How to Use a Compost Tumbler

Composting has many benefits, including diverting trash from landfills and reducing your need for harmful fertilisers.

Tumble composters are a great addition to the garden and mean you can return your waste to the earth while also helping improve the health of your plants.

If you are new to gardening, composting or simply want to learn more about how a compost tumbler works, we’ve got you covered.

How does a compost tumbler work?

A compost tumbler, is a large cylinder with a door on one side for loading scraps and other organic material.

Tumblers are spun to mix the contents and increase aeration.

Composting is the process of breaking down organic materials into rich soil that can be used in gardens or to improve your lawn.

Composting has many benefits, including diverting trash from landfills and reducing your need for harmful fertilisers.

Items like coffee grounds, tea bags, fruit rinds and vegetable peels can all be disposed of in compost bins.

Are compost tumblers better than regular compost bins?

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In general, compost tumblers are a better option than compost bins, especially if you want to make compost quickly.

They’re easier to turn and therefore aerate the materials, which means they decompose faster.

They’re also more efficient because they don’t require as much liquid—the tumbler helps release water from the other ingredients as it’s rotated.

The enclosed barrel design of a compost tumbler keeps animals out too, reducing the likelihood that pests will break into your bin.

Finally, compost tumblers are generally more durable than standard bins and can last for years.

Choosing the right size compost tumbler

The size of your compost tumbler is an important factor to consider when making a purchase.

There are a lot of ways to determine what size will work best for you:

Waste production: If you have a large family or produce lots of waste, you may want to consider choosing a larger bin. You’ll be able to compost more at once and won’t have to worry about filling it up quickly.

Space available: If you only have a small amount of space in your yard and don’t want to dedicate much of it to your compost tumbler, then stick with the smaller options. If you have more space and don’t mind putting some real estate toward this project, then choose whatever size suits your needs best.

Price point: Compost tumblers vary widely in price per cubic metre capacity, but usually, you get what you pay for in terms of quality.

Single vs dual compost tumbler

The benefit of the single compost tumbler is ease of use. You don’t have to fuss with two chambers and you can just keep adding material until it’s full.

The downside of a single tumbler is that you will have to stop adding materials while it breaks down.

With a dual chamber compost tumbler, you can continue adding material to one chamber while the other chamber breaks down the material.

Some people prefer to keep composting all year long and not worry about when they are “out” of finished compost. This is the main benefit of a dual-chamber design.

Where to put your compost tumbler

The ideal spot for placing your compost tumbler should be:

  • Close to the kitchen – so you can easily dump food scraps into the tumbler
  • Away from the wind – so that odours do not blow into your home
  • Accessible from all angles – so you can easily turn it
  • Within reach of a garden hose – to make it easier to add water

At first glance, these may seem like conflicting requirements. You might think that putting your tumbler close to your kitchen would mean it ends up right under your nose.

However, this isn’t always the case.

By avoiding areas that are directly downwind of common outdoor activities, you can find a place that offers easy accessibility without assaulting anyone’s nostrils.

What to put in your compost tumbler to start

So what can you put in a compost tumbler?

You should start off with an appropriate green-to-brown waste ratio.

  • Greens are nitrogen-rich materials like grass clippings or food scraps
  • Browns are carbon-rich materials like dried leaves, shredded paper or sawdust

You’re going to want to use an approximate 1:3 green to brown ratio.

Adding too much green will make your compost slimy and stinky. Too much brown and it will take forever to decompose.

Browns absorb moisture while greens give it up. The right ratio means that the materials have enough moisture but not too much.

Too little moisture prevents decomposition because microbes need water to survive and break down organic matter.

Too much moisture also prevents decomposition because anaerobic bacteria thrive in waterlogged conditions, create odours, inhibit oxygen-loving aerobic bacteria from growing, and attract pests like flies.

A good rule of thumb is that your compost should be as damp as a wrung-out sponge when you add materials to the tumbler.

Should you use a compost activator?

Yes, for beginners it is a good idea to use a compost activator. It’s not necessary to make compost, but it can help.

Compost activators help speed up the composting process. They do this by providing nutrients that jump-start the bacteria in your pile.

Using an activator will also help break down larger pieces of matter and make them easier for bacteria to consume.

You can buy activators at garden stores or online, but you can also make your own at home with a few simple ingredients including molasses, beer, or coca-cola.

Things you can put in your compost

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  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Tea bags (with tags removed)
  • Coffee grounds
  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves
  • Shredded newspaper (or unbleached paper)
  • Straw and sawdust
  • Hair

Things you can’t put in your compost

You can’t put meat, fish and dairy scraps in your compost tumbler.

You also can’t put plants or wood treated with pesticides or preservatives in it either, or black walnut tree debris. You also shouldn’t put weeds that have gone to seed in there either.

How often should you turn your tumbler?

The frequency with which you need to turn it will depend on what type of tumbler you have. Dual compartments composters may allow a new batch while the first is ‘cooking’ – so only one needs turning.

As a general rule, turning your compost tumbler three or four times a week should be plenty.

If you have a tumbler that can be continuously loaded, then more frequent turning will be necessary to keep the oxygenation levels up in order for the micro-organisms (or worms) to keep doing their job.

Ultimately, how often you need to do this depends on your set-up and what kind of organic matter is going into the bin. As with all things, practice makes perfect!

Why it’s important to monitor the smell

One of the most important things to learn about composting is how to correctly monitor the smell of your compost.

A good compost pile can be a little smelly, but it shouldn’t smell rotten.

If your pile smells rotten, you may have added too much food waste or grass clippings and not enough yard waste.

You will want to add more yard waste until the odour disappears.

If your pile smells sour, it has become anaerobic because it is too wet. Simply turn your tumbler to let in some air and allow the excess water time to evaporate.

If there is no odour coming from your tumbler at all you may need to add some damp materials like grass clippings or leaves until you start noticing a good, earthy smell coming from your compost again.

Why moisture level is important for your compost

To know when your compost needs more or less moisture, you can check the compost by lifting the lid and using a shovel to pull some of the material out.

What you want is a damp pile—not wet, not dry.

  • If it feels too wet, add some dry leaves, sawdust or wood chips to soak up the excess moisture.
  • If it’s too dry, water it with a hose until it’s damp again.

With that taken care of, you can sit back and enjoy your garden!

Photo of author

Steve Kropp

Based in Melbourne, Steve's passion is vegetable gardening, and he’s been writing about it for almost 5 years. He also loves all things DIY and is always looking for a new project. When not working on his own garden projects or blogging, Steve enjoys spending time with his family, cooking meals with produce harvested from his garden, and coaching his son’s footy team.


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