How to Use a Compost Tumbler – What to Put and What NOT to Put Inside It

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Whether you create beautiful beds of flowering plants or farm on a backyard scale with a vegetable garden, rich, organic compost can help you grow the healthiest and most attractive plants. A compost tumbler lets you turn yard waste and some kitchen scraps into a nutrient-rich soil additive without the use of any chemical fertilizers.

In order to achieve these goals, you need to know how to use a compost tumbler and understand what can and cannot be put inside it. Some things simply will not work and some can cause problems such as attracting pests or vermin.

How to Use a Compost Tumbler

Garden and hardware stores carry prebuilt compost tumblers that can sit in your backyard and help you create organic fertilizer or soil. Learning how to use a compost tumbler starts with proper placement. Choose a flat piece of ground, preferably in the sun, in a place that will not bother the neighbors and is convenient to the garden area.

Things You Can Put in a Compost Tumbler

Since the first step in making compost is adding waste materials to the canister, you first need to know what you can put inside safely. This is generally known as brown and green waste. It comes from your yard, gardens, and kitchen.

1. From the Yard and Garden

Most yard waste in small pieces can go in the compost tumbler. This includes grass clippings from when you mow, fallen leaves, small pieces of brush or twigs, woods chips, and other organic matter like scraped-off moss and dead bedding plants.

Some harder or larger items like twigs and wood chips may take more than one season to break down completely. Other long-term compost possibilities include pine cones, pine straw, fallen nuts or their shells, and saw dust.

2. From the House

Kitchen waste that helps you succeed at home to use a compost tumbler must be non-animal in nature. Fruit or vegetable peels or cores, stale bread, tea leaves, coffee grounds, or old leftovers that have no meat, meat juices, fish, or eggs.

Other possibilities do not come from the kitchen. You can put other things in the compost tumbler as well. Include vacuumed dust and small debris, dryer lint, bedding for vegetarian pet cages, shredded paper towels or tissues, hair or fur clippings, and other items that decompose like wine corks and shredded cardboard boxes or egg cartons.

Things You Shouldn’t Put in a Compost Tumbler

These materials are either dangerous, inorganic, or will attract vermin and pests.

  • Ashes from coal fires
  • Colored or shiny paper and cardboard
  • Meat products, dairy, bones, or fish parts
  • Chemicals and any other nonorganic substances
  • Pet waste
  • Weeds that have already sprouted seeds
  • Diseased plants or fungus

Steps That Cover How to Use a Compost Tumbler

Although creating compost is not a time-consuming matter that requires a lot of hard work on your part, you do need to follow steps carefully for the best results. If you think how to use a compost tumbler involves simply tossing everything in the above lists into the barrel and occasionally turning it around, you are mistaken.

1. Add Materials to the Tumbler Properly

Everything you add to the container should be small in order to decompose quickly. Do not throw a whole newspaper or a long branch in there and expect rich soil to come out in a month. Also, add things incrementally. This means you should not fill the canister 90% full of grass clippings and then put in a few vegetable scraps. Make sure you have a good mix or things may clump together and not rot evenly.

The brown waste materials like shredded paper and sawdust should only be approximately 25% of the total compost. Green waste makes up the rest. This is an easy way to ensure that the finished result has the right pH balance.

Consider compost starter products if you want to speed up the process. You can buy these from garden supply stores or online. This includes beneficial bacteria and micro-organisms that help break down materials. Some include pH balancers such as lime or nitrogen to speed up the process.

2. When and How to Tumble the Canister

The methods used in how to use a compost tumbler physically depend on the shape, size, and mechanism of the one you buy or make. Most of them look like a barrel either horizontally or vertically set in a framework. A crank handle comes out one side or there are handles on the barrel that make flipping or rotating it easier.

Crank the handle on the compost tumbler at least three times per week. Several revolutions are ideal with some shaking and back and forth swinging in the middle. The idea is to break up and aerate the compost within, not just give it a quick whirl. Do not tumble it excessively or it will not reach the necessary temperatures to decompose the materials.

3. How Do You Know When the Compost is Done?

In general, it takes about a month to go from grass clippings and kitchen scraps to finished compost. The time depends on what you put in the tumbler, how warm or sunny it was, how much moisture got into the container, and a few other factors.

Peek inside. The bulk of materials should be reduced by approximately 50%. It should be uniform, dark, moist, and rich in organic materials. A few chunky fruit cores or thicker twigs may remain. You can either sift them out using a large-holed screen or leave them.


Using a compost tumbler with the proper stuff inside not only helps you get rid of yard and kitchen waste responsibly, it also helps you grow the lushest flowers and most delicious and healthy vegetables possible. Best of all, everything will be organic and eco-friendly, too. It is simple to get started with a store-bought compost tumbler, although it is also possible to build your own if you enjoy do-it-yourself projects.

Have you ever used a compost tumbler before? Let us know your methods and tips to make rich, black compost for your garden. Just getting started? Follow the tips above and your garden will thank you.


Jonathan E. Bass

Graduated from Middle Tennessee State University. I am currently a gardener. I have a small garden behind my house. I love it.

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