How to make a composting tumbler work for you
I’ve always wanted to start composting with a tumbler and a friend recently gave me an excuse to look into it. She’s living on a small island in Maine and it pains her to have to toss into the garbage beet greens from the local farm and calcium-rich lobster shells that she knew would help fertilize her sandy soil. So she bought a composting tumbler and set it up in her backyard.
Since then she’s been tossing in coffee grinds, eggshells, and leftovers, and spinning dutifully. But the pile is getting slimier. Tossing in a lobster shells made it so smelly she had to move it away from the house. And then there are the maggots.
Wondering if she’d made a mistake, she asked me to look into how to make a composting tumbler work for her. Here’s what I found out.
Traditional composting bins are cheaper and larger in volume, so they will typically give you more bang for buck. They’ll also drain excess water better, which can sometimes help prevent a slimy pile. However, composting tumblers are considered a good starter option for people who want to compost but have limited time and patience for it.
Tumblers are sealed to keep out vermin and pests. Most compost tumblers are also suspended above the ground, making it harder to reach for rats or mice in your garden.
They’re ventilated. Grass clippings and other green waste often form slimy, smelly messes on top of traditional compost bin. But in a compost tumbler, the holes help to ventilate the compost and break it down faster, which cuts down on smells. (Many tumblers also have a collection storage for “compost tea” which you can add to your plants as it’s super nutritious for them.)
Stirring the tumbler distributes moisture and heat. No fuss about getting enough moisture or heat in your compost tumbler, like you would with traditional compost bins. That means you won’t have to layer greens and browns or water routinely.
Many tumblers don’t require much assembly. Of course, for the eco-conscious DIY-ers out there, there’s a special kick from making your own closed-loop zero waste system. So here’s a tutorial on how to put together an inexpensive compost tumbler.
Making your tumbler work for you
With a composting tumbler, there are three main steps to churning out loamy, nutrient-rich batches of compost.
Establish the right ratio of green to brown waste
Turn your tumbler regularly
Keep your waste well-ventilated
Ratio of Green to Brown Waste
For a deep, earthy compost that’s stink-free (as much as compost can be) and ready within three weeks time, aim for the right balance of brown to green waste. Think of brown waste as dry, crunchy stuff. Green waste is fresh and wet, quicker to rot.
Establishing the right amount of each will take some adjusting Try one kitchen compost pail of green waste to two pails of brown waste to start off. If there is a bad smell coming from the tumbler or if it’s gone mushy or soggy, add some more brown waste— newspaper or autumn leaves are a good quick fix. If the compost pile is taking a long time to break down or looks dry, add more green waste. Keep the lid closed to keep flies away.
Brown waste: Wood chips or pellets, cardboard, old newspaper, straw, eggshells, and dried leaves.
Green waste: Vegetable peels and fruit rinds, coffee grounds, fresh leaf or lawn clippings from your yard, manure, and plants.
WHAT TO AVOID: Do not compost oily materials, which includes meat, dairy products, fish, and peanut butter. Or super fibrous materials, like corn cobs or twigs, which are hard to break down. Don’t toss in bones or pet droppings. They may attract pests and stink up the tumbler. And don’t throw in lawn clippings that may have been treated by pesticides or herbicides. Finally, do not toss in your weeds, which will just sprout up again.
Turn your tumbler
Turning your compost tumbler doesn’t take skill or grace, but it does require some arm-grease. You’ll want to spin the tumbler several times two to four times a week. After each spin, swing it back and forth a few times, listening for the shaking of the materials, before spinning it again. As time goes on, the compost will become compacted. Turning the tumbler many times will ensure all the chunks get separated and mixed with air. Don’t overfill your tumbler because you’ll want to leave some space in there for air to move around.
Spinning it will help ensure your heap is well-aerated but don’t overdo it. More than four spins a week will keep the compost from getting the chance to heat up and reach optimal breaking-down temperatures.
Keep your tumbler in a sunny spot in the backyard to help heat up all that soon-to-be-soil goodness in your tumbler. If your tumbler is plastic, keep it in partial sun to prevent your tumbler from warping. The darker the tumbler, the faster it will heat up.
Keep it ventilated
Venting helps accelerate the decomposition process. Without oxygen the heap can become sludge-like from methane-producing bacteria.
A good way to check for proper ventilation is to stick in a compost thermometer when your tumbler is at least halfway filled - any less and it likely won’t be generating enough heat yet. At 130 degrees, the compost pile is perfect. It means aerobic microbes are fast breaking down the scraps. If it isn’t hitting that temperature then extra ventilation may be needed, which can mean poking holes into your tumbler.
How to know when you’ve got compost
You’ll know when your compost finished because it looks and smells like soil: fresh and earthy. If you still see remnants of your past dinners or yard waste and it’s been more than a month, then you may need to do some adjusting to your green/brown ratio to get to that garden-ready, perfect compost. Oh - and those maggots grossing out my friend? I told her to add more dry leaves, newspaper, and maybe some cardboard. And make sure to throw away only the lobster shells - not the lobster. Source: The Spruce
See how compost happens in a time-lapse:
The video features a compost pile instead of a tumbler, but the composting action happens no different with a tumbler. The "tumbling" routine replaces all the turning you would normally have to do with a conventional pile.
Top Three Compost Tumblers
The first consideration when thinking of which model to purchase is the amount of compostable material produced by your household. For a household of four with minimal yard waste, the 60 gallon model is a practical option. The 80 gallon model makes a good fit for larger families or households equipped with a medium-sized lawn. The following are consistently highly rated (The Backyard Boss, The Spruce Eats, Epic Gardening, EcoKarma, and Amazon reviews).