How to Compost Using a Tumbler

  • By: Sam Richards
  • Date: August 2, 2023
  • Time to read: 12 min.

Composting is not only a sustainable and environmentally friendly solution to waste management, but it also provides a myriad of benefits for home gardeners and professional horticulturists alike. By transforming organic waste into nutrient-dense compost, we can enrich our garden soil, promote plant growth, and reduce our carbon footprint. One of the most convenient and effective ways to achieve this is through the use of a compost tumbler.

Compost tumblers are unique composting tools designed to simplify and speed up the composting process. Unlike traditional compost bins or heaps, tumblers make it easy to turn and aerate the compost, essential steps that can often be labor-intensive. With a compost tumbler, the process is as simple as loading in your organic waste and giving it a turn every few days.

In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the world of compost tumblers. We’ll explore the benefits and how they compare to compost bins, guide you in choosing the right tumbler for your needs, and provide step-by-step instructions on setting up and maintaining your compost tumbler. We’ll also offer solutions to common composting challenges and share tips and best practices to ensure you get the most out of your composting efforts. Whether you’re new to composting or looking to optimize your current practices, this guide aims to provide practical and valuable insights. Let’s embark on this composting journey together!

Compost Tumbler vs. Compost Bin

Compost tumblers and compost bins both serve the purpose of transforming waste into compost, but they have some distinct differences. A compost bin is a stationary container where composting materials are piled and manually turned with a pitchfork or shovel.

On the other hand, a compost tumbler is a barrel-like container that can be easily rotated to mix the composting materials. This rotating mechanism makes turning compost effortless and accelerates the composting process. Tumblers also have a sealed design that helps in controlling odors and keeping pests away.

Choosing the Right Compost Tumbler

When venturing into the world of compost tumblers, the array of options might seem overwhelming. However, keeping a few key considerations in mind can help guide your selection process.

The size of your compost tumbler is paramount. The appropriate size directly correlates with the amount of compostable waste you typically produce and the space you have available for composting. For a small household with limited outdoor space, a compact tumbler with a capacity of about 30-50 gallons might be sufficient. For larger households or those with substantial garden waste, larger models of 60-80 gallons or more might be more appropriate.

The material your compost tumbler is made from is another crucial consideration. Most tumblers are constructed from either plastic or metal. Look for a tumbler made from robust, UV-protected plastic or coated metal to ensure it can withstand outdoor weather conditions year-round without cracking or rusting.

The design and features of the compost tumbler can greatly impact its ease of use and the quality of the compost produced. Look for a model that has a secure, easy-to-use lid to make adding compost materials and extracting finished compost a breeze. Some models offer dual chambers, allowing you to have two batches of compost at different stages of decomposition. This design can provide a continuous supply of compost.

Other useful features to consider include a locking mechanism to prevent accidental spills during rotation and aeration holes or vents to ensure your compost pile receives adequate oxygen, which is crucial for decomposition.

Lastly, read reviews and do your research. It can be highly beneficial to learn from the experiences of others. See what users have to say about the durability, ease of use, and effectiveness of the tumblers you’re considering.

By contemplating these factors, you can select a compost tumbler that aligns with your composting needs and ensures a pleasant and productive composting experience.

Setting Up Your Compost Tumbler

Once you’ve chosen your ideal compost tumbler, setting it up correctly is the next critical step. A properly set-up tumbler can significantly affect the speed and efficiency of your composting process.

Start by choosing an appropriate location for your Tumbler. Ideally, it should be placed in a location that’s easily accessible and close to your source of compost materials – usually the kitchen for green waste and the garden for brown waste. This way, you’ll save time and effort when adding materials.

Next, think about sun exposure. While your compost tumbler can be placed in either sun or shade, remember that a sunny spot can help maintain the warmth that speeds up the composting process. However, if you live in an area with very hot summers, a shaded location might be better to prevent the compost from drying out too quickly.

Now it’s time to start filling your compost tumbler. Begin with a layer of brown materials, such as dry leaves, twigs, or shredded newspaper, at the bottom of the tumbler. This layer helps create air pockets and assists in drainage.

Next, add a layer of green materials – these are typically kitchen scraps like vegetable and fruit peels, coffee grounds, and tea bags. Continue alternating layers of brown and green materials. Remember to keep the ratio at roughly 1:2 (green:brown) to maintain the right balance of nitrogen (from green materials) and carbon (from brown materials). This ratio is essential for an efficient composting process.

Once you’ve added your initial layers, add a bit of water to the mixture if the materials are dry. The aim is to make your compost pile as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Now, close the lid, and give your tumbler a few good spins to mix the materials. You’ve now successfully set up your compost tumbler!

Remember, composting is a biological process that relies on microbes to break down the waste. To give your compost a kickstart, you might want to add a compost starter or a scoop of garden soil rich in microbes into your tumbler.

As you go forward, continue adding new materials in the green:brown ratio, and always remember to give the tumbler a spin every few days to aerate your compost pile.

Maintaining Your Compost Tumbler

To ensure a successful and efficient composting process, routine maintenance of your compost tumbler is crucial. Good maintenance practices can keep the composting process on track and help avoid common problems such as foul odors or slow decomposition.

One of the primary maintenance tasks is adding new materials to your compost tumbler regularly. Continue to contribute kitchen scraps and yard waste, maintaining the ratio of green (nitrogen-rich) to brown (carbon-rich) materials roughly 1:2. This balance is vital to provide the microbes in your compost with the right diet, aiding the composting process.

Turning or rotating your compost tumbler is another critical part of maintenance. When you turn your tumbler, you’re introducing fresh oxygen into the composting materials, which is essential for the aerobic bacteria responsible for decomposition. Aim to rotate your tumbler every 2-3 days or whenever you add new materials. With consistent turning, your compost should be well-aerated and not overly compacted.

Monitoring the moisture level inside the tumbler is also important. The composting materials should be as damp as a wrung-out sponge. If it appears too dry, it can slow down the composting process; you may need to add water. Conversely, if it’s too wet, which can lead to unpleasant odors and poor compost quality, add more brown materials to soak up the excess moisture.

Another good practice is to check the temperature of your compost. A compost thermometer can be a helpful tool for this. The composting process generates heat, and a warm compost pile is an indication that the bacteria are working hard to break down the materials. However, if your compost gets too hot (over 160°F), it could kill off beneficial bacteria. In such a case, increase aeration by giving the tumbler an extra spin or two.

Regularly inspect your tumbler and compost for any potential issues. Look out for any signs of pests, foul smells, or an overly slow composting process. By keeping a close eye on your compost tumbler, you can catch problems early and make necessary adjustments, ensuring your composting process remains efficient and effective.

Troubleshooting Common Composting Problems

Even with the best practices, you may encounter some issues while composting. Don’t fret – these problems are common and usually easy to resolve. Here are some common composting problems and their solutions:

  1. Slow Composting: If you notice that your compost isn’t breaking down as quickly as expected, several factors might be at play. You might have an imbalance in your green and brown materials. A lack of green materials could slow down the composting process, as these provide the nitrogen necessary for decomposition. Add more green materials if this is the case. On the other hand, your compost might also be too dry or not adequately aerated. If it’s dry, add some water. If the compost is compacted or not turned frequently, make sure to rotate your tumbler more often to improve aeration.
  2. Bad Odors: A properly maintained compost pile should have a fresh, earthy smell. If it starts to emit a foul odor, it could be a sign of an imbalance or inadequate aeration. If the smell is rotten or sulphuric, it’s often a sign of too many green materials, leading to an excess of nitrogen. Balance this by adding more brown materials. On the other hand, a strong ammonia smell could suggest that your compost is too wet. In this case, add brown materials to absorb excess moisture and improve the balance. In both scenarios, ensure you’re turning your tumbler regularly to improve aeration and distribute the materials evenly.
  3. Pests: If you notice pests like rodents or flies around your compost tumbler, it’s often because of composting inappropriate materials. Avoid adding meats, dairy products, or any cooked food leftovers, as these attract pests. Make sure your tumbler is sealed properly, and there are no cracks for pests to enter.
  4. Incomplete Composting: If you find that your compost has large, unbroken chunks of material, it’s usually because the items are too large or difficult to decompose. For instance, large branches, corn cobs, or whole vegetable scraps take longer to break down. To speed up the process, chop or shred your compost materials into smaller pieces before adding them to the tumbler.

Remember, composting is a biological process that relies on balance. If something goes wrong, it’s typically because one or more of the composting conditions – green and brown balance, moisture level, aeration, or temperature – are not optimal. Troubleshooting these common problems is mostly about adjusting these conditions. With observation and practice, you’ll get the hang of maintaining the right conditions for a thriving compost pile.

Harvesting Your Compost

After diligent maintenance and care, there comes a time when your compost is ready to be harvested and used to enrich your garden. Identifying when your compost is ready and knowing how to properly harvest it is essential for the best results.

Typically, compost made in a tumbler should be ready for harvesting in 2-3 months, but this can vary depending on factors such as temperature, the mix of materials, and how often the compost is turned.

Here’s how to identify ready-to-use compost: The compost should look like a rich, dark, crumbly earth and have a pleasant, earthy smell. It should no longer resemble the original materials you put into the tumbler, except for maybe a few larger pieces that were slower to decompose. If your compost is meeting these criteria, it’s time to harvest!

Before you begin, make sure you have a container, wheelbarrow, or garden cart handy to collect the compost. Here’s how you can harvest:

  1. Let the compost ‘cure’: Before using the compost in your garden, it’s beneficial to let it cure for a few weeks. During this phase, the composting process continues at a slower rate, allowing any partially decomposed materials to fully break down. To cure your compost, stop adding new materials to the tumbler and continue to turn it every few days for 2-3 weeks.
  2. Collecting the compost: Once the compost is fully cured, position your container under the compost tumbler’s opening. If your tumbler has a door or sliding panel, open it and carefully let the compost fall into your container. If you have a dual-chamber tumbler, ensure you’re only emptying the side with the finished compost.
  3. Sifting the compost (optional): If your compost has a few larger pieces that haven’t fully decomposed, you can sift the compost using a compost sifter or a piece of hardware cloth. This will separate the finished compost from the larger pieces, which you can put back into the tumbler for further decomposition.
  4. Using the compost: Your harvested compost is now ready to be used in your garden! You can add it to your potting mix, use it as a top dressing for your plants, or incorporate it into your garden soil to improve its fertility and structure.

Remember, even if your compost isn’t picture-perfect, it’s still beneficial for your garden. Slightly chunky compost can continue to decompose in the soil and add structure to it. Don’t be discouraged if your compost doesn’t look like store-bought compost – it’s homemade, after all!

Cleaning and Preparing Your Tumbler for the Next Batch

After harvesting your compost, your tumbler is likely to need a good clean before starting a new composting cycle. This ensures that the tumbler is in optimal condition to support the composting process and helps prevent potential issues like lingering bad odors or the spread of plant diseases.

Here’s how you can clean and prepare your compost tumbler for the next batch:

  1. Empty the Tumbler: Start by ensuring that your compost tumbler is entirely empty. If there are any large, uncomposted materials left inside, you can set them aside to add back into the tumbler when you start the next batch.
  2. Clean the Interior: Next, it’s time to clean the inside of the tumbler. You can use a garden hose to rinse the interior thoroughly. If you notice any stubborn residues or if there’s a lingering bad smell, you may use a long-handled brush to scrub the interior. A mild solution of water and vinegar can be used for a deeper clean, but avoid harsh detergents or chemicals that could harm the beneficial microbes in your next compost batch.
  3. Inspect and Clean the Exterior: Check the exterior of your compost tumbler as well. Look for any cracks or damages that might need repair. Ensure that the lid or door is in good working condition and seals properly. Clean the outside of the tumbler with a hose or damp cloth.
  4. Dry the Tumbler: Once the Tumbler is clean, let it air dry completely before starting your next compost batch. This prevents unwanted moisture buildup which could lead to overly wet compost.
  5. Prepare for the Next Batch: Now that your compost tumbler is clean and dry, it’s ready for the next batch of compost. Begin by adding a layer of brown materials at the bottom. If you saved any larger pieces from the last batch, you can add those now, too.
  6. Stockpile Materials: If you don’t have enough materials to start a new batch right away, you can stockpile your kitchen scraps in a countertop compost pail or a bin with a tight-fitting lid. When you have enough materials, you can add them to your tumbler all at once, alternating layers of green and brown materials.

By taking the time to clean and prepare your compost tumbler, you’re setting yourself up for another successful round of composting.

Additional Tips and Best Practices

Use a compost thermometer to keep track of the temperature inside the tumbler, as heat speeds up composting. Also, try to cut or shred your compost materials into smaller pieces to speed up the process. Avoid composting meats, dairy, or diseased plants as they can attract pests or cause bad smells.


Are Compost Tumblers Expensive?

The price of compost tumblers can vary depending on size, material, and design. While they are generally more expensive than compost bins, their advantages often outweigh the cost.

Should Compost Tumbler Be In Sun Or Shade?

While a compost tumbler can be placed in either sun or shade, a sunny spot can help maintain the warmth that speeds up the composting process.

How often do I add water to my compost tumbler?

There’s no set rule for this, but your compost should stay as damp as a wrung-out sponge. If it appears too dry, you may need to add water.


Composting is a rewarding practice that provides numerous benefits. Not only does it help reduce the amount of organic waste that ends up in landfills, but it also results in nutrient-rich compost that can significantly enhance the fertility and health of your garden.

Choosing to compost with a tumbler simplifies the process, making it more accessible and manageable, particularly for those with limited space or physical constraints. By carefully selecting the right tumbler, setting it up correctly, maintaining a balanced mix of materials, and properly addressing any potential issues, you can create a smooth and efficient composting process.

While there might be a learning curve initially, over time, the process becomes more intuitive. Regular maintenance and attentive observation will soon become part of your routine. You’ll begin to understand how different factors such as the green-to-brown ratio, moisture level, aeration, and temperature can impact your composting process.

Remember, every composting journey is unique, and every gardener finds their own rhythm over time. Don’t be disheartened by minor hiccups along the way – they’re all part of the learning process. Keep going, keep experimenting, and before you know it, you’ll be harvesting your homemade, nutrient-rich compost to nourish your garden.

In this journey of sustainability, each step, no matter how small, brings us closer to a healthier and greener planet. So, let’s roll up our sleeves, turn our waste into wealth, and continue the delightful process of composting. Happy Composting!

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