“California Dreaming” – the Californian Compost Bin

Good soil can produce good crops, but being able to make good compost can create great crops! I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with the ‘dark art’ of good compost making, and whilst what you put in is key, there is also an important element in terms of what you put it in. We have all seen the many containers available on the market with their various claims, however composting has been going on long before plastic moulding was invented.

I’m also a bit of squirrel when it comes to gardening books, and regular browse the second-hand book shops looking for something different. It was whilst in such a shop at Whittington Castle I stumbled upon a 25-year-old copy Lawrence D. Hills “Month-by-Month Organic Gardening”. Inside it was a short section describing the Californian cylinder, and so curiosity got the better of me and I bought the book.

The Californian cylinder is an American invention as the name would suggest and was created by a keen organic gardener who had to work with poor soil conditions, he went by the name of Captain James Macdonald. It’s a simple concept, and perhaps not overly different from some designs at first glance, however its very quick to construct and very cheap to build, with practically no woodworking skills needed and the majority of the materials being available in the dark corners of most gardeners potting sheds.

This cylinder is 4 feet in diameter and about 3.5 feet tall so will hold a serious amount of waste. Use some chicken muck or a bit of “Chairman Mao’s Special” as an activator, and, if my maths serves me well, and reluctantly stepping into metric for a moment, it will, when full, create around 1000 litres of compost. Not a bad return for a couple of hours work and at best, a fiver of cost!

The Californian Compost Cylinder

What you will need


  • Saw
  • Mallet
  • Border spade
  • Measuring tape
  • Drill
  • Screwdriver


  • Feather board (4-6 inches wide) 4 x 5 foot lengths
  • 2×1 batons  12 x 8 inch + 4 x 16 inch
  • Stock fencing 3-4 feet tall x 13 feet long
  • Garden wire and twine
  • Cardboard or carpet for lining

Step 1

X marks the spot. Select the location for your cylinder and lay two of the planks in an X on the ground. Cut the outline using the border spade

Step 2

Using the border spade dig out the air channels, these need to be 5-6 inches wide and the same again deep

Step 3

Cut the planks to length and line the channel, use a mallet to knock in the end sections on plank. Be sure to have them overlapping the side planks for support

Step 4

Using the mallet again, knock in the short pegs to support the lining planks. These should 10-12 inches from the centre point of the cross

Step 5

Now hammer in the outer support pegs, one short one long. The diameter of the cylinder is 4 feet so these need to be 2 feet from the centre of the cross. Drill holes in the longer pegs.

Step 6

Put the length of stock fencing in place and shape to a cylinder. Secure the ends using garden wire.

Step 7

Now attach the edges of the cylinder to the longer pegs using garden wire. This will hold the shape and anchor it to the ground

Step 8

Line the walls of cylinder inside with old carpet or cardboard. Using a screwdriver, poke holes in the lining and tie it to the cylinder using garden twine

Step 9

Cover the bottom of the cylinder with twiggy material. This will help keep the air channels clear. Your compost cylinder is now ready for filling.

Once full the waste will take around 3-6 months to rot down depending on the weather. Emptying it is simple enough, just remove the ties holding the stock fence in place, peel it back and dig the compost out. Once emptied simply re-attach the stock fence, re-line it with cardboard and away you go again.

7 Replies to ““California Dreaming” – the Californian Compost Bin”

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve been using the assembled palet technique until now, which works well, but I do find that the spaces between the planks get quickly bunged up.

    I am curious about the X-shaped trench though. Is that just to let the air circulate? I can see that these would quickly get filled up with compost, which would stop them from letting air through, and would be a pain to clean out.

    Thanks for all your other posts too – please do keep it up! (Once we’ve done with builders and house renovating, we’ll be looking to get some chucks, so will be pleased to get some tips on that in due course.)

    1. Thanks for the comments. With regard to the X trench, yes this is to let air circulate and providing you put a good base of twiggy sticks in the bottom of the cyclinder I find that it doesn’t get too clog up by the time the compost is ready to use.

      Good luck with the renovation 🙂

  2. in melon season, “big box” store like WalMart et al bring in a pallet at a time of melons, simply containmed in a heavy cardboard boxor circle on the pallet: ready made for yur idea here, and strong. Altho they bale and recycle most cardboard, these are a pain… so ask for them 🙂

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