Do Tumbling Compost Bins Work?


I’VE BEEN USING a 55-gallon compost tumbler for five years. It definitely has its advantages, but it has disadvantages, too. People don’t realize that composting in a pile on the ground has some advantages over the tumbler. Here’s what I’ve learned about making compost from both methods.

My composting process

Over the years I’ve developed a composting process that shortens the time it takes to get finished compost. The process has five steps:

1. I place the tumbler where it gets the most sun, so that the compost heats up as much as possible.

2. I load my tumbler with herbivore manure, green weeds, table scrapes, leaves and other plant materials. I never put meat, dairy or oils in the barrel.

3. I try to balance the green (high nitrogen materials) and brown (high carbon materials). The optimum is 40% green to 60% brown. You can sometimes tell if something is high nitrogen or high carbon by the color of the material, but not always. Greens – which include fruit (usually not green), vegetables, and manure (brown) — are typically high in nitrogen. Browns – which include saw dust, mulched leaves and straw — are typically high in carbon.

Most of the time I struggle to have enough greens to balance out the browns. But this year was different because I collected table scraps all winter. This gave me a head start on greens.

As a result of the overabundance of greens, my tumbler smells a little right now. It’s probably because it has too many coffee grounds in it. I’ve started to re-establish balance by adding some of last fall’s leaves, but I don’t want to put too many leaves in too quickly because even mulched leaves will take too long to break down.

Tumbling Compost Bin
4. I try to keep the moisture in the barrel the same as a wrung out sponge.

5. I rotate the barrel once a week. If you spin it too often, the barrel doesn’t heat up because rotating temporarily releases the heat from the center of the pile. If you rotate it too infrequently, you have the same problem because the microbes don’t get enough air. Once a week seems to be the right timing.

Hot compost

My barrel does get noticeably warmer than the outside air. This is partially due to microbes creating heat and partially because the black plastic barrel captures heat from the sun. It doesn’t heat up enough to kill weed seeds. I still have plenty of weeds that come from my compost.

The compost probably doesn’t heat up enough because the barrel simply doesn’t hold enough material. If I had it to do over again, I would buy a larger composter. A 12 cubic foot model would probably be best. It would be large enough to heat up and large enough to hold all the material I could supply.

There are advantages and disadvantages to using a tumbler:

Compost tumbler advantages

  • No need to turn the pile to get air into it. Just rotate the barrel.
  • Animals can’t get inside and drag food scraps all over the yard. This is especially important in the winter when a compost pile is popular with scavengers.
  • The sun heats up a black plastic composter, so the pile reaches cooking temperature faster.
  • It’s easier to control the amount of moisture inside the bin.

Compost tumbler disadvantages

  • A compost pile on the ground breaks down faster. I’m not sure why, but it probably has to do with the microbes and worms being able to come and go as they please.
  • Tumblers are limited in the amount of material they can hold.
  • Tumblers typically cost more than homemade compost bins, even if you make the tumbler yourself.

What has been your experience with tumbling compost bins? Do they work for you? Let us know by commenting below.

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1. Composting Compostable Packaging
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11 Responses to “Do Tumbling Compost Bins Work?”

  1. April 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    some good information that will help me with my tumbling compost bin…thx

    • April 21, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

      I’m glad the info will be of help. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. June 13, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    I’ve certainly thought of getting a tumbler and each year I say to myself, . . “well maybe at the end of the season. My home made wooden box is still in good shape. Save your money. Maybe later” I still have compost. I guess it all depends on how much work you want to put into your compost.

    Good information on percentages of greens and browns. Learning from others is always a good thing, no matter how much you think you know.

    • June 13, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

      Herb — I think a wooden box — as long as it isn’t made out of pressure treated wood — is a very good compost set up. It might be the best plan if you don’t mind manually turning the compost.

  3. June 29, 2011 at 11:17 pm #

    I’ve got a tumbling compost bin that I made myself – it’s simply an olive barrel with a tight-fitting lid, with air-holes drilled in the sides and bottom:

    http://green-change.com/2009/05/05/diy-tumbling-compost-bin/

    I’ve had it for about 10 years now, and it’s still going strong.

    I find that the need to ‘batch’ your compost with a tumbling bin is a little inconvenient. I like being able to just continually add to my ‘collection’ pile, then use that to build a ‘breakdown’ pile, then turn that over into a ‘finishing’ pile.

    The tumbler is useful if I get a load of ingredients at once though – chicken house bedding, a trailer-load of stable sweepings, a lot of weeds and grass after a garden cleanup, vegetable trimmings after a harvest, etc. It breaks down quickly with little fuss.

    • June 30, 2011 at 7:16 am #

      Darren — It sounds like you reach critical mass when you get a load of ingredients at once. That makes sense. Do you think it gets warm enough to kill weed seeds?

      I’m thinking of gathering up compost in the tumbling bin bit by bit and then, when most of it is past the point of being attractive to animals, putting it in a pile on the ground.

      • June 30, 2011 at 7:38 am #

        Yes, exactly, if you have a critical mass of ingredients at once then it can all go in and be sealed up. When that happens, it gets nice and hot and it seems to kill off weed seeds. It works quickly in that situation too.

        But if I only add to it a little at a time, it doesn’t get as hot and it takes longer to break down.

  4. March 20, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

    Thanks for the great information – very useful. I love my tumbler bin so easy to use.

    • March 21, 2012 at 9:10 am #

      I found a mouse in my tumbling bin the other day. This is the first time this has happened. It’s probably due to the very mild winter we had this year. My compost is already cooking and it would normally be frozen at this time of year.

  5. Alfonso Talavera
    April 12, 2013 at 11:26 pm #

    Hello friends, I have my rotating compost barrel, say mechanically works acceptably, but beginning to have doubts about its effectiveness beyond being an ingenious and striking.
    When green waste burial in a pit in the ground decomposition is very fast and the result has always been good, but this is more work to turn a barrel. With this method I find it hard to find plant debris after a week.
    With the rotating barrel took 15 days and I have only a mixture of herbs and plant something muddy, clarified that the mixture contains dried leaves, ground black oak, and ready-made compost.
    The barrel has a strainer at the bottom to drain the leachate and in the lateral walls having holes for ventilation.
    I think I did my best to build my barrel, I am satisfied with its mechanical operation. Only one thing I do not like is that the tube that operates as an axis, is tangled grass and some like banana peels. If I had to build it again would prevent him having an axis atravezara surely try a bearing mechanism that would stick in the side walls of the barrel.
    If anyone interested can share their experience with a barrel swivel I appreciate it, just as I can share all the details of my case.
    P.S. If my English seems strange, just tell them you do not master the language, but I do my best. My email is alftalavera@yahoo.com.mx

    • April 13, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

      I haven’t had any experience with a barrel swivel. Maybe someone else has.

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