Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Lowdown on Compost Tumblers

Do you tumble? Some composters swear by their compost tumblers with devout enthusiasm. “Once you go tumbler, you’ll never go humbler,” they say in my imaginary rhyming conversations.

Compost tumblers come in models ranging from horizontal and vertical barrels with a cranking arm to large balls you fill up and push around your yard. They can yield impressive results, creating compost faster and with less “work” than a regular compost bin. But compost tumblers can also turn into a fancified waste of money if you don’t use them correctly.

We’ll weigh the pros and cons and go over a few tips for getting the most out of your tumbler.

Let’s Get Ready To Tumble!

First the pros. Compost tumblers create finished compost fast- some models claim in just a few weeks. The primary reason is that most tumblers are exceedingly easy to turn (or crank or roll). You end up aerating more often which heats the pile up and generates usable compost at lightning speed (well, lightning speed in compost terms).

Some models allow you to wheel the composter around the yard cutting out the wheelbarrow middle man. They are also fairly pest resistant but flies will still bug you if you’re not careful.

Tumbling Without Stumbling

Now the cons (more points of caution than cons). The moisture level in tumblers have to be monitored. If you add just grass clippings and food scraps you will end up with a slimy mess sloshing around your bin. Add a good balance of browns like shredded leaves or paper.

Since compost tumblers are not next to the ground, you should add microorganisms to speed up the decomposition. A few handfuls of finished compost or good healthy garden soil will work.

The last point to consider is that compost tumblers can be pricey. Be ready to invest at least $100 if not more.

Tips for More Crumble from Your Tumble

1. Stop adding material at least three weeks before you want to harvest. Compost tumblers work best when creating “batch” compost. Just as you wouldn’t pull a batch of cookies out of the oven and add more flour, don’t continue to add material to your compost tumbler. Otherwise, you will be screening that finished compost just like the rest of us.

2. Monitor the moisture to keep it as wet as a wrung out sponge. Add shredded leaves or paper if needed (the exception to tip one) or leave the door open for a while to air out the compost.

3. Shred material into smaller sizes. This will speed up the decomposition for any composting method, but is very apparent when you use a tumbler. The smaller the pieces you add, the faster they will turn into finished compost.

4. Add at least one part brown to one part green (two or three parts brown will make the compost easier to manage but also slow it down).

5. Turn, crank, or roll that tumbler as often as you can. Some models suggest doing it daily, so read the instructions that come with your bin.

Mother Earth News tested and reviewed a few different styles of tumbler, which they spell out in this helpful article.

Do you have a compost tumbler? I would love to hear about your experience in the comments below.


  1. Ive been using a tumbler like the one pictured above for almost 10 years. I use it only for food scraps as we have lots of animals and burying was more trouble. I occasionally add paper or leaves to keep it dry as it does tend to be wetter. I turn it a few times a week as Im not concerned about getting compost faster. My main reason for this type was keeping out the creatures. I typically empty it in the spring and fall. I stop adding scraps for about 3 weeks and it seems to work.

    1. Thanks, Pat, I so glad to hear it is working for you and you're right, it is a great way to keep out critters.

  2. Hey Michelle. Great post. I have two tumblers (one which I purchased dirt - pun intended - cheap on Craig's list, and an Earth Machine I purchased from you, in addition to a traditional three bin system made of wood pallets. I also do bokashi closed container composting for the less desirable scraps and waste.

    The tumblers do work faster. Moisture can be a problem so the mix of green to brown is more important. I usually leave a little of the last batch in the tumblers or grab a bit from the earth machine -- when starting a new batch. I tend to finish the compost in the earth machine and use the big pallet bins for the excessive leaves and grass clippings from our large yard.

    I must say that often, I don't have to screen the compost from the tumblers. It comes out pretty fine. There may be an occasional peanut shell or two, but for the most part, the tumbling twins work great. They are Enviro-cycles. One is a bit older than the other and one had too many slots cut into the side. The compost always dried out too much. A bit of duct tape fixed this problem. Not exceptionally attractive, but worked like a charm.

    I think the tumblers are great as part of a composting system -- particularly if you have lots of trees and grass. They work as part of my composting conga line. You can check it all out on one of my two websites: or

    1. Wow, you've got a whole composting demonstration site going! I love the term composting conga line!! I'm glad to here the tumblers are working for you and that they are faster than the other methods you have going.

  3. This was very helpful. I have a never-ending wet sludge in my never harvested composter. I have had it for years. Grew up with a compost pile, so no I never learned any maintenance.

    1. It definitely sounds like you need some dry absorbent material in your bin, preferably shredded newspaper. Mix that in really well and I bet your compost will be much better.

  4. I have a ball composter for years and always had a wet sludge end result. We leave the ball outside our kitchen window and dump the scraps in it. Reading your article it sounds like i need to add brown material, will shreaded paper do the trick?

    1. You are right, that is the biggest mistake people make with tumblers. Add at least equal parts brown material if not twice as much. Shredded paper will work if you do not have leaves.

  5. Thank you Thank you Thank you. So very helpful.