By Bill Kohlhaase, Planet Natural
For years, I composted in heaps. Three piles — collected, turned, finished — three years from pitching it in to shoveling it out. And then I took a tumble.
Yes, a tumbling composter has changed my life. No longer do I wait several seasons to have rich, rewarding, garden-ready organic material to spread around my plants, add to my growing containers and enrich my precious, precious soil. No longer do I have to listen to my true love’s complaints — and, believe me (yes, dear), they’re well-informed complaints if just a bit misguided — that my piles are unsightly, surrounded by clouds of insects, odiferous (I call it “green perfume”), and offend the neighbors. Best of all, no longer do I strain my back turning the heaps with a garden fork or transferring compost from one heap to the next. Now, my compost is turned twice a week — or more — without back strain. How? By using a compost tumbler.
What’s a composting tumbler? Simply described, it’s a barrel that can be rotated or turned. Often made from recycled plastics, the barrel is filled with organic yard and kitchen wastes. The composting process, contained within the barrel, is activated with commercial starters, manure, already finished compost, garden soil or nothing at all. The organic materials are broken down, as in the compost heap method, by zillions of microbes and other living organisms fueled by oxygen. To keep the process going at its fastest clip, the tumbler is turned twice or three times a week, mixing the microbes with the organic material while infusing fresh supplies of oxygen. The tumbler keeps the materials contained, as well as the heat the process generates. In a month or so — or even less with diligent practice and the right tumbler! — the lid is pulled from the barrel and voila! Fresh, rich compost that you’ve made yourself.
Let’s Get Ready To Tumble!
Composting practices are thousands of years old and it’s difficult to say when the first tumblers were put to use. In the 1970s when the back-to-the-land movement was really taking off, a few innovative gardeners offered plans for barrels, “compost rollers” and other schemes for containing and turning compost. Commercial tumblers have been available for decades and the choices available have mushroomed over the last several years. Plans for making your own tumbler are also numerous.
The commercial tumblers are mostly of two types: horizontal and vertical. Variations include spherical tumblers made to roll along the ground or contained on stands. Sizes vary from large bins capable of holding bushels of yard waste to smaller barrels designed for back porch use. The simplest designs are basically rotating barrels. Some horizontal tumblers have cranks to facilitate turning. All are vented, more or less, to allow in fresh air to fuel the composting process. More sophisticated models use piping to bring oxygen to the center of the barrel and paddles inside the barrel to help mix and aerate the composting materials when turned. These improvement or modifications — call them what you will — are designed for one reason: to speed the composting process.
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What should you consider when buying a tumbler? First, how much compostable organic material do you produce? Most barrels will take the grass clippings from a moderate sized yard with ease, depending on your mowing habits or how tall you let your lawn get. A yard with several large deciduous trees will probably produce more leaves than any single tumbler can hold, especially when considering the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of green to brown material. If you’re composting mostly kitchen scraps and only small amounts of yard waste, you’ll want one of the smaller barrels or, again, because of the carbon-nitrogen ratio, you’ll choose to use another method altogether.
Our recommendation: start with the largest composter you think you can use. There are always yard trimmings to be collected from neighbors and other sources if you can’t fill it on your own. If you have an abundance of green material to compost, consider two tumblers. This way you can stagger the process, loading one of the barrels while the other is in the throes of composting. Producing more compost is a good thing. Even after you’ve dressed your garden plots, used it to mulch your shrubs and hedges and spread it on your lawn, there’s always a neighbor who will gladly take any extra you’ve produced for her own gardening needs.
Another consideration: while tumblers make turning compost easier than turning it by hand, they still require a bit of strength. If you have severe back, shoulder or strength issues, you may find turning large, full compost tumblers more than you want to handle. Consider the smaller tumblers or those that are rolled along the ground. For the most part, tumblers are easily turned. You’ll find it easier if you give them a back-and-forth swing or two to get them moving before completely turning them over. This is true even with crank-turned models. Also, consider how high your yard waste and other materials need to be lifted to get into the composter. The closer to the ground your tumbler’s lid, the easier it is to load. Unloading is also a consideration. Some tumblers load and unload from the same access. Others top load but empty from the bottom.
Vents or outlets on the ends of a vertical tumbler allow excess liquid to drain from the compost. A pan or small bucket can be used to collect these drippings — compost tea! — which can be a safe, nutrient-rich amendment when applied to the base of plants during watering.
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Commercial tumblers go together easily and require just a screwdriver and pliers to assemble. Most barrels come in two pieces. Make sure that when you screw them together that you do it tightly or else your compost tea will leak out the seam when the tumbler is turned. The stand or legs should also be assembled securely. They’ll be asked to support a lot of weight and occasionally asked to stay together while you drag your tumbler to a slightly different position. Make sure the axle is secure to the legs. You don’t want the barrel separating from its legs when turned. A level base is best for your tumbler but most will tolerate a slight slant or uneven ground.
Using your compost tumbler appears to be easy. Load it to capacity, add inoculant — something to jumpstart the process with the needed microbes such as a spadeful of garden soil, manure, a commercial activator or already finished compost — and turn it every couple days. But for best results, a little care is required.
What you load into your composter is most important. General rules do apply. What not to compost? Twigs or other woody prunings or protein foods such as meat, fat, dairy products or fish as well as bones and pet droppings. Be aware of any pesticide, herbicide or fertilizer that may have been applied to your compostable material. Even though the microbes involved in the composting process tend to neutralize some contaminants, any source of possible contamination should be kept out of your barrel.
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Lack of moisture can also be a problem. If the inside of your barrel is completely dry, as it might be when you’ve filled in completely with fall leaves, then add kitchen scraps or, more directly, a quart or two of water. Give your barrel several good tumbles to distribute the moisture.
Size does matter. The smaller the particles that go in your tumbler, the hotter and faster your process (see Composting Physics). I’ve loaded a tumbler with tall pulled weeds and waited almost a season for finished compost. Worse, the compost didn’t heat up enough to kill the weed seeds. Feeding your compostable material through a shredder or — more economically — running over it a few times with a lawn mower helps speed up the decomposition process.
Turn! Turn! Turn!
At some point, it’s time to stop loading material into your tumbler. This isn’t as easy as it sounds as the amount of material in the barrel decreases in volume as the process proceeds. There’s always room for one more pail of kitchen scraps or another bag of grass clippings. But adding more material sets the process back and you might find unfinished carrot peeling or chopped celery garnishing your compost when it’s otherwise complete. This makes for good reason to have a second tumbler or a nearby heap to hold materials while a load is being finished (yes, dear, I promise not to take my own advice). The stand-by pile goes into the tumbler as soon as it is emptied.
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It’s easy to understand why your tumbler should be positioned in direct sunlight. Sunshine will help heat up what’s in your tumbler. The darker the tumbler, the more it will heat up. We’ve found that a digital, remote meat thermometer (sorry, dear, I promise to replace it in time for Thanksgiving) is a great tool for assessing temperatures inside your tumbler. Any reading short of 130-140˚F means you’re probably not killing weed seeds or getting optimal decomposition (at their most efficient, compost tumblers and bins can generate temperatures as high as 200 degrees). Naturally, you’ll want to position your tumbler strategically so that the finished product is unloaded close to where it will be used.
Following these procedures carefully will yield the promised results of finished compost in a month or so. How will you know when your compost is ready? My guess is that you know good compost when you see it. The original leaves, grass clippings and kitchen scraps have given up their identities to become dark, rich humus with good clumping ability (no too much moisture), texture and particle size. The volume of the material inside the barrel will have been reduced to half (or less!) of its original bulk. No finished compost is perfect and most gardeners will screen their finished product to remove the inevitable small twigs, woody carrot ends or other non-composted material.
Ignoring even one facet of good composting practice may mean it takes eight weeks or longer for your compost to be perfect. It’s said that a well-managed pile will produce compost just as quickly as a tumbler. Such results are obtained by turning the piles as frequently as the tumblers (every couple days) and constantly applying moisture to the piles, something tumblers don’t require. To get the same results from traditional compost piles as from a tumbler requires significantly more work. And isn’t that why we use tumblers, to save time and energy?
One other benefit we’ve found our compost tumbler provides: it’s a great conversation starter. The gardeners among our neighbors come over and want to know how well it works. The most ambitious gardener on our block has a commercial, multi-tiered home composting bin and he’s constantly comparing the results (my tumbler — the EZ Tumbler, see above — works more quickly, I suspect because I show it more attention; and delivers a larger volume of compost on completion, though he claims a constant, but small supply is always waiting at the bottom of his bin). I’ve even made some friends by giving away a pail of compost here and there. What have they given me in return? Zucchini! As if I couldn’t grow enough of my own…
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20 in. Thermometer
Keep your pile cooking with this 20-inch long, stainless steel thermometer.