How to Use a Compost Tumbler (The Complete Guide)

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Have you ever considered composting but don’t know where to start? Or maybe you’re concerned about the smell? Or where to put your compost? Then composting with a compost tumbler may be your solution. It’s an inexpensive and environmentally friendly way to reduce waste in the environment and make your own nutrient-rich compost. This article provides everything you need to know about how to choose a compost tumbler, how it works, and what kind of materials work best in the tumbler!

Using a compost tumbler is easy. You can use organic kitchen waste combined with organic garden materials to produce your own nutrient-rich compost in a much shorter time than other traditional methods. Compost tumblers require less labor, provide more convenience and take up less space.

Composting in the traditional way of making a pile of organic matter in your garden is an effective way to produce compost, but this method may not be an option for many people who have space constraints or by-laws that do not allow it. A compost tumbler is an effective alternative method that provides many benefits over other composting methods and may well be the perfect fit for you.

What Is A Compost Tumbler?

what is a compost tumbler clipart

Composting is when organic matter breaks down into rich, dark soil that can be used as a nutrient-rich fertilizer for your plants.

Composting is not a new activity for gardeners, and there are many different styles and types of composting methods. Some of the methods used to create compost require space to have compost in different stages of decomposition.

Some of the traditional methods of creating compost, such as in piles in the garden, can take many months, and in some cases, year for the organic material to break down to the point that it is a nutrient-rich compost suitable for your plants.

Traditional methods of composting are also labor-intensive. Turning the compost pile is a task that no gardener takes pleasure in doing. It is backbreaking work turning over compost piles with a combination of a pitchfork and a spade.

Turning the compost is critical to the composting process and the effective breakdown of all the vegetation and materials in the compost pile. It also helps to regulate the temperature of the organic material while it decomposes. Some composting methods can generate enough heat that the compost pile can begin to smolder.

Compost tumblers are designed to make the composting process easier and more convenient. The compost tumbler simplifies the process and makes it more manageable from a labor point of view.

A compost tumbler is normally a barrel or similar container that is mounted on a frame. A handle is usually is attached to the barrel, which gives the ability to rotate the barrel within the frame, which is necessary to tumble the contents of the composter. It is this tumbling mechanism that gives the compost tumbler its name!

Depending on the style of the compost tumbler, the barrel will have a number of access points where you can open the barrel to deposit new organic material to be composted and to extract compost material that is ready for use in your garden.

Even though a compost tumbler is a self-contained composting system, it needs to offer the composting process everything it needs to break down the organic material. This includes providing airflow to maintain a good aerobic environment for the composting process. Thus, compost tumblers need vents in the container to promote the required airflow during the composting process.

How Does A Compost Tumbler Work?

Composting is the breakdown of organic material into base nutrients that your plants can make use of and convert to food. This process happens naturally as leaf litter, and other dead plant material falls to the ground and begins to decay.

The natural process of converting organic material to compost works, but it works very slowly. People have developed ways of speeding up the process to decay the organic material faster and have the compost concentrated and more effective.

The common methods of having a compost pile in the garden also work effectively, but they have disadvantages that make them unsuitable for certain circumstances and situations. Even though the compost pile method is faster than the natural process, it still can take a long time to produce the compost.

The Compost Tumbler Game Changer

The compost tumbler is probably one of the quickest and most convenient ways of producing compost. The same natural process is used to produce the compost, but the process is simply turbo-charged.

There are 4 main components required to compost organic material: organic material combined with heat, oxygen, and moisture. The compost tumbler provides the perfect environment that optimizes these conditions to speed up the decay process and maximize compost production.

The organic material is supplied by you as you fill up the compost tumbler with the material.

The heat is supplied by the dappled sunlight and by the decomposition process. Because the compost tumbler is an enclosed environment, it retains the heat much more effectively.

The moisture required for the process is first supplied by you to get the process started, but thereafter, much of the moisture is supplied within the container itself during the composting process. You may have to add a little water from time to time to the mixture if it looks too dry, but it is usually not necessary.

The last component required for the process is oxygen. This important ingredient in the process is provided when the compost is aerated during the tumbling process as the compost tumbler is rotated.

The vents in the composter also allow access for oxygen to infiltrate the process as well as to prevent the mixture from becoming too hot and too moist.

The environment that these conditions create within the tumbler is the perfect set of conditions that promote the growth of the bacteria and other microscopic organisms that break down the organic material and convert it to compost.

Because the suitable environment is contained within an enclosed system, the organisms that break down the organic matter always have the right working conditions. This enables them to continue doing what they do at a constant speed and produce compost for you at a faster rate!

How To Use A Compost Tumbler

Using a compost tumbler is a simple process and making your own compost changes from being an unpleasant chore to an easy process that you can include in your stroll around your garden! Seriously, it can take only a few minutes every few days, and you don’t have to do any backbreaking work!

Here are the steps that you need to follow to use your compost tumbler, and I promise you are not going to need a university degree to operate your tumbler!

Add Organic Matter. Fill the compost tumbler with organic matter to the point that you can still easily rotate the drum. Do your best to stick to the best composting ratios to ensure things break down well.

Add A Little Water. If you reside in a dry climate, you may have to add a small amount of water to get the process started, but this is not always a requirement, so you could skip this step. Many people actually pee on their compost as a source of moisture and nitrogen.

Rotate the Compost Tumbler. Daily rotate the compost tumbler 3 to 4 rotations. There is no need to spin the handle to the point that the drum will take off! Gentle turns to aerate the mixture is all that is required. Don’t stress if you miss a day or two in the rotation cycle. It won’t harm the process.

Wait. Wait for three to four weeks while the microbes do their job. You still have to do your part by rotating the drum daily.

Extract Your Beautiful Homemade Compost. Extract the compost from the compost tumbler and distribute it as needed in your garden.

As you can see, the process is not complicated or difficult, and I am sure you will even be able to train your teenager to do it. Well, on second thought, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch!

The most labor-intensive part of the process of using your compost tumbler will be extracting the completed compost and spreading it over your garden!

Rotating the compost tumbler is the only part of the process that you will need to apply some brainpower to and then only because you have to remember to do it.

Even though it is recommended that you rotate the tumbler daily, there is no need to stress if you forget to do it for a day or two or three. However, if you forget completely and neglect to rotate the tumbler for weeks, the decomposition process in the tumbler may transform from an aerobic process to an anaerobic one.

What this means is that the type of bacteria that break down the organic material, usually aerobic bacteria, will be overrun by anaerobic bacteria in the tumbler due to the lack of oxygen. While the resultant compost will still be useable, it will create a great big stinking mess inside the tumbler.

The anaerobic bacteria metabolism produces a much more smelly, gaseous by-product, which can make your compost tumbler an item you want to stay upwind of in your garden.

What Can You Compost In A Compost Tumbler?

There are many organic items from the garden and from your kitchen that you can use as the base organic matter in your compost tumbler.

There are many organic items that you can use in your compost tumbler, but in order to get the process off to a good start and allow the mixture to generate the right temperature for composting, you need to have a mix of brown and green compost material.

Whenever you hear people talking about composting, you will invariably hear the mention of brown and green compost material that needs to be added to the compost mix. What is meant by green and brown compost material?

There is much controversy around the composition of green and brown ingredients and the ratios to use in the mix. Also, browns and greens are not the only components that you can add to make great compost.

Essentially, the common consensus is that green compost material is fresh organic material or organic material that introduces moisture and nitrogen, and protein to the compost mix. The brown compost material is dead and dried-up plant material that adds carbon and carbohydrates to the compost mix.

You will see many different ratios of the green to brown ingredients bandied about on various forums, but essentially there is no hard and fast rule as to the ratio. This is because your environmental conditions will also play an important role in the rate of decomposition of the material.

I try to aim for a 50-50 mix of green and brown material because this is what works for me. You may find that a different ratio works for you, depending on your localized conditions. Whichever ratio you decide to use, it is not necessary to get these measurements exact. Simply eye-balling the ratio and making a guestimate will be sufficient! You are not making rocket fuel!

Let’s cover some examples of each type that you can obtain directly from your own garden or household. This will give you the idea and get you started on differentiating between the two material types.

Brown Ingredients For Your Compost Tumbler

The following are considered “brown” composting ingredients that you can add to your compost tumbler to introduce the carbon content to the process.

  • Pine needles. Pine needles that have fallen off the tree and have dried up.
  • Fallen leaves. Leaves that fall from the trees in the Fall or Autumn are ideal candidates for the brown component. You should, however, avoid black walnut leaves. They are toxic and should be avoided.
  • Dry twigs and branches. Small dry twigs that you can easily snap into smaller pieces or put through a chipper.
  • Sawdust. If you do any carpentry at home, sawdust is a good source of brown material. You just need to make sure that the wood has not been treated with any chemicals or contaminated by any oils from your garage floor or cutting tools such as your chainsaw.
  • Straw and hay. Any straw or hay that you have used for mulch can be placed in the compost tumbler.
  • Corn cobs. After you have eaten corn on the cob, save the cobs for the composter.
  • Cotton fabrics. Cotton is a natural material and will break down in the compost tumbler but will take longer than other unprocessed organic materials. Synthetic fabrics cannot be used.
  • Paper. Any scrap paper that does not have a glossy or waxy finish on it can be used in the composter. To speed the composting process up, shred the paper before you put it in the composter.
  • Cardboard. Shredded corrugated cardboard from cardboard boxes, egg boxes, and any cardboard that does not have a waxy or glossy coating can be used in the composter. Just make sure that any glossy labels have been removed from the cardboard.

Of course, these are not the only sources for dry ingredients, and I am sure you can come up with a few of your own. The main idea is to only use ingredients that can most often be found in the natural world and have not been manufactured by man.

Green Ingredients For Your Compost Tumbler

To prompt your thinking to find sources for the “green” component to your compost tumbler, we have put together a few ideas to get you started.

  • Fruit and Vegetable scraps. Whenever you process fruit and vegetables in your kitchen when preparing meals, there are always off-cuts from these ingredients that you are not going to use in the dish. These are perfect for your compost tumbler even if they’re moldy. Save them in a dish and keep them in the fridge until you have enough for the composter.
  • Coffee grounds. Coffee grounds are a great ingredient for the composter.
  • Teabags. If you are a tea drinker, save your used teabags, bags, tea leaves, and all. There is no need to discard the bags.
  • Weeds. Weeds that you have pulled from your garden that have not yet gone to seed are a great way to turn these plants into nutrients for your other plants.
  • Grass cuttings. After you have mowed the lawn, save the grass cuttings for your composter.
  • Prunings. When you prune plants in your garden, keep the prunings and compost them. The only caveat with this one is to not add prunings from plants that are diseased as this could spread the disease via the compost.
  • Eggshells. Eggshells that are crushed are great for adding additional minerals to the compost.
  • Stale bread. Once your last few slices of bread have become too stale to eat, don’t through them away; save them for the composter.

Other Ingredients For Your Compost Tumbler

There are some other ingredients that you can toss in your compost tumbler that don’t really fall into either of these categories, but that certainly helps to enhance the quality of your compost.

Wood ash. Ash from your fireplace fire or your barbeque is a great addition to your compost for adding additional minerals. Just make sure the ash is from natural wood only and not from coal ash or briquettes since these tend to be quite acidic. As from natural hardwood, charcoal is also fine to add. You only need to add a handful or two to a single batch of your compost.

Farm animal manure. The manure from horses, cows, and sheep is great for the compost tumbler. They add microbes and bacteria that help to speed up the process. Do hot use any pet or human manure for your tumbler. These are not suitable for a fast composting method, such as in the process of a compost tumbler.

Adding some of these materials to your compost tumbler will help to enrich the final product. However, these ingredients should be added in smaller amounts in order to not adversely affect the composting process.

Benefits Of Using A Compost Tumbler

There are many benefits to using a compost tumbler over other composting methods. Here are some of them, just in case you are not yet convinced that this method has value for you.

  • Space saver. A compost tumbler makes compost making accessible to anyone, even if you don’t have a big garden. My composting bin, for example, has a much larger footprint in our garden.
  • Labor saver. A compost tumbler certainly saves on the labor of turning compost piles and moving them from bin to bin.
  • Less attraction for pests. A compost tumbler reduced the chance of attracting garden bugs and pests such as flies, rats, and mice to your garden.
  • Reduced odor. There is little to no unpleasant odor that comes from a compost tumbler. This allows it to be located close to your house.
  • Convenience. Because the tumbler can be located close to your home, you are more likely to use it and to remember to turn it.

Common Mistakes People Make Using A Compost Tumbler

If you are new to using a compost tumbler, there are a few practices that you should avoid when using this method to make compost. Avoid these mistakes, and your compost manufacturing process should go off without a hitch!

Don’t add waste as you go. Do not add fresh material to a compost batch that is already underway. This will delay the process, and when your compost is ready, there will still be chunks of un-decomposed material in the compost, which could rot and bring pests and disease to your plants. If you have additional waste, rather save it in the fridge for your next batch, or use a double-bin compost tumbler which allows for two batches at a time.

Using large chunks of organic matter. The main focus on a compost tumbler is convenience and producing compost at a faster rate. Chopping up your organic matter into smaller pieces is effort well spent to hasten the composting material. The smaller pieces will compost down much faster than large chunks.

Failure to monitor moisture levels. If your compost dries out too much in the composter, the decomposition process will slow down and eventually stop. If the material in the composter becomes too wet, the process will become anaerobic and become smelly. You can still use the compost, but it will take longer, and it will definitely be smellier.

Forgetting to rotate the composter. Rotating the composter adds much-needed aeration for the material to add the oxygen component. Failure to turn the compost will slow the process down and could cause it to cease altogether. It could also turn the process anaerobic, the results of which we have already discussed.

Don’t add meat, bones, or any fats. This includes chicken bones, fish, and other animal products. While these can be composted in other composting processes such as bokashi, they do not break down fast enough to be suitable as an ingredient in a compost tumbler.

Things You Should Know Before Buying A Compost Tumbler

There are many different types, models, designs, and sizes of compost tumblers, and there are a few considerations you should bear in mind before you go out and buy a compost tumbler.

  • Size. Compost tumblers come in many different sizes, from small kitchen countertop versions to large garden-size composters. No matter how large of a compost tumbler you need you’ll be able to find a suitable option online or at a local store.
  • How much waste material you have. You need to get the right size composter for the amount of waste that your household and garden produce to be able to keep the composter productive. If the composter is too small, it will fill up quickly, and you will have to store additional waste in the fridge for the next batch. If the composter is too big, it may take you too long to fill the composter with sufficient waste to get the composting process started.
  • Durability. Because the compost tumbler needs to be turned and requires a turning mechanism, you should make sure that the mechanism is robust and will last a long time. Because the tumbler is outside, exposed to the elements, it needs to withstand the outdoor conditions in your locality. If your local conditions are harsh, you may need to look at a metal compost tumbler as opposed to a plastic one
  • Shop around. Speak to other gardeners and check out some honest reviews on the compost tumbler that you are interested in before you buy. You may find features that you don’t like on the unit or discover aspects that will make it unsuitable for your application. Shopping around will also help you to find a composter at a good price.

The Best Compost Tumbler for Most People

If you’ve been around for long, you’ll know that I love compost bins. However, that’s not to say that compost tumblers don’t have their place (and I have several). If you are just getting started, I would suggest getting a dual-chamber tumbler that is cheap, versatile, and durable. In this case, our review of our favorite small compost tumbler.

FCMP Outdoor IM4000 Dual Chamber Tumbling Composter Canadian-Made, 100% Recycled Resin - Outdoor Rotating Compost Tumbler Bin for Garden, Kitchen, and Yard Waste, Black (37 Gallon)
  • Made in Canada from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic - The original 8-sided dual chamber tumbling composter.
  • TUMBLING COMPOSTER – Avoid digging and mixing your compost pile by hand. The tumbling design makes mixing easy and efficient. Just close the door and turn it 5-6 times every 2-3 days. In hot sunny conditions and with a proper balance of ingredients the compost can finish in as little as 2 weeks.
  • EASY TO USE – Fantastic for beginners! The large openings and removable door make it easy to add scraps/clippings and remove finished compost. Deep fins on the body provide great ergonomic handholds.
  • TWO COMPOSTER CHAMBERS ARE BETTER THAN ONE – Two separate sides allow the first side to finish while leaving the second side available to add fresh scraps/clippings. Continuously swapping sides after finishing will create an uninterrupted flow of rich, healthy compost.
  • EXCELLENT AERATION – All our composter models feature aeration holes as well as deep fins to break up clumps inside the chamber and mix lots of oxygen into the compost. Tumbling composters allow far greater aeration than standard models.

Building Your Own Compost Tumbler

homemade compost tumbler

If you are handy, building your own compost tumbler is an option. Many people have had success making a tumbler out of a barrel or simply piecing one together out of wood.

I wouldn’t go to the effort unless there was something very specific that I wanted. For example, you can make as large of a compost tumbler as you want, one with large doors, etc.

If you are looking to save money, building your own tumbler is probably not a great option. Buying used via Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace will give you the best bet to save money.


I think that compost tumblers are a great addition to any household. Even if you have compost piles that you are using to create compost in more traditional methods, the tumbler system will allow you to make compost faster.

The compact design and convenience of these units will allow anyone to make compost, even if you have limited space.

There is no longer any need to par premium process for compost at your local garden center if you can make your own nutrient-rich “black gold” by utilizing the waste products that your own household generates!

If you are a gardener or grow your own vegetables, or even just love decorative plants in your garden, then a compost tumbler is a must-have item for your household!

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