Is there a 'proper' way to use a 3-bin composting system?

August 23, 2011

We've been using a dinky little tumblr compost bin for a couple of years, but after we moved into our new house with a lot more land (and now, yard waste) I decided we needed to step it up.

So this weekend I built a 3-bin compost system (each bin is 3 feet x 3 feet).

I keep finding different method of using the system, though. So I'm curious what's the "best" or "typical" way of using a 3-bin system.

At this very moment we've got a massive amount of yard waste (grass clippings, leaves from last fall, old branches, etc etc). Way more than would fit in all three bins.

We also generate a pretty good bit of food waste every day.

So how should I run my system?

Comments (18)

  • shpigford

    And for reference, here's what I built:


  • emmers_m

    That's a very pretty composter!


  • jonhughes

    Hi shpigford,
    Nice bins ;-)
    They will make some nice compost ! !

    If you mix up all your ingredients, they will cook down so fast you will have to start scouring the neighborhood to find more ingredients ;-)

    Keep us updated with more pics ;-)














  • bluegoat_gw

    Yes, the proper method is always have an empty bin. I repeat, always have an empty bin. That way you can turn both the current bin and the old bin. Once all three bins have stuff in them, your hooped as far as turning is concerned. A the moment, I am hooped. I had too much garden waste one year and I haven't recovered yet.

  • tn_gardening

    I agree with bluegoat. Keep an empty bin so you can turn them easier.

    The main thing to remember is that if you keep adding stuff to your pile(s) they will need more time to decompose. Therefore, I'd recommend that you stop adding to one pile so it can finish. When it is finished, use it and start refilling the bin while the other pile finishes.

  • shpigford

    But what about things like turning? How often do I turn? Do I ever mix two bins? Just not sure how to "maintain" the piles.

  • Kimmsr

    When I had a 3 bin system I would put the material to be composted in 1 bin and when I had enough to fill bin 2 would put the material from bin 1 in bin 2 mixing it well and adding what water might be necessary. When it was time to turn bin 2 that was moved to bin 3. Each time bin 2 had material that needed to be turned it was put into bin 3 and the finished compost from bin 3 was used on the garden.
    I am not all that sure there is a "proper" way to use a 3 bin system because I know people that fill all 3 of their bins full each fall and turn as necessary back into the same bin, or some will combine the material from all of the bins into 1 and make more.
    When to turn is determined by the compost. If properly built and with an active bacteria colony the material will heat up and you turn ot when it starts to cool down making sure that the outside, and undigested stuff, gets put inot the center. Some people turn once, maybe twice, and others turn 4 or 5 times, it just depends on how much energy you have and and how quickly you want your compost finished. Some people use bin 3 to store finished compost but I see no reason to do that and put mine on the garden when it is finished.

  • toffee-el

    Hey Jon, if one would to copy your design, should one be concern about the concrete block compost bins are sealed on 3 sides and the bottom leaving only one side and the top being open?


  • toxcrusadr

    I use the same system as kimmsr: fresh stuff is added only to bin 1, bin 2 has been turned from bin 1 previously and is cooking, and bin 3 is the compost that is ready or almost ready to use. This is called a "continuous batch process" in the engineering world.

    It helps to have bin 3 about half the size of bin 1 and bin 2 somewhere in between. That way the bins are sized appropriately to the shrinking piles as they move through the system. But it's not mandatory.

    If faced with a brand new 3-bin system and a lot of material, I would make a pile in bin 1 and if there was more stuff, bin 2 if necessary.

    You can turn every month or so if you want. I usually let the bins tell me when: when bin 1 was overflowing, bin 3 was usually ready to use, so time to turn. I did half a dozen batches per year when I had mine cranked up.

  • shpigford

    @toxcrusadr: Do you do any turning between moves from Bin 1 to Bin 2?

  • jonhughes

    Hi Toffee
    "Hey Jon, if one would to copy your design, should one be concern about the concrete block compost bins are sealed on 3 sides and the bottom leaving only one side and the top being open? "

    No... and that is why I show so many pics, as you can see, it is hard to argue with success ;-)

    My bins are 8' deep and 4' tall and the Concrete slab slopes to the front (to shed excess moisture/from rain and such).

    It makes so much compost so fast, even with my large garden, I can't possibly use it all, so I made a big pile on a tarp (over my gravel driveway) and am producing some veggies with the "overage" ;-)





  • beeman_gardener

    There is no arguing with Jon's set up, always great pictures.
    I use a 3 bin system, no fuss. One to store, 2 turn and 3 to use as active bin.
    One thing I found out last year. Turn some finished into the system occasionally. It adds the bacteria needed, at the same time it boosts the action.
    A straight compost bin will take a while to build up the bacterial populations necessary to rot down, so anything to speed the process.
    I even add the drippings from my ACT brewing, that really gets it going.

  • merrygardens

    If you have lots of material, you might consider augmenting the system with some simple wire bins. Or consider getting a shredder, which reduces material to a fraction of the original mass, and encourages really fast heating up and breaking down of the material.

    I use my 3-bin setup in different ways each year. Sometimes I fill two of them in the late summer with fresh horse manure mixed with sawdust that I get from a fellow down the street. Then I use the leftover one for shredded material from the garden. Circular wire bins hold kitchen scraps through the winter and miscellaneous stuff.

    Just experiment and see what works for you.

  • toffee-el

    Hi Jon, You are right, one can't argue with the result. With four large bins, may one assume that you don't turn them much? Thanks.

  • toxcrusadr

    "@toxcrusadr: Do you do any turning between moves from Bin 1 to Bin 2?"

    I generally don't because the material is mixed pretty well to begin with. Some batches are made up all at once - in spring when massive amounts of grass clippings are mixed with last fall's leaves, or in fall when I do the last mowings and suck up the same mixture. And I keep browns handy to layer with other occasional additions of greens, kitchen waste etc. So the two turnings - into bin 2 and then 3 - are sufficient to make lovely compost in the end. I'm fairly lazy and don't like to turn all that much.

  • jonhughes

    Hi toffee,

    "Hi Jon, You are right, one can't argue with the result. With four large bins, may one assume that you don't turn them much? Thanks"

    You know what they say when you assume ;-)

    Because I have an excavator ,I turn once a week, I know.... I know... I am indeed blessed ;-)

    If I had to turn them by hand, I would mix it all up as I am adding to the pile... they let nature take over .. ;-)




  • robertz6

    I would fill up any empty or even partly empty bins with shredded leaves at the end of fall. By summer of the next year I've always run out of leaves for 'browns' (don't care for paper).

  • ringi

    Sorry I know this is an old thread, but I think a trick has been mixed. I am also using a setup with a tumblr compost bin and âÂÂnormalâ bins.

    I keep a pile of browns handy; when I cut the grass I add the cuttings and a few handfuls of the browns to the tumblr. The tumblr gets turned over most days. Then when the tumblr is filled, it gets empties into the first of the normal bins.

    The first bin gets turned into the 2nd bin when it runs out of space, etc. I then use an old builders bulk bag to store all made compost until I need it.

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