Are you lacking construction skills but want a large contained compost bin so you can build your own super-nutritious soil rather than buying it?

Me too.

One answer is to have someone build a bin or bins for you, or you could spend upwards of $400 or more to buy a pre-built system.   I decided to take the easy way out (I’m all about making these sorts of tasks less time consuming) and purchase a set of steel brackets from Lee Valley to give this sort of unit a whirl.

As someone who used to teach composting to city-dwellers as part of my job, we always used ‘rodent resistant’ bins and discouraged the use of open units (think rats, squirrels, raccoons scrapping in your backyard over the scraps – not so great for neighbour relations).  But out in the country, we don’t have quite the same restrictions, and small, sealed bins just aren’t practical for the volume of material we’ve got to process.  Enter the mid-scale composting system.

There are a number of ways you can do mid-scale composting (you can see examples on my Pinterest page):

  • 2 or 3-bin systems lined with hardware cloth to keep pests out;
  • bunkers like those used in industrial composting systems that are enclosed on 3 sides but open on the top and front for easy access by loaders or small excavators (best for large volumes of material);
  • open piles covered by tarps (the old school way);
  • hugelkultur, where you pile up woody waste into and cover it with soil (it’s a little more complex than that, but you get the picture) then plant into it;
  • colloidal composting, which has a LOT of steps but apparently creates some incredibly vital compost;
  • simple wire surrounds (best for creating leaf mulch);
  • hybrid systems, like the one we’re experimenting with.

For me, composting has to be easy If I’ve got to think about it or worry about layering or saving up material to do one big pile, I’m probably not going to do it.  No, let me rephrase that – I won’t do it. Here’s what else I’m looking for in a composting unit:

  • doesn’t require construction skills or power tools to build;
  • easy to take apart when the compost is ready to remove and use in the garden;
  • reuseable parts;
  • not going to fall apart before I take it apart;
  • affordable;
  • portable;
  • doesn’t involve me driving all over looking for pallets or scrap wood;
  • big and open so I can aerate it easily.

So, with all those criteria in mind, I decided we’d try out the Composter Bracket Set from Lee Valley.  We’ve been using it since we moved in 2009, and it holds a LOT of material.  Ultimately, I need to get another set to have a multi-bin system (so I can let one sit and compost when it’s filled while we fill a second bin), but I haven’t quite got around to that yet.

When we started our recent construction project, we had to disassemble the bin to make way for machinery (it needed it anyway, after having been hit by a falling tree), so when we put it back together, I thought it was a good time to do a mini-review:


Lee Valley Bracket Composter Review from Victoria Gazeley on Vimeo.

Benefits of the Lee Valley Bracket Composter:

  • Relatively inexpensive – small plastic compost bins cost about the same as this, without anywhere near the flexibility or quality of construction.
  • Large size allows for a generous amount of material, and room to aerate the bin (important if you want faster, not-too-stinky compost).
  • Portable – if you want to move your bin, you just take it apart and re-assemble it – and  you don’t need a crew of help to do it.
  • Allows you to use local wood products if you’ve got them available at your local building supply or sawmill, rather than imported wood.
  • Good air flow for optimum decomposition.
  • Quality steel construction – the brackets didn’t bend even when the bin was hit by a falling tree (it just knocked the boards out of whack).

Drawbacks:

  • Needs two people to put it together (if you don’t want to end up getting frustrated and throwing something across your yard).
  • Open top means ‘nutrients’ are leached out of the mix if you live in an area with high precipitation like we do – I suggest adding some burlap sacks to the top of the pile that will allow a bit of moisture through without drowning the pile.  A tarp would also work, but if you’re not adding a lot of food scraps, you may need to add water to the pile if you live in a dry area.  Not necessary, but it will help create more nutrient-dense soil amendment.
  • The open top also means it’s easy pickins for bears.  That said, I’ve been a somewhat lazy composter the last while (i.e., not covering smelly kitchen waste with non-smelly leaves and other ‘browns’) and the only time we had a bear in the bin was the first few weeks after we set it up originally.  I’ve never seen signs of one in there since, though I know there are bears around.  All that said, I won’t be pushing my luck any longer.
  • While the brackets are high quality, the screws are a bit measly for the job – they seem very soft and strip relatively easily.  Next time I’d purchase a set of higher quality screws for building a new unit.
  • I found some of the screws a bit challenging to get in straight in the ‘left hand’ corners.  With an electric screwdriver, I wouldn’t have had that problem.

Things You’ll Need to Build This Bin:

  • The Composter Bracket Set from Lee Valley;
  • A flat space that’s in an area you frequent (so you don’t forget to aerate or add material) but not too close to your house, preferably a minimum of 36″ x 36″, preferably 48″ x 48″;
  • A Phillips screwdriver (the one with the ‘cross’ end);
  • 20 boards, 1″ x 6″ x 36″ or 48″, depending on the size bin you’d like (48″ is better than 36″, but your space may dictate a smaller system) – you’ll want a wood that won’t rot quickly, like spruce, cedar or pine, preferably treated with some sort of non-toxic preservative for longevity.  You can have these cut at your local building supply store, or cut them yourself if you have access to a small sawmill like we do.
  • About 45 minutes to put it all together (less time if you’re using an electric screwdriver).

So I think we’ll be trying out another Composter Bracket Set to create a second bin for our composting system.  We don’t have a lot of material, so this system works quite well.

Lee Valley Composter Bracket Set – $89.50 (US/CDN) plus shipping (as of July 2012).

What sort of composting system have you found works best on your rural property?  Share it in the comments below – we’d love to hear what everyone is using to help build the structure of their food-growing soils.

Victoria Gazeley
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