Compost Tumblers: Is It the Right Composting Choice for You?

Composting comes from an age-old natural process and gained popularity from backyard gardeners and organic gardeners. True to the law of supply and demand, growing interest resulted in the development of several different types of composting units.

In this article, we will compare the different methods of composting. We will also explain the difference between composting bins and compost tumblers. Read on to learn more.

Young boy turning and demonstrating compost tumblersPin
Young boy showing compost tumblers operation – Image: James Emery via flickr

What Is A Compost Tumbler?

A compost tumbler works like a container set up for spinning, turning, or rotating to tumble composting materials inside. This sort of setup can make turning your kitchen and garden waste along with grass clippings into rich compost a very quick process, indeed.

You may hear a few terms that seem to conflict as you learn about this interesting method of composting. Among them include:

Sealed Drum Compost Tumblers

A fully sealed drum tumbler allows no leaking and does not allow moisture to drain. This tightly sealed container holds in heat to quicken the process of composting.

You can equip this type of model with a drain for it to manually draw off liquid in the form of “compost tea” and feed your plants. Even with the extra heat it can generate, this compost tumbler works a bit slower to produce finished compost because an efficient process requires good air circulation.

Aerated Drum Compost Tumbler

This sort of compost tumbler contains built-in air vents. These vents appear as simple as holes drilled with a large drill bit. Adding aeration speeds up the decomposition process, so if you choose an aerated model over a sealed model, you can do just as well with a smaller model simply because it will work faster.

Dual-Bin Compost Tumbler

This ingenious design makes a “twofer.” You get two chambers so that you can have one filled chamber “finishing” while you continue to fill the other chamber. Good management of your two-chambered tumbler can result in a continuous flow of ready-to-use compost.

Keep The Composting Process Simple

Before you begin, keep in mind that composting makes a simple, natural process. Don’t allow yourself to get bogged down in a lot of unnecessary complications. As a matter of fact, a pile of leaves left sitting on its own in your yard for several months will produce some lovely compost, so you won’t need to turn this process into rocket science.

Several reasons exist as to why you cannot set up a compost pile in your yard, and this would necessitate purchasing a compost tumbler or bin. When making your choices, keep in mind that simpler will undoubtedly work better. A composting unit with a lot of bells and whistles and moving parts will only give you trouble.

When choosing between creating a compost pile or buying a tumbler, do not believe the claim about tumblers do always compost faster than heaps as this does not hold any truth. However, your habits with a tumbler may seem different than with a pile or heap. Moreover, you might agitate your organic compost material more often with a tumbler, and this could speed up your results.

This happens as turning a tumbler works easily. In many cases, you just give it a spin by hand. Some units have a crank but still, others require you to roll them around the yard.

If this process looks quick and easy, you should not worry about any problem when it comes to turning your compost several times a week.

Why Do Compost Tumblers Work?

A compost pile can take quite a while to process because it lacks aeration toward the center, and turning it causes too much hard work. When it becomes difficult for air to permeate the layers of composting material, the microbes carrying out the process suffer. Introducing air into the mix on a regular basis helps your compost heat up and mature more quickly.

These same microbes need just the right amount of green materials as a source of nitrogen. Keeping the green and brown materials well mixed keeps nitrogen present throughout the pile. This helps the composting microbes to break down the brown materials faster. [source]

Turning a compost pile seems labor intensive, but spinning a tumbler serves as a simple process. This quality make it seem like a tumbler composts faster than a traditional pile. However, tests run by Mother Earth News in 2016 indicate that a pile can work just as fast as a tumbler if turned on the same schedule as a tumbler. [source]

This same series of tests also proved a tumbler cannot produce finished compost in 14 days contrary to many manufacturers’ claims. With the right balance of materials and regular turning, a garden composter produces compost in about 10 weeks in either a pile or a tumbler. Most people find using a tumbler tidier and easier.

New tumbler composter ready to go - via alamosbasement Pin
New tumbler composter ready to go – via alamosbasement

Benefits and Limitations of Compost Tumblers

As with anything, several upsides and downsides roam around when using a tumbler to make compost. Continue reading to learn more about it. [source]

Upsides

  • You can easily turn your compost in a tumbler.
  • Tumblers naturally keep pests out because of the elevated and closed system.
  • A tumbler acts more aesthetically pleasing than a pile. If you look plagued by Codes, Covenants, and Regulations (CC&Rs), or troublesome neighbors, a tumbler makes a good choice.
  • The closed system makes odor control easier.
  • You can achieve higher temperatures with the closed system. This means faster composting.
  • The closed system holds in heat and moisture, and this can speed up the composting time considerably. With a pile or with a bin, processing may stop or slow down considerably during the colder months. With a tumbler, when you open the top during the winter, warm air and steam rise so you know your compost really works.

Downsides

  • The tumbler costs higher making it prohibitive, especially when compared with a pile which always come as free.
  • Limited space becomes a problem since your project solely depends on the capacity of your tumbler.
  • Humidity also poses as a problem because making it hard for excess moisture to evaporate in the closed system. For this reason, get a model to drain the excess moisture into a collection chamber. You can use it as nutritious “compost tea” for your plants.
  • Carefully work to get just the right balance of green materials and brown materials. Otherwise, it will result to a lot of mess for you to clean up.

11 Ways Compost Tumblers Differ From Compost Bins

Both composting bins and tumblers hold points to recommend them. Like a tumbler, a bin looks nicer than a pile, and it controls odors better. Bins and tumblers also take up about the same amount of space in your garden (4-6 square feet).

When comparing bins and tumblers, you should keep in mind these differences and similarities.

#1 – Size

Holding capacity differs between bins and tumblers. Typically, a bin can hold two or three times more than a tumbler as

The reason for this is that a very high capacity tumbler would be heavy and hard to turn.

One exception to this caveat is the Jora composter brand. All three of their models are horizontally mounted on the axis. This makes even the 14.2 cubic foot capacity model easy to spin.

You may try the Jora 33 Gallon 125 Dual Chamber Compost Tumbler. This Jora compost tumbler features dual chambers and thick insulation to promote consistently high temperatures for hot composting and rapid decomposition of composting materials.

#2 – Ruggedness

Tumblers are often more durable than bins because they are typically made of heavy-duty materials. A bin only needs to contain the composting matter. A tumbler must support the weight of the material being composted. For this reason, the plastic used to construct the drum is typically thicker and more durable. Some high-quality tumblers are made of galvanized steel.

When you choose a composting tumbler, be sure to inspect all components carefully. If it has a rugged drum coupled with flimsy legs, handles, crank, and moving parts, you will surely find yourself disappointed sooner than later.

#3 – Convenience

Ease of use and ease of access are also important considerations when choosing between a bin and a tumbler. We’ve noted that it can be difficult to turn a compost pile with a pitchfork.

It is even more difficult to turn materials inside a compost bin, and a bin needs more turning because of reduced air supply. Couple this with the thinner plastic used to construct bins, and damage and frustration will clearly ensue.

The materials at the bottom of a bin are more likely to compost first, but they will be difficult for you to access. Some composting bins have an access port, but most users say this is more trouble than it’s worth.

For this reason, many bin users end up just leaving their bins alone until the compost eventually breaks down. This takes two or three months.

#4 – Access To Finished Compost Material

As we’ve mentioned, with a tumbler, complete composting takes about 10 weeks, and you can access bits of completed compost throughout the process as you turn the cylinder every couple of days and expose composted materials.

Some tumbler models, such as Jora, have dual compartments that enable you to have compost ready for use on an ongoing basis. When you have filled one compartment, close it up, and start using the other compartment. Very soon, the closed compartment will be finished and its contents will be ready to use.

#5 – Ease of Use

Emptying is easier with a tumbler or barrel than with a bin. With many tumbler models, you can roll your wheelbarrow under the cylinder and open a hatch to release the finished compost. Some models are on wheels so that you can roll the entire unit to the garden and dump the finished compost right where you need it. Compost bins, on the other hand, must be shoveled out or tipped over to be emptied.

#6 – Speed

Tumblers are faster than compost bins. Although a loose compost heap turned regularly can produce compost as quickly as a tumbler, a bin just cannot. Most users find that compost tumbler bins process organic matter twice as fast as bins.

#7 – Pest Control

When comparing bins and tumblers in terms of pest deflection, a lot depends on design. Because a tumbler is raised and the system is completely closed, it is better than a bin for keeping out large, clever pests such as raccoons.

Small, ground-dwelling pests like mice can chew their way into the bottom of a plastic bin and set up housekeeping easily. They cannot usually climb the support structure of a tumbler to do this, and if they did, they would probably not find an occasionally spun tumbler very homey

#8 – Odors

Odor control is about the same for bins and tumblers. Both have lids that keep odors contained effectively.

#9 – Pricing

In cost comparisons, tumblers are usually a bit more expensive than bins; however, remember that they are typically more durable. When you are shopping for a tumbler, save money by saying NO to unnecessary extras such as aeration spikes (which tend to get gunked up quickly). The fewer moving parts and gadgets the better. A simple, well-constructed tumbler will give you good service for many years.

#10 – Moisture Management

Tumblers are more tightly contained than bins, so they hold in more moisture. This can be a downside, but if you live in an arid climate or are experiencing drought conditions, this can be very helpful.

#11 – No Compost Accelerator Required

No accelerator is needed with a bin or a tumbler composter. Even though many manufacturers recommend using a compost accelerator like this, this is unnecessary. Starters, activators, and accelerators just add more microbes to the mix. If you think that your compost is not working fast enough, adding a scoop of finished compost or a shovel full of soil will provide plenty of microbes.

5 Choices in Styles of Compost Tumblers

There are four basic compost tumbler model types. They are:

#1 – Crank-Operated Tumblers

A crank-operated tumbler generally consists of a drum that is mounted horizontally and supported by a framework. You can turn the drum through use of a crank assembly. As the drum turns, interior baffles mix the composting materials and incorporate oxygen.

The raised drum of this model makes it easy to empty the finished compost into a wheelbarrow rolled beneath the drum. This model is a bit costly at about twice the price of some other popular models, but most users say the convenience and ease of use justify the cost. [source]

The two top selections in this design both come from the Mantis company. They are the Mantis Compost-Twin (dual drums) and the Mantis Compos Tumbler (single drum).

The Mantis Compost-Twin Dual Chamber Composter unit features convenient dual-bin design, a 10-bushel capacity, and rugged, galvanized steel construction.

On the other hand, the Mantis Compact Compost Tumbler compact unit is small, light, and easy to manage, yet it has a wealth of valuable features including a removable door for ease of access, a secure, sealed drum to keep pests out, an air vent for good aeration, and drainage vents to help prevent moisture buildup. This sturdy unit is also made of powder-coated steel.

#2 – Center Axle Compost Bin

Drums with a center axle are mounted vertically around a horizontal axle. This means that they spin end-to-end rather than rolling. This type of composter is mounted on a frame made of PVC pipe, wood, or metal.

This model is often designed with dual access doors (one on each end) that make retrieving compost and adding materials very easy. On the downside, this model is usually low to the ground, so you may not be able to roll your wheelbarrow under it when it comes time to empty the contents.

One good example of this model is the Spin Bin, which can be opened at either end. This makes it easier to put materials in and take finished compost out.

This Spin Bin Composter makes an affordable alternative due to its simplicity, sturdiness, and ease of use. Made of heavy-duty black plastic, this 60-gallon capacity unit holds 20 built-in ventilation slots for good aeration. Spinning it is typically a one-handed endeavor.

#3 – Base Rolling Drum Tumbler

A base rolling drum tumbler consists of a horizontal drum set on a base at ground level. Some of these units have rollers and others are equipped with rounded protrusions that enable the drum to roll.

Most people feel that the rollers make the task easier, but even so, this design is awkward in several ways. Tumbling can be a real challenge, and emptying is difficult. You cannot tip the contents out of the drum. You must remove the finished compost through a small door using a shovel.

Examples of this design include the Most Beautiful Composter in the World and the Good Ideas CW-2X Compost Wizard.

The Most Beautiful Composter in The World is a slick black, BPA-free plastic cylinder made in the USA. It is extremely rugged and durable and comes with a five-year manufacturer warranty. The small, sturdy unit has a 35-gallon capacity and can make plant-nourishing compost tea.

The Good Ideas CW-2X Compost Wizard is a high-capacity Envirocycle model features dual chambers, each with a 3.5 cubic foot capacity. The unit comes with a convenient 5-gallon compost tea collector on wheels. Made of 100% recycled materials, the composter and tea collector arrive fully assembled and ready to use.

#4 – Roll-Around Composters

Roll-around composters are sort of like big balls with aeration vents. You are supposed to fill the ball with composting material and roll it around the yard. This is generally considered quite difficult since the “balls” are not exactly round.

They are more like a geodesic dome than a ball so they roll in a decidedly unstable manner that requires quite a bit of effort on your part. To make matters worse, they are difficult to empty.

This type of composter is understandably unpopular and is somewhat difficult to find. One example of this design is the Bio-Orb, which is no longer available via Amazon. As an FYI, you can see the former listing of Bio-Orb Monster Compost Bin here.

#5 – DIY Compost Tumbler

"Redneck" Composting tumbler - simple, effectivePin
“Redneck” Composting tumbler – simple, effective – via Ajax15 @flickr

If you just want to give compost tumbling a try without investing much money, you can make your own very simple tumbler using a plastic garbage can with wheels and a lid that snaps on securely.

A black can will absorb more heat and speed up the decomposition process. It’s best to get a large can, but be careful not to get one that is so large that you cannot comfortably tip it on its side and roll (tumble) it when it is full.

You can get a good, big garbage can for under $15 at any home improvement store such as Target, Lowe’s, Tractor Supply, or Amazon. Watch for sales to save even more money.

DIY prep of this sort of simple tumbling composter is easy. Just drill lots of holes in the sides and bottom of the can. This provides good ventilation for your composting materials.

Since it has wheels, you can take this simple tumbler all over the yard with you as you work. Toss grass clippings and yard waste into it. At the end of the day, snap on the lid, lay the can on its side and give it a tumble.

During times when you aren’t doing much yard work, remember to tip and tumble it a couple of times a week. This will keep the contents agitated and “cooking.”

Video: DIY Rotating Compost Bin (Tumbler) for $12

Where To Place Your Tumbling Composter

There are a few things you should keep in mind when selecting a location for your tumbler. First, it should be convenient to you. If taking your yard and garden scraps to the composting tumbler is inconvenient, you won’t do it, so be sure to put the tumbler near enough to the house for easy access.

Because you want your compost to stay warm for efficient processing, it should get some sun; however, you should not put your tumbler in full sun. This can kill off the very microbes you need to carry out the process of composting. If you have earthworms in your compost, they will die if they become too hot.

checking the temperature of the compostPin

Choose a setting that gets indirect sun in the morning and/or afternoon, but protects your compost tumbler, bin, or pile from the direct rays of the blazing noonday sun.

2 Things to Keep in Mind When Making Your Selection

Buy The Right Size!

No matter what type of tumbling compost system you decide on, take great care when choosing the size. Even though it may seem smart to get the largest model, remember that you must have enough strength to crank, turn, or roll that contraption. If the model you choose is too big and heavy for you to deal with easily, it will not work for you.

Set Up A Couple Of Tumblers!

You should also remember that it will take a while for you to fill your composter, and it will be a minimum of 10 weeks before the last item you added is fully composted. For this reason, you should really plan on having more than one unit or you’ll end up doing a lot of waiting around. Dual-bin compost tumblers are good for addressing this problem.

Some people have a several tumbling composters and then set up an enclosed compost pile to hold materials prior to full composting. When you do this, you can have:

  • One filled tumbler “cooking” without adding anything
  • One tumbler in progress to which you add materials incrementally.
  • A separate, contained, and covered pile for extra materials.

When you empty your “cooking” tumbler, you can fill your “in-progress” tumbler with materials from your pile. This full tumbler would become your “cooking” tumbler. Begin filling the now-empty tumbler with yard, garden, and kitchen scraps and food waste on an ongoing basis until your “cooking” tumbler is finished, and then start the process all over again.

4 Tips When Using A Composting Tumbler

#1 – Always leave some finished compost in the tumbler when you empty it. This will provide microbes to help break down the new organic materials you add. When you do this and/or add a little soil, you will never need to add accelerant.

#2 – Be sure to keep the ratio of your brown/green materials balanced. A half and half mixture of green and brown materials is good.

  • Brown materials include: leaves, straw, wood chips, wood ash, sawdust, tea bags, egg shells, cardboard, paper
  • Green materials include: grass and yard clippings, fruit and veggie kitchen scraps, fresh manure, seaweed

If you have too much green, composting will not happen and you’ll have a disgusting mess to deal with.

#3 – Keep a close eye on moisture content. Your compost should be damp like a sponge – not soggy! If it becomes too soggy, add leaves or other brown matter. If it becomes too dry, add a small amount of water or some green/damp materials. If adding water, never add more than eight ounces at once.

#4 – Be sure your composting materials are well aerated during the composting process. Remember to turn the drum frequently and check to be certain all air vents are clean and clear.

Save Money & Enjoy A Flourishing Yard & Garden

Rich, nourishing compost is a must-have material for any serious gardener, and the more efficiently you can produce it, the more money you’ll save, and the better your garden will grow. A compost tumbler can produce truly fine results if you choose the model that suits you best and then follow through by managing it well.

With a proper combination of materials, frequent tumbling and a realistic outlook, you can be sure of quickly producing high-quality compost for your veggie and flower gardens and your landscape projects.

Just remember to take manufacturers’ claims with a grain of salt. While a tumbler is generally faster than a bin, it is not necessarily faster than a well-managed compost pile. Developing good maintenance habits is key to getting the most value from your compost tumbler purchase.