by Robert Pavlis
Manufacturers of compost tumblers claim that you can make compost in two weeks. This sounds like a great idea. Instead of waiting months, you can have instant compost.
A compost tumbler is some type of container that can be easily turned. It is usually made from a plastic barrel that is raised up on legs and fitted with a hand crank. Compost matures faster if it is turned on a regular basis, and compost tumblers are designed to make the turning process easy – you just turn the handle.
One reason compost piles are slow is that the microbes do not get enough air. By mixing up the ingredients more frequently, air is added and it matures faster. This is certainly sound science.
Mother Earth News ran some product tests, comparing various brands of tumblers to stationary compost piles. They concluded, “Under our environmental conditions, both the open (hot) pile control and the tumblers yielded rich, finished compost in about 10 weeks.”
It is important to understand that in this study both the pile and tumblers were turned at the same frequency. If you turn your compost pile regularly, it will perform just as well as the compost tumblers. Claims by manufacturers of producing compost in two weeks are highly exaggerated.
Compost tumblers do have some benefits over conventional compost piles, but they also have some disadvantages.
- Turning most tumblers is easier than turning a compost pile. If turning is easier, you might do it more often, and your compost will be ready faster.
- Since the tumbler is a closed system, rodents and other animals will not be a problem.
- Some people feel it looks better, but a big blue barrel is not exactly pretty!
- It may produce fewer odors, if the ratio of greens to browns is correct.
- It is more expensive. A pile on the ground is free.
- Tumblers have a limited small size; piles can be any size and can change in size as needed.
- The barrel traps water inside, making it difficult to control moisture levels. This could be a benefit in dry climates.
- Control of browns and greens is more critical. Too much green and the tumbler becomes a slimy mess.
Compost tumblers do not make compost faster than a well-turned pile, but they may encourage you to turn more often. In discussions on social media, some people love their tumblers, but most do not. Old-fashioned compost piles and the small stationary plastic composters are more popular.