Using a Compost Tumbler


  • Author Dave Berning
  • Published November 26, 2011
  • Word count 605

How much food waste do you throw away? According to the EPA, Americans bin some 34 million tons of food each year, of which 33 million tons is sent straight to landfill sites. All that rotting food generates millions of tons of methane – a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The answer to this is to make your own compost. You don’t need to have a huge garden or hours of free time to recycle your food waste effectively. All you need is a compost tumbler. These drum-shaped composters take much of your food and garden waste and turn it into usable compost in around 8-12 weeks, depending on the design. Because they are completely closed in, they don’t attract flies or rodents, unlike traditional compost heaps. All you have to do is add your material and turn it regularly.

What can you put into your compost bin tumbler? The answer is "most organic matter except meat". The trouble with meat is that it takes a very long time to break down and does smell bad. Apart from meat (and dairy products), you can compost all of your fruit and vegetable waste and a good deal of your garden waste. Leaves, grass cuttings, twigs and weeds can all be put in the tumbler, though don’t put anything diseased or carrying an infection in there as these can spread. You can also put other organic matter in such as teabags, coffee filters, shredded paper, eggshells, even hair. It’s a good idea to chop or shred large pieces of waste before you put it in, and to think of the motto "little and often" – if you put a lot of material in at the same time, it will slow down the decomposition.

Adding both garden and kitchen waste is important. A successful compost needs "browns" and "greens". "Browns" are carbon-rich plant materials like leaves or twigs (or paper), and "greens" are nitrogen-rich food wastes and grass clippings. These tend to be brown and green respectively, hence their names. The other two things you need are water and oxygen. Most organic waste already has water locked in it.

The main job of the compost bin is to allow oxygen to flow through, which the bacteria need to start digesting the matter itself. A tumbler also makes it very easy to bring all the waste into contact with the bacteria just by using a handle to turn everything over. You need to do this once a day, but it is a lot easier than turning the whole compost heap over by yourself. The process of composting creates heat, typically up to 155°F: this kills harmful viruses and bacteria. In a traditional compost heap, the heat can escape, especially in winter, but a tumbler keeps it in. With regular turning, it also stops the compost overheating and killing the useful bacteria.

When the compost is ready it will be fine, dark and looking like soil. You will have made a nutrient-rich compost which will make your garden far more fertile than before. You also have the added benefit of knowing what’s in the compost and of being able to make it year in, year out. Once you’ve bought your tumbler, you don’t need to buy manure again. With a tumbler, the process is speeded up, so you can make several batches in a year.

Compost tumblers are easy to use and help in the fight against climate change. They involve very little work and can be used for years, saving both the planet and your pocket. The initial investment is well worth it.


Dave Berning was born and raised on a dairy farm in Ohio. He still enjoys working the land both on the family farm and his own backyard and garden. He owns and operates a lawn and garden supply company with his brother Mark. Visit them at

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