Compost tumblers are quite effective at rapidly producing high-quality compost in a home garden environment, and are becoming more and more popular among today’s gardeners and sustainability advocates. They have many advantages over traditional ground-based compost bins or pits (see our article on Compost Tumblers vs Bins for more information). In order to understand the advantages and disadvantages of tumbling compost bins, it is crucial to have a good knowledge of how to use a tumbling composter to create outstanding organic compost.
Of course, each tumbling composter will have specific instructions, but the purpose of this guide is to inform users as to how to use compost tumblers, what to put in them and what to keep out, and some information on compost basics for beginners.
If you’re interested in purchasing a compost tumbler, be sure to check out our guide to the best compost tumblers for more information.
Compost Tumblers can make the production of high-quality compost an easy and fun activity. Tumbling composters tend to produce compost more rapidly than standard ground-based compost bins do, are cleaner and easier to use, less prone to bug and rodent infestation, and tend to have reduced odors compared to ground-based setups. Plus, there’s no need to deal with worms.
Naturally, these units are usually more expensive than ground-based models, and typically require not insignificant assembly time, which is always a bit of a hassle.
However, mixing compost with a compost tumbler is much easier on the back and arms than with a pitchfork!
Simply rotate the tumbler around a few times every couple of days to churn the humus, and it will rapidly turn into compost. Some rotating compost bins have arms on them that enable users to easily turn the bin, while others are rotated with hand grips on the barrel, in the manner of the Price is Right Showcase Showdown (such as the Lifetime 60058 Compost Tumbler [Amazon Link], shown here).
Compost tumblers come in two major categories, single batch, and dual batch. Our personal preference is for dual batch composters in general. See our article on the best compost tumblers for more information and product recommendations.
Single Batch Compost Tumblers
Single Batch compost tumblers have a single chamber for compost storage and processing. An example of this sort of tumbler is the Envirocycle Compost Tumbler shown here. These units are made up of one large barrel. After users have shredded their garden waste and prepped their food waste, they put their mix of nitrogen and carbon-rich materials in the composter.
Next, add some water, and potentially some starter.
The chamber is then closed, and rotated a few times every few days, for a time period from a couple of weeks to several weeks, until the humus is fully processed, and the compost is ready to use. These units are relatively simple, and can only handle one batch of compost at a time.
Adding More Material
Once a batch has been started in a single batch composter, users cannot add new material without re-starting the timer. If you add fresh kitchen scraps to a half-done humus, and then run it to completion, that batch of kitchen scraps will only be half done, but it will be fully mixed in with the rest of the compost. Meaning the whole compost is still only half done!
The bottom line is that as users generate new materials for compost, that material has to be stored somewhere in order to wait for the compost in the tumbler to complete. This is the major negative aspect to single batch tumbler: that they need additional storage space for newly generated materials, which makes them a bit inconvenient.
Users could buy a second tumbler or a use a ground-based storage area, but that somewhat defeats the whole purpose of the compost tumbler. Alternately, gardeners could choose a dual chamber compost tumbler.
Dual-Batch Compost Tumblers
Dual-Batch Compost Tumblers (such as the Jora JK270 shown here) are a more complicated design than a single batch tumbler, generally consisting of a single barrel divided into two separate, smaller chambers with separate lids. These chambers have airflow between them but are otherwise separated by a physical barrier. Each chamber can hold a batch of humus, but the cycle time is staggered.
This means that while one chamber filled with humus is cooking, the newly-created kitchen and yard scraps can be added to the other side for storage.
Each individual chamber in a dual batch composter is generally smaller than the what is found on a single batch composter, but the staggered schedule means that users generally won’t get overwhelmed with new compost and have to have a secondary storage area, and the two staggered chambers will regularly produce (smaller) batches of fresh compost to use in a very efficient manner. The end result is that the same quantity of compost is produced over the course of a season, but it’s produced in multiple smaller batches.
For a detailed examination of several dual-chamber compost bins, see our article on dual batch composters here.
How To Use A Compost Tumbler
Begin collecting your kitchen scraps, yard waste, garden clippings, paper waste, etc.
- Break large materials down into pieces small enough to fit into the compost tumbler’s chamber(s).
- Place your tumbling compost bin in an area where it will get above 60′ in temperature, but stay below 200′. In most parts of the world, this means you should put your bin in a sunny area.
- Once you have a significant quantity of materials, place these materials into the chamber of the compost tumbler, generally in the ratio of 25% Nitrogen materials to 75% Carbon materials. See your individual tumbler for guidelines.
- Add some water if necessary, such that the humus is moist, but not wet.
- Add a shovel full of your last batch of compost, or some Compost Starter [Amazon Link] to get things cooking nicely.
- Every day or so, rotate the compost tumbler a few times. You want the compost to mix and churn inside the bin.
- Check on the humus every few days to ensure moisture levels are in the range, and that the process is progressing.
- After the compost is done cooking, place a wheelbarrow or bucket under the tumbler, and open the door to empty the finished compost into the receptacle for use in the garden.
Compost Basics for Beginners
Two main categories make up what goes into compost, and those are Nitrogen (generally “green” items) and Carbon (generally “brown” items. Nitrogen sources are typically yard and grass clippings and kitchen scraps, while carbon sources are fallen leaves, shredded newspapers and non-glossy mail, nutshells, etc.
Depending on the composter you choose, there may be a different recommended ratio of nitrogen-rich items to carbon-rich items. However, for a rough guide to starting out, users generally want to target about 75% of their compost humus to be Nitrogen-rich materials, and 25% of their humus to be carbon-rich material. That said, some recommendations, such as the EPA’s compost website, put that ratio closer to 50% Nitrogen to 50% Carbon, and others may say up to 90% Nitrogen and only 10% carbon!
Check your individual instructions for your tumbling composter, and do a little experimenting, and you will find the optimal ratio for your needs.
There are a large number of items you can put in the compost bin, a few items you should really keep out of the bin, and several items that are optional.
In the next section, we look closely at the items that should be placed into a tumbling compost bin (or any compost bin), those items that should not be placed in a composter, and the array of items that may be more trouble than they are worth.
Things to Put in a Compost Bin
There are several items that are safe to put into a compost bin. These items are primarily organic yard waste (straw, hay, grass, leaves, plant clippings, wood chips, etc.) and kitchen scraps (fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds) and household paper items (shredded newspaper, non-glossy mail, etc.)
In the infographic shown here, we break down all of the major components of compost that are safe to compost, and those that are not typically composted.
Things to Not Put in a Compost Bin
There are some important guidelines for objects to keep out of a tumbling compost bin, some items for safety reasons, and others for practical reasons such as odor or quality control. The major items to keep out of a compost tumbler are:
Meat or Fish, Bone or Scraps
These products create foul odors upon decomposition and are likely to attract flies and other pests. They also don’t break down well in typical compost bins or tumblers. That said, if you want to compost meats, you could try Bokashi composting.
Fats, Grease, Lard, Oils
Like meat and fish scraps, fats, in general, are not ideal for composting. They don’t break down well in a humus and tend to produce odors and attract flies and insects. If you want to compost these byproducts, you could use Bokashi style composting bins.
Dairy Products (cheese, milk, yogurt), and Eggs
These tend to rot in compost bins, producing foul odors, and attracting rodents and insects. You can use Bokashi Bran and Bokashi composting techniques to compost these items, should you desire to take that step.
Pet waste (including soiled cat litter) may seem like tempting fertilizer, but it could contain pathogens, bacteria, viruses, etc. that are harmful to humans. It’s best to keep this out of your compost bin altogether.
Diseased, or Insect-Plagued Plants
If you have some dying plants in your house or garden and are tempted to throw them in the compost, it may be unwise. The pathogens that have infested the plants could theoretically survive the composting process and remain active in the finished compost material. The pathogen could then damage any plants near where you use the infected compost.
Chemical-treated Yard Waste
Lawn and garden chemicals designed to kill pathogens could still be active when placed in the compost tumbler or bin. These chemicals may, in turn, kill the beneficial microbes that make composting work.
Coal or Coal Ash
Could contain byproducts harmful to plants that could survive the composting process.
Black Walnut Tree Leaves or Twigs
According to the EPA, this tree may produce toxins that could be harmful to plants.
W hat about Marginal Items? Can you Compost Bread?
There are several marginal categories of compost that some people compost, while others prefer to avoid. Marginal compost materials are generally made up of carbohydrates and paper products. The following are some questionable items that can be composted but have issues that make them less attractive to compost than other materials.
- Sweet scraps (cakes, pies, etc.)
- Sugary items
- Shredded newspapers
- Non-glossy mail
Baked goods and carbohydrates such as pasta and bread tend to attract pests, and consequently, many garden enthusiasts prefer to avoid composting these products.
However, when using a compost tumbler, pests are less of an issue than they are in ground-based compost bins. It’s pretty hard for any pest to get into a locked compost tumbler, and even the air holes are typically covered in mesh screens that prevent most insects from getting in.
As for newspapers and non-glossy mail, this needs to be shredded before being placed in the compost bin, and shredding large amounts of paper can be quite a chore! Many find it much easier to place these items into a recycle bin and move on.
Users can compost these items, but you’re under no obligation to, as you may find them to be more trouble than they are worth.
Using a barrel composter is not difficult, and is both physically easier than a ground-based compost bin and logistically easier, as well. Pests and odors are less of a problem, and turning the barrel is a lot easier than using a pitchfork — especially during the winter time! Also, the ability to get a wheelbarrow under the bin before dumping the completed compost out makes life easier for many gardeners. Overall, these designs are generally quite good, and many gardeners find them to be extremely useful tools for rapidly generating quality compost. Assembly of a tumbling composter is generally more involved than what is found in typical ground-based compost bins, but the overall experience of a tumbler is much higher.
For reviews and product recommendations, be sure to check out our article on the best tumbling composters around.