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Free Compost. Just Add Pallets.

Pallets, the humble wooden shipping platform. They are experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Somebody, somewhere in the last few years realized their potential as an excellent source of (usually) free wood, suitable to any number of projects. Maybe a lot of somebodies, because a quick Pinterest search reveals a cornucopia of DIY inspiration: headboards to bookshelves, play houses to coffee tables. Possibilities, endless.

One could create a veritable rustic decor oasis from a bunch of bunged up free wood! But no where is the pallet more at home than the Urban Homestead. In all things garden, think free, repurposed, versatile, and sturdy as ideal. Pallets fit the bill. So last year, when I was building out the Ugly Garden infrastructure, I knew I wanted a kick-ass compost system. What would I construct it out of? Pallets, naturally.

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No, it ain’t pretty. It kinda shouldn’t be. Its a place you put things. To rot. Screw the aesthetics. It might have bothered me a bit upon initial construction. Now that I know the wonders of homemade compost, looks are the least of my concerns.

Prepare to become a believer, because making your own is easy.

Free materials. Some people pay for pallets. I think that’s blasphemy. The whole point of the pallet as a construction medium is its availability and price. I score mine through my connections at the Pet Store. However, driving around my hood I see pallets everywhere. Behind the local drugstore. Left in garbage heaps at construction/landscaping sites. Some businesses have deposits associated with them, so it never hurts to ask before you abscond. But, in my experience, most establishments are happy not to have them sitting around.

A word on wood quality. Pallets are usually constructed from oak, spruce or pine. Not woods that will last forever, but safe to pile your yard waste in. Some pallets are tainted, rather their wood is, by previous use. I avoided using wood that appears ‘oiled’ or blackened. This generally happens when they’ve been used to transport metal, engines, etc. Fine for certain things, but not what I wanted to expose my garden materials to.

Construction. Let the pallet be your guide. They are a bit of a bitch to tear down into smaller pieces. Pulling nails, sawing, don’t bother. This is supposed to be an easy project, and conveniently, pallets come in a (mostly) standard size (roughly 48″ X 40″). Pallet size can dictate width and height. I wanted a wider bin for easier access, so we oriented our pallets longer side down. Then, we chose a level spot, close to both garden and chickens, built two open-ended boxes, wired the corners together with tie wire by looping it through the slats then twisting together with pliers, and viola! Compost receptacle. ‘Tie wire’ I am told by The Husband is ‘16 gauge annealed (flexible, because its heat treated) wire’. We always have rolls of it sitting around because of The Husband’s blue collar ways. If you don’t, it could be the one material you have to pay for.

Possible upgrades. Our bin is bare bones utilitarian. One could add lids, lining, latches, doors, and any number of fancy features. The necessity of which is dictated by what you actually want to compost. If you will be putting food scraps in your pallet composter, plan on making it varmint secure. That means those lids, doors, latches, and most importantly, lining the whole thing with sturdy hardware cloth (including the dirt bottom). If you don’t do this, you will get rats. Maybe just possums and raccoons if you are lucky. By dumping your peels, rinds, skins, and leftovers you are effectively laying out the scavenger buffet. Be prepared to secure it or play host to a raft of unwelcome visitors. I skipped this by putting 99% yard waste and chicken bedding into mine. Leaves, grass, straw, wood chips, chicken poop, and the occasional dead plants from a cleaned out bed. Without lining, some material does fall through the slats. Not a significant enough amount for me to worry about. Food waste is disposed of by way of chickens or a secure in-ground unit, but that’s another post entirely.

Standard build. The base open air construction of a pallet lends itself so well to compost makings, not a lot more is actually required. Maybe water. Adequate rotting occurs with air. Mismatched pallet slats allow air flow throughout your pile of refuse. This keeps worms happy. Happy worms eat, poop, propagate and manufacture garden gold.


The one build feature I would insist on is the double sided bin. You don’t want one square. You want two. That second slot provides somewhere to pile the not-quite composted top, to get to the black bounty underneath. It lets you effectively turn your compost by moving it to one side or another, increasing the airflow and overall yields. At any given time, one side of our bin is being harvested (used in the garden), while the other is being added to. My other addition was the front grates. Not a requirement. Just nice to pile compost against, while maintaining circulation and not getting it all over the place. Mine are repurposed panels from an X-Pen.

The results. Initially, I was skeptical. Compost seems so complicated; temperature, moisture, nitrogen, greens vs. browns. It never has the uniform color and texture of what you buy in those big bags. I’d attempted compost before, on a small scale, but I’d never used it. The Ugly Garden experiment is all about self sufficiency. It seems contrary to grow your own in soil amended with someone else’s. Let alone to pay for that privilege, when I’ve got plenty of waste around here. For a year I’ve been dutifully shoveling, leaf collecting, but primarily ignoring whatever is going on betwixt those pallets. What came out is anything but uniform. I’m sure any weed seeds have not been inoculated through high temperatures. Drat! There goes my completely realistic plans to have a weed free garden. What it is though, is free. No price per yard. No delivery. No bags to throw away. A win for Ugly Garden overhead. Manufactured by me. With a little help from Chicken Butts.


It’s not commercial. It’s not sterile. It can get a little stinky at points. (I don’t use those bits yet.) I’m convinced its good for my soil. And it’s my kind of project; easy, productive, basically free, and capitalizes on the waste I’ve already got.

Do you compost? What’s your compost bin like? Do you actually use your compost?

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Kaitlin Jenkins

My compost bin is nearly exactly like yours, minus the old xpen front. I found a little half pallet and used that, it works OK. I, however was not brilliant enough to construct a second bin, preferring to use the space for tomato growing. Since we’re moving in may, it will all be ok. My bin is full of composted goodness for the next tenant who moves in…I hope they appreciate it! Will be doing two or three bins side by side next time though :)


It is all about the second bin! So convenient. I probably would have made it a three bay if I’d have had the space.

And how very generous of you to leave all that lovely compost for the next tenant. Moving with chicken would be challenging enough. I can’t imagine trying to take my compost. 😉


I have thought about indoor composting (I hate seeing those food scraps go to waste) but since I don’t have a garden, I don’t know what I’d do with the results. It’s an intriguing method – use two tupperware bins + holes + worms, and they say if you do it right it doesn’t stink. But again, what do do with it when it’s ready? I wish my metro area had a composting program… but Raleigh tends to be a bit behind the curve on that sort of thing. I do look forward to having a nice stinky compost pile one day, because that will mean I have a nice big yard that’s all my own, too!


I’ve heard good things about the counter top composting, but never actually tried it. I imagine it could be a pain if you didn’t have spot to use it (houseplants? neighbors?) or an outdoor location to do regular maintenance, should things get smelly. After taking compost off other peoples hands enough times, I feel more confident know what ‘done’ is. And it still doesn’t look like the stuff that comes out of the bag!


Is there NO “community garden” anywhere in your area? I’ll bet you could make a great deal with someone who’s got a plot there: your compost in exchange for some produce.

Lacia Lynne Bailey

Great article & realistic perspective! I have LOTS of compost with goat bedding/poop here. For larger amounts I reuse slightly bent/rusted wire fencing someone else is trashing, & makea big circle corral. Chickens help to turn it & its ready to fill larger garden areas/beds.


I’m a big fan of composted goat poop. I bartered for a couple loads last year to get Ugly Garden, and those compost bins, off to a good start. You are right, it really doesn’t have to be complicated. $100 elevated, turning barrels need not apply.


We just have a pile in the corner of the yard. We do use the compost.

We had a worm bin when we were living in a city. That was kind of fun.


I am scared off by the thought of the smell, but power to you if you aren’t! That sounds like an interesting idea, but I’m not sure I could ever participate.

Good luck with your composting!


I’ve been composting for years. Because I have 2/3rds acres, I hide mine beneath a tree at the very back of the yard. Out of sight. I don’t have a bin either, just a pile. It works. I use it. I wish I could make more, but I do pretty well none-the-less.

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