to small to ever heat up sufficiently. Plus, I am a laaaaaaaaazzzzzzyyyyyy composter, so my failures certainly don’t reflect on the method in general.

  5. Thanks for the reply! Your goal of seeing if a zero-cost composting project could work is certainly a worthwhile one. I would still suggest that the proper mixture of raw materials (which are free) and some holes (which are free) could have made it work, even in that small size. From what I have read, a small pile will compost more slowly, but will still work without creating a slimy, stinky mess.I would never say you were lazy (composting is nothing if not for the lazy). In fact, you tried hard to make it work. But you were just uninformed, and that is a small, easily fixed problem. Keep up the good work!

  6. My $0 compost project: I’m using an empty cat litter bucket that holds about 5 gallons with 1/4 in holes drilled all around. So far, the bin is about a week old and there isn’t much–any heat being produced. I’m not surprised but I’m hoping that while it won’t be super fast compost, I can fill this bucket, make another one and just keep aerating them until they more or less decompose.

  7. Hi! I´ve recently started a 5 gal bin compost (2 weeks-turned twice/aeration and drain holes/kitchen scraps and garden material) hoping it would be “hot” compost (faster and “healthier”) and not cold.

    However, I haven´t noticed any heat so I I´ve been doing some more research I discovered it needs a lot more volume to actually heat up (around 3 cubic feet or 1 cubic meter). I will continue with the experimental stage and surely get a bigger bin later or try vermicompost.

    Any comments, suggestions, similar stories … but more importantly, any success stories (hot compost)?

    • Right now I’m using a pallet bin. It’s made from 4 wood pallets arranged in a square as the sides of the bin. I haven’t actually measured to see what temperature I’m getting in the pile, but in many ways the larger compost pile is easier than the 5-gal bucket. Good luck!

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