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How to Use a Compost Tumbler

If you want to get started with backyard composting and you don’t have a ton of space, a compost tumbler is a great choice. Learn how to use a compost tumbler and check out my review of the Miracle-Gro Dual Chamber Compost Tumbler.

How to use a compost tumbler & my Miracle-Gro Dual Chamber Compost Tumbler review

One of the HUGE draws for our new house was the big backyard. The house itself might be much smaller, but the yard is perfect. Large, rectangular, and flat. And brimming with potential!

I don’t think we’ll do too much in the outdoor space this season. Maybe put in a fire pit (which I am so excited about!). Maybe a few garden beds. But we’ll be primarily focused on getting settled in and prioritizing projects.

One thing I did immediately, however, was order a compost tumbler. Although we had a small backyard before, there really wasn’t a great place for a compost tumbler. And the kitchen was upstairs, making it less convenient to bring scraps out.

I know us. We are somewhat lazy. We probably would not have had a lot of success using a compost tumbler in the old house. But in the new house? We’ve given it a go!

miracle gro double compost tumbler

What is a tumbling composter and how does it work?

Composting can be as easy as throwing food scraps into a designated area of your yard. My parents do that. And it works for them because they have a huge yard. They can put their compost pile off in the corner, and no one is the wiser.

I like the idea of a tumbling compost for us, though, because we can keep it up near the kitchen  and not have it become unsightly. Plus tumbling a giant heap of compost material to circulate the air flow is a lot of work.

Enter the tumbling composter, the perfect solution for composting in smaller amounts! A tumbling compost is essentially a barrel up on bars (to allow you to easily rotate it). The barrels come in different sizes, and some even come with two barrels.

To add compost material, you open a hatch on a barrel and toss it in. You then close the hatch and can rotate the barrel on the frame to “tumble” or mix up the compost. 

pictures of compost in hands and text overlay that says examples of finished compost

How long do tumbling composters take?

One huge perk of using a tumbling composter is that the hatch and enclosed space generate and seal heat into the barrel. Combined with turning the compost (the point of the tumbler approach), you really speed up the composting process.

That’s because oxygen + heat = a faster composting process. Though it’s really important to note that even if a compost tumbler markets itself as “generates ready-to-use compost in 3–4 weeks,” this is under ideal conditions.

Placing a composting barrel outdoors in the middle of summer will probably get you the fastest results. (That is, assuming you have an appropriate mix of materials in the barrel.) You can compost in the winter, but it will take longer.

miracle gro double compost tumbler

Want more gardening content? Check out my post on How to Plant a Garden From Scratch and my large DIY Wire Trellis for a Fence tutorial!

Does a compost tumbler smell?

Decomposing matter is definitely going to have a scent. Whether you like it or not is totally based on personal preference. However, a tumbling composter should not smell so bad that you have to plug your nose when you add materials to it or walk by it.

If you do have a horrible smell, it’s probably because the balance of your materials is off and your compost mixture is too wet. This is a huge reason why turning your compost is so important: it circulates oxygen and aerates things.

Take a look at what is in your compost pile, too. Do you need to add more dry ingredients? Is something off balance? Most issues can be addressed by mixing in another material to balance things out.

photos of compost bins and piles with text that says different ways of composting

How to start a compost tumbler

After you’ve set up your compost tumbler, the first step is to begin filling it. I am going to be filling mine regularly until it is full, which I realize might not be the most efficient way to do it.

Some people recommend waiting until you have enough of a mixture to put in the barrel, and then turning the compost mixture daily. However, I don’t want my compost materials sitting around in our kitchen, so I just add them every few days.

Step 1: Add waste

When determining what to add to your compost barrel, remember that you should have about a 50/50 mixture of “green” and “brown” waste at any given time. And this is measured by weight, not volume (or visual amount). The volume/visual amount is more like 20/80 green to brown.

  • Green waste is typically high in nitrogen and includes fresh grass clippings, fresh leaves and foliage, and many kitchen scraps. This waste provides nutrients and moisture.
  • Brown waste is typically high in carbon and includes paper, cardboard, eggshells, dried leaves, and more. This waste balances out the moisture during the decomposition process.

I am not adding any meat, fish, dairy, or excessively fatty/oily things to my compost tumbler. I realize there are a lot of opinions on what you can and cannot compost, so this is just what I am doing!

If you’re just starting a batch out, it’s a good idea to throw in a handful of fresh soil or compost to help with beneficial bacteria and microbes. Normally a compost pile could get this from the ground, but since the barrel is self-contained, you jump-starting it can help.

collage of paper shreds, egg shells, dry leaves, and cardboard that says examples of brown/dry waste
collage of food scraps, leaves, and grass clippings that says examples of green/west waste

Step 2: Consider an accelerator

Speaking of jump-starting, you might want to consider adding a compost accelerator to the barrel. An accelerator essentially brings more good bacteria into the mixture to help supercharge the decomp process.

It’s not totally necessary, but it also won’t hurt. I haven’t used one yet, but I might consider trying it as an experiment in the future.

Can you put worms in a compost tumbler?

You might be wondering if adding worms to a compost tumbler would be a good idea. The answer is no! Don’t do it. They will die 🙁 It will get so hot in there and totally nuke them. That might seem weird because you probably associate worms with compost.

But that’s a different kind of composting—vermicomposting. Or a type of composting in which worms slowly eat your compost materials and poop it out. That worm poop (aka “worm castings”) is GOLD for plants. There are special setups for vermicomposting.

I talked about how I use organic worm castings for my houseplants in my houseplant soil 101 post, but I don’t have my own worm farm. I just buy bags of them at a local nursery.

collage of worm compost with text that says never put worms in a compost barrel! use a stackable vermicomposter instead

Step 3: Turn daily and monitor

Once you start adding materials to your barrel, make sure you keep it aerated by turning the barrels daily. This is especially important once the barrel is full and really cookin!

If you notice that you have bad smells, definitely check the ratio of greens to browns. If it wet and smelly, add more browns to dry things out. And make sure you’re continuing to spin that barrel.

If you aren’t seeing much progress and the conditions are otherwise ideal, add some more organic, nutrient-rich “green” matter. You can also throw in a cup of water to add moisture if things are too dry. 

Once the mixture looks like a dark, fine soil, it’s ready to go! Give it back to the earth and start over.

What can I add to my compost tumbler aside from kitchen scraps, grass, paper, and leaves?

Again, I mentioned that there are lots of opinions about what can and cannot be composted. But here are a few things you can add to your compost bin that you probably didn’t think you could. Let’s keep them out of the trash!

  • Popcorn kernels
  • Human and pet hair
  • Napkins and paper towels (avoid those that have been used with fatty or oily things)
  • Paper plates and cardstock/cardboard that doesn’t have that glossy/waxy finish coating
  • Ash from a wood-burning fire
  • Sawdust from cutting wood that hasn’t been treated with preservatives or pesticides
  • Natural fabrics and strings (cotton, wool, twine, etc)
  • Old soil that has been depleted of nutrients (just make sure you haven’t used harsh insecticide chemicals on the plants and that they are pest-free)

Whatever you add to your compost tumbler, make sure you dice, shred, or pulverize into smaller pieces. The smaller your pieces, the faster they will break down into compost.

collage of popcorn kernels, hair, natural rope, and sawdust that says other things you can add to a compost tumbler

How to get rid of flies in a compost tumbler

I have now had my compost tumbler for about 6 months. And yes, I have dealt with a few bouts of gnats! They haven’t bugged us when the tumbler panels are closed, though.

It’s only when you open the tumbler to check things or throw some compost in that they go crazy and fly at your face. If you’ve read my post about fungus gnats on houseplants and how to get rid of them, you know that the gnats are attracted to the damp organic matter.

So that makes keeping them at bay kinda hard. You want a good mix of greens and browns, and that means that if you have a fungus gnat problem, you might have a mix that needs more browns (paper, cardboard, etc.) added to it.

Here are a few different ways I read about to get rid of gnats in a compost tumbler…

When trying to figure out the best way forward, I took a look at suggestions from a few others. Here are some of the methods I found that I DIDN’T use…

  • Adding vinegar to the barrel (I didn’t use this because I didn’t want to make it super wet)
  • Adding boiling water to the barrel (Same as above—didn’t want to make it super wet)
  • Using sticky fly tape (I didn’t use this method because the fly problem was inside the barrel…not outside. So I wasn’t sure how adding fly tape outside would help)
  • Wrapping juicy waste to prevent the gnats from getting to it (this seemed strange to me since the wrapping would break down eventually, and that organic matter would still be here
shredded cardboard

And here’s what I did do to get rid of the gnats…

But I did get rid of the gnats! It took about a week or two, but I killed them all off. Here’s what I did:

  • Added browns—shredded cardboard and paper—to dry things out; it was too wet because I was adding water too much
  • Tumbled in the morning and in the evening to keep things mixed up
  • Opened the panels and let them sit in direct sun for a day or two to air things out and speed up the drying process (obvs not if it’s raining)
  • Monitored my greens to browns ratio more closely and added far less water, erring on the side of a drier compost mix even if it meant slowing down the composting process

My Miracle-Gro Dual Chamber Compost Tumbler review

I also wanted to provide a review of the Miracle-Gro Dual Chamber Compost Tumbler that I decided on. Including why I chose this one, because I read a ton of reviews first! Here are the reasons why I chose it:

  • It’s great for smaller spaces and doesn’t look ugly. You can put it anywhere in the yard, and it isn’t a terrible eyesore.
  • It has two compartments. This means that while you have one side cooking, you can start a second round of compost! My friend has the single-barrel version of this and ended up buying a second one to replicate the double-barrel method.
  • It has a built-in handle that makes it easy to turn. While the handle isn’t as good as this more expensive barrel composter, it is much better than the no-handle option on this slightly cheaper barrel composter.
  • It has built-in aeration. There are bars on the inside of the barrels that help more efficiently aerate your compost when you turn it.
  • The reviews. The reviews are mixed on Home Depot’s website, but they are overwhelmingly positive on other websites like Amazon. Since I had my friend’s recommendation from her experience using the single-barrel version of this composter, I went for it! And I’m happy I did.
  • The price. It’s not a bottom-of-the-line model, meaning it isn’t the cheapest. But it also isn’t super expensive. Because it doesn’t need to be. This one does the job!
miracle gro double compost tumbler in a box
setting up the miracle gro double compost tumbler

If this double-barrel composter isn’t big enough for you, there is also a bigger double-barrel version.

Overall, we are super happy with this choice. While I haven’t gotten usable compost yet, we have noticed a SIGNIFICANT decrease in our trash on trash day. It’s amazing how much kitchen waste we all throw away, and I’m happy that I have another use for it now.

Pin my guide on how to use a compost tumbler!

collage of kitchen scraps and compost in hands with text overlay that says all about how to use a compost tumbler

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