Turning trash into compost quickly requires turning the compost pile regularly, checking the moisture level and adding water and materials as needed. Rotating barrel or tumbling composters provides a solution for the gardener who wants to enjoy the soil-building and waste-reducing benefits of compost but doesn't have the time -- or the strong back -- for the amount of turning involved. Tumbling composters can trim the time you spend on your compost to mere minutes per week.
Items you will need:
- Plastic 5-gallon bucket with lid
- Tumbling composter
- Garden fork
- Hose or watering can
Collect materials for the compost. Unlike compost heaps and bins, where you can add materials progressively as you obtain them, tumbling composters work best if you add everything at once. If you intend to compost lawn wastes, adding grass clippings to some leftover fall leaves might do the trick. If you're saving food scraps, store them in a plastic bucket with a lid and cover each new addition with a layer of sawdust to prevent odors. (See References 1, page 12)
Add materials to your tumbling composter. You'll need to distinguish between nitrogen-rich ingredients and carbon-rich ingredients to achieve the correct balance. Materials rich in nitrogen are fresh and moist and include food scraps, fresh grass clippings, coffee grounds and livestock manure. Carbon-rich ingredients include dry, dead plant material like fallen leaves, straw, sawdust and paper. Add approximately equal nitrogen-containing ingredients and carbon-containing materials. (See References 2)
Check the moisture level of materials as you add them. Compost ingredients should feel damp, similar to a wrung-out sponge (see References 3). Add water, if needed. Break up or chop larger materials as you add them to speed up the breakdown process. (See References 2)
Fill the tumbling composter to the fill line, or three-quarters full if there is no fill line. You'll need to leave room for the compost to move around inside the unit and mix.
Turn the tumbler several times, and then open it. Materials should be well mixed together. Check the moisture level again to ensure that any water you added mixed throughout the compost, and add more water, if needed. Continue turning the unit until the mixture and moisture level are what you want.
Turn the tumbling composter at least once a week after reaching a satisfactory mixture and moisture level. Open the unit and check the moisture level, adding water if needed. (See References 2) The compost should smell pleasant and earthy; if you notice foul odors, something is out of balance. A rotten egg smell comes from over-wet compost. Turn the tumbler so that the drain rests at the bottom to allow excess moisture to drain off. If your unit does not have a drain, add extra paper, leaves or other dry materials to soak up the water. An ammonia smell comes from too much nitrogen. Add carbon-rich ingredients to establish the right balance. (See References 4, page 2)
Harvest compost when it becomes a uniform black color with a crumbly consistency. You may notice woody pieces, like twigs or fruit pits, remain in your compost. You can remove or screen these out and toss them into the next batch. (See References 1, page 19) Rotating compost units take two months or less from start to finish (see References 1, page 11).
- Once you fill your tumbling unit, do not continue adding new materials, except to correct imbalances. Tumbling composters perform best when filled with all of their materials at one time. Store new materials in plastic buckets or a second composting unit. (See References 1, page 12)
- Cornell Waste Management Institute; Composting to Reduce the Waste Stream: A Guide to Small Scale Food and Yard Waste Composting; Nancy Dickson, et al.; 1993
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Create Your Own Compost Pile
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Seasonal Planning Calendar
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Backyard Composting: It's Only Natural; October 2009
First published in 2000, Dawn Walls-Thumma has served as an editor for "Bartleby" and "Antithesis Common" literary magazines. Walls-Thumma writes about education, gardening and sustainable living. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and writing from University of Maryland and is a graduate student in humanities at American Public University.