A Compost Tumbler can change the game for you, making it easier to turn your compost to aerate it and keep things tidy while making sure the pests and rodents stay away!
For years, I composted in heaps. Three piles — collected, turned, finished — three years from pitching it into 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.
This guide shares not only what a compost tumbler is and its benefits but also our top 3 picks for 2023 along with what you need to consider before buying one. Read till the end to learn some tips to have the best experience while using a tumbling compost bin!
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What is a Compost Tumbler?
Simply described, a compost tumbler is a barrel that can be rotated or turned. Often made from recycled plastics, the barrel is filled with organic yard and kitchen waste.
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.
When Were Compost Tumblers First Used?
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. .
Why Use a Tumbling Compost Bin?
Compost tumblers have several advantages over stationary compost piles. They are neat and hide the mess, making things look better.
Furthermore, they are quick and simple to turn. Instead of the half-hour, it takes to turn a compost pile with a garden fork, users only need to spin the tumbler for a minute or two.
For effective winter composting, home gardeners can move them into a garden shed or garage. Otherwise, a compost pile that stays in one place goes dormant and just stops working when it gets cold.
That’s why you should consider a compost tumbler because it makes backyard composting feel like a breeze!
Types of Compost Tumblers
Composting tumblers come in mostly 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 improvements or modifications — call them what you will — are designed for one reason: to speed the composting process.
How Do Compost Tumblers Work?
The way compost tumblers work is simple. You load them with green and brown waste from your yard and kitchen. When full, you give them time to work, in other words, heat up.
Turning a compost pile — mixing the organic materials and the organisms it contains with heat-producing oxygen — is the traditional method of keeping the process going full steam.
A tumbler does this more simply than the old strong-back-and-garden-fork method. By turning the tumbler, the organic materials are mixed and infused with fresh oxygen.
When a check reveals the compost is complete — and this can happen in a matter of weeks — the same access that allowed you to fill the tumbler lets you empty it. Now’s the time to spread the results.
What To Consider When Buying a Compost 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.
Other Size-Related Factors
Here’s another thing you should consider: 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 it hard to spin large compost drums when they’re full. 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.
Dual or Single Chambler
It’s also important to check how many chambers your compost tumbler comes in. It can be really helpful to have two or more chambers so you can add new food waste to one without adding to a pile that’s further along on its way to becoming compost. So do consider how many chambers your compost bin has before making a purchase.
Venting is very important. The more air your compost is exposed to the faster the process. Too little air turns your aerobic process into an anaerobic process, which leaves behind a messy, often smelly (but still useful) product.
Choose compost tumblers that are well-vented. Some composters modify their tumblers to allow for more airflow.
Before poking additional holes in the barrel, do a test load with your tumbler. If your compost doesn’t heat up to at least 130˚F or if the process takes significantly more time than indicated in your tumbler’s directions, then more venting may be required.
Remember that other factors also contribute to the time it takes to make compost, especially the size of the materials composted, their green-brown or nitrogen-carbon ratio, and moisture content. Extra holes may speed up the composting process.
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.
A compost tumbler that is enclosed also helps keep pests such as rodents and insects away. The rodents and other small animals can’t get in because the lids on these units thread, latch, or slide into tracks.
Rodents have a hard time chewing through strong, heavy-duty plastic, and steel makes the bin almost impossible to get into. So look into the material used for each tumbler before making a purchase.
When the compost bin emits a foul smell, it is either poorly aerated or the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of the compost’s ingredients is out of balance.
Compost tumblers are made to take care of the first problem quickly and easily. The bin can be rotated once or twice a week to introduce oxygen to the mixture and encourage the development of beneficial aerobic-composting microbes.
Look for a tumbling compost bin with good aeration to keep foul odors at bay and make things easier for you! If you feel that the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is causing odor, then read out composting guide to learn how to balance it.
Ease of Use
Some compost tumbler features are appealing to almost everyone. A larger opening facilitates loading and unloading, and unlike latches and threaded lids, sliding covers are seldom obstructed by debris.
Rotating the bin is made easier by exterior handgrips or a hand crank. These little features can make all the difference, so look for the small features that can make it much easier for you to compost at home.
Best Compost Tumblers in 2023
The FCMP composter is a great choice that offers two chambers for continuous composting. All you need to do is add fresh vegetable scraps to one end while the semi-broken down organic matter is in the other one.
It includes an eight-sided design that allows the content to roll and tumble more effectively, as opposed to sliding around and not aerating properly. This composter also comes with interior deep fins and aeration holes to make sure your compost is properly aerated.
The total capacity is 37 gallons and is a great size for beginners with an average backyard. The wide opening makes it really easy to load any kitchen scraps and to take finished compost out of it.
It’s made using BPA-free, recycled polypropylene with a galvanized tubular steel frame! So you can rest assured that it’s a durable compost bin that’ll definitely last.
This dual-chamber compost tumbler from Miracle-Gro is a great one to process two separate batches of compost at a time to give you a steady supply of this black gold for your backyard!
Each chamber has a capacity of 18.5 gallons, with a combined total of 37 gallons. It’s made of UV-protected plastic chambers that are built to withstand exposure to the elements.
This compost bin also comes with a powder-coated steel frame with rotation locks which makes it super easy to rotate the bin.
This VIVOSUN composter has the best aeration out of all three, thanks to its adjustable air vents! It’s also a dual-chamber design that’ll make it easy to make two batches going at a time!
It has a hand-free rotating design that helps make tumbling super easy and effortless. With a total capacity of 43 gallons, it’s the largest of the lot and is perfect for a family of 4.
The bin is made of galvanized steel and high-quality PP plastic that’s corrosion-resistant, sturdy, and definitely durable! Plus, you get one year of after-sales service to make sure you don’t face any trouble after you’ve bought it.
Top Compost Tumbler Tips
Assembling Your Tumbler
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 Tumbler
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 of days. But for best results, a little care is required.
Loading Your Tumbler
What you load into your composter is most important. General rules do apply, and you should go through our complete guide on composting for further details.
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.
You can obsess about the specific carbon-nitrogen ratio inside your composter — good finished compost has a C-N ratio of 10-1 — or you can go for a good brown-green ratio and let nature take its course.
Most compost tumblers recommend that you load your barrel with roughly 75 percent grass clippings or green equivalent and 25 percent other ingredients such as kitchen scraps. This varies from the traditional brown-green mix in open piles or heaps.
Why? Because the mostly closed tumbler system affords less chance for evaporation. Too much moisture in a tumbler’s barrel — and kitchen scraps such as vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, and tea bags contain a lot of moisture — yields a runny, muddy almost putrid product.
Troubleshooting Your Tumbler
If your product is too wet, try adding dry leaves or newspaper scraps. In worst case scenarios, empty the bin and start over. Rule of thumb: finished compost should have the moisture content of a well-squeezed sponge.
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.
When To Turn Your Compost Tumbler
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 a 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.
How to Properly Turn a Tumbling Compost
How you turn your compost also has an effect. Don’t just rotate it once and consider the job done. Swing it back and forth a number of times after each spin to shake up the materials then spin it again.
The axle on which the barrel rotates goes through the center of your tumbler and help breaks up the compostable material as it’s turned. Paddles and piping in some tumblers have the same effect.
Compost tends to become compacted as it forms. Several good turns will assure that your compost has been well broken up and mixed with air. This should be done a minimum of twice a week and three or four times a week isn’t too much.
Spinning daily or more than once a day (your kids will be tempted since spinning a compost tumbler can be loads of fun) doesn’t give the compost a chance to attain maximum temperatures.
While it doesn’t take long for heat to build inside a properly filled tumbler, too much tumbling dissipates heat and defeats the purpose.
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 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.
When Will My Compost Be Ready?
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 (not 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 of 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?
Eric Vinje founded Planet Natural with his father Wayne in 1991, originally running it as a grasshopper bait mail-order business out of a garage.
Eric is now retired, but is still a renowned gardener known for his expertise in composting, organic gardening and pest control, utilizing pesticide-free options, such as beneficial insects.
Eric believes when you do something good for the environment, the effects will benefit generations to come.
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