How To Use A Compost Tumbler

Making your own compost is a great way to provide your garden with something that is rich in nutrients and will promote almost all types of growth. It is also great in that it uses plant and other organic material that would otherwise have to be removed from your garden for disposal elsewhere. In addition, there’s a good chance you will end up buying commercially manufactured compost in any event and this can cost at least $100 per ton.

There are in fact almost no downsides to composting. Ironically, many new gardeners do feel somewhat nervous about the process of composting however. One great way to deal with this is to buy yourself a compost tumbler in order to facilitate the making of your compost in a controlled way.

Making compost is easy and fun with a tumbler. Image source: CAGwholesale

The Traditional Way to Make Compost

Traditionally forming compost from garden waster would take around three years from start to finish. In the first year, you would collect a pile of garden waste. This pile would grow until it took up most of the room available to it. Then you would leave it to allow the breakdown of the material to commence.

The following year you would spend most of the time turning the partially composted material regularly to keep the material properly aerated and to prevent excess moisture build-up. During the turning process you would aim to turn approximately once a week being careful to ensure that the material on the outside of the heap was moved to the inside to ensure that all the material would compost uniformly.

The final year the compost would be ready to use and you would gradually shovel it back out and into the garden as needed.

Each year you would start a new pile and the process would begin again. At any one time you would expect to have at least three piles, one for collection, one for aging and one for using.

The traditional route used large amounts of space and invariably meant untidy piles of composted and partially composted material.

Making Compost with a Compost Tumbler

Compost tumblers were developed in the 1970s. In essence they consist of a large barrel that are held in a frame that enables the material within to be tumbles regularly and more importantly without much effort.

Initially these tumblers were real only available for commercial uses, but over the following decades domestic compost tumblers have proliferated. Some are horizontal, some vertical barrels, some large, some small, but the basic system remains in all.

Used properly compost in a compost tumbler can be formed in as little as two to three weeks.

Step 1:

Position the tumbler in a dry but well ventilated location. You need to prevent excess moisture from penetrating the barrel and cooling down the compost at the critical point.

Step 2:

Collect waste from your garden and store separately until you have enough to fill the compost tumbler barrel completely. Waste material can be grass cuttings, dead flowers/vegetable material, small prunings, and dead leaves.

You can also add in torn up cardboard, wood ash, sawdust and used coffee grounds. Try to keep the material mixed, with no one item dominating. This is particularly easy to do with grass cuttings.

An ideal ratio is to have approximately one third green waste, to two thirds brown waste. Brown waste includes shredded paper, cardboard and wood ash. Green waste would be all organic material.

Step 3:

Once you have a full load, place it all in the tumbler in one go. This will ensure that the material all decomposes at the same time

Once the barrel is full, seal it and leave it for a couple of days for heat to generate and the composting process to begin.

Step 4:

Different compost tumblers will have different instructions although the basic principle is the same for all. Once a day you should rotate the barrel to mix up the material inside.

Note, compost tumblers are designed to make the process of turning the compost far easier than in the traditional pitchfork method. However, a full barrel will still be heavy and you should prepare yourself for the turning process to be somewhat heavy.

Step 5:

Despite widespread belief that compost smells, this is not the case. In fact should the material begin to smell, it tends to indicate there are problems.

Rotten Egg Smell

If the mixture has a rotten egg smell this would suggest inadequate ventilation or too much moisture. In such a circumstance it more frequent turning would be advisable and perhaps the addition of more brown waste products.

Ammonia Smell

Ammonia has a strong, pungent chemical like smell. If you smell this around your tumbler then there is likely excess nitrogen being produced from the organic material. The way to deal with this is to add more brown waste.

It is also a good idea to check the compost progress using a compost thermometer. During the composting phase the temperature will rise to a level between 120 – 170 F. This will gradually cool to around 110 F and once the composting process has essentially completed, after two to three weeks the temperature will decrease again to around the 85 F mark.

Recording the temperature is a great way to determine how well your compost mixture is progressing. Any wide deviations from the temperatures noted above would suggest there was some impediment preventing the compost from happening and would need investigation.

Summing It Up


That is the process of making compost in a compost tumbler from start to finish. It is remarkably simple once you understand what is going on and a both a whole lot faster and a whole lot easier than the traditional composting process used to be. If you're excited to try making compost for yourself, check out our compost tumbler reviews where we look at great options for your garden.

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