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Living With Compost Tumblers

A years-long relationship yields some composting lessons.

Spinning ComposterWe’ve always been fans of compost tumblers. We’ve had one, then two around for a few years now. Everybody likes them. They keep the composting process contained and out of sight, an important improvement (as our neighbor sees it). And they corral the sweet smell of soil production, a smell that some — see “neighbor” in previous sentence — don’t find to be the sweet perfume that comes of making organic soil amendment like we do.

Of course the real reason for having a tumbler has to do with efficiency. Done right, a compost tumbler can turn out one, two, or three and more batches of compost yearly depending on where you live and the length of your growing season. Your standard compost heap takes at least a season but usually more like two or three to deliver a screenable, finished product. With some fine tuning, a tumbler can give the backyard gardener a ready supply of compost just at the times you need it.

But first consider the tumbler itself. Make sure it matches your needs. If you’re just interested in recycling kitchen scraps and making some natural goodness for the potted herb, vegetable or decorative plants you’ve got in pots, then choose small and convenient. Have a yard with grass trimmings, fall leaves, and other green waste, as well as a modest garden and border plants? Then get one that holds a lot.

Efficient and easy to use! The composting bins and supplies available at Planet Natural will reward you with piles of rich organic matter to use in your yard, garden or houseplants. Need advice? Visit our Compost Blog for the basics and some insider tips from the pros.

Important things to consider, in addition to how much green waste you have and how much compost you want to make, include making sure that your tumbler will be easy for you to tumble. Some have a base with rollers making rotation easy. Some just roll across the ground, making them not only easy to turn — and good exercise — but easily movable to pick up materials or deliver finished product.

You’ll want to be sure the bin you choose is easy to load or unload. Are you going to be stooping or bending to put heavy, wet leaves or other bulky materials into your tumbler? Make sure access is not a strain. Any of your neighbors have compost tumblers? Talk to them.

Now I’m not one to buy a compost tumbler to please the neighbor. Truth be told I still keep two contained heaps going side by side for all the stuff that doesn’t make it into the tumblers. But I am big on efficiency. It probably goes without saying that the longer I’ve had tumblers, the more I’ve learned about them.

Tumblers are great places to work out carbon-to-nitrogen ratios, so important to quick compost turnover. After a few years, you get to know how much green material — and of what sort — you have in the summer as well as what specific brown material, be it wood ashes or cornstalks, to increase your green or nitrogen level. We, of course, have varying amounts of carbon and nitrogen materials at different times during the growing season.

Ask us another time to tell you about the year we had way too much green material and ended up with a slimy, odoriferous mess.

The other aspect is timing. We want to harvest our first batch of tumbled compost as soon in the spring as possible. What does that mean for loading in the fall? We stuff our tumblers with fall’s first leaves and as much grass clippings as we can rake. We want our tumblers full around the end of September or so, taking advantage of any lingering summer warmth. No longer do we wait until the bare-tree end of fall when we have more leaves than we can handle and little green-nitrogen waste to add for balance.

Another thing we’ve developed over the years is the will to stop adding materials to our tumbler even as the decomposition process is well under way. Putting new materials in all the time — the kids just got in the habit of taking the kitchen slop bucket out to the tumbler and throwing in the night’s vegetable peels and trimmings — means that your compost is never done. At some point you have to shut the door and let the process work.

This is the reason I got a second tumbler. One is in the loading stage and one is in the decomposition stage. They both get turned regularly. I wasn’t wise enough to foresee our need right from the start and buy one of those double tumblers that might have made things easy. Buying a second tumbler gave me the opportunity to try a different design.

Finally, statements that say a tumbler can deliver compost in two or three weeks are more a goal than a guarantee. So much goes into making compost — the kind and state of your green waste, the weather, carbon-nitrogen ratios, how frequently and thoroughly you turn your tumbler — that, as the late-night TV commercials say, results can vary. But then there’s the times that luck and skill come together and you’re unloading your second load of compost from the tumbler and it’s barely July. Take satisfaction that you’ve learned something . . . and have the discipline to see it through.

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