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How to Use a Compost Tumbler

By Macy McDonald ; Updated September 21, 2017
Finished compost

Whether using a commercially manufactured or homemade compost tumbler, the biggest advantage is ease in “turning.” This action helps to add air, one of the vital components necessary to transform organic matter into rich, dark compost. Tumblers claim to speed up the composting process while controlling odors and are an excellent solution for small yards and city dwellers.

Using a Tumbler

Assemble your tumbler and place on a firm, level surface such as a concrete pad, bricks or pavers. To insure stability, execute the tumbling action with the unit empty. A full unit can be heavy and runs the risk of tipping if not sitting securely.

Gather and prepare material to be added to the tumbler. “Green” materials are items with a high nitrogen content, including fruit and vegetable food scraps, hair, coffee grounds, tea, garden refuse, manure and grass clippings. “Brown” items are carbon-rich. Examples would be paper, dried grass, fall leaves, straw, sawdust and woody branches. Run large items through a chipper/shredder to reduce their surface area.

Add items to the tumbler. Achieving the correct ratio of “green" to "brown” is essential when using a compost tumbler. Keep it balanced by adding 50 percent brown and 50 percent green material or follow guidelines included for your particular model. An odor of ammonia indicates an excess of nitrogen-rich green matter. Add dried leaves, wood ash, pine needles or other brown matter to achieve a healthy balance. Compost should smell like dark, earthy dirt. Manufacturers of compost activators claim their products jump start the curing process by adding microorganisms. An optional alternative is to add finished compost--gathered from a friend's pile--or sprinkle a small amount of topsoil into your tumbler. Avoid adding diseased plant matter, chemically treated wood products, fats, oils or salts. Dairy products and meat scraps will attract pests and emit an unpleasant smell.

Cover mixture with water until it is the dampness of a wrung-out sponge. Use reclaimed rain water, if possible. Avoid municipal water sources which are often treated with chemicals that kill the bacteria necessary to decompose your organics. Watering frequency will depend on the amount of wet green materials added and the humidity of your climate, but compost should always be damp.

Close the unit, secure the lid and follow the tumbling instructions for your individual unit. Models may crank, roll or turn on an axis. Each type has advantages and disadvantages but performs the same action. Rotate your tumbler daily if possible, no less than two to three times a week. Add new materials and water as necessary. Some units claim to make compost in as few as 14 days under ideal conditions


Things You Will Need

  • Compost tumbler
  • Organic matter
  • Water


  • Composting is not an exact science and there is no single "right way." It is a process of trial and error with the results dependent on a multitude of factors (e.g., climate, variety of organic matter, watering source, amount of natural bacteria). Try keeping a journal of items added, progress timeline, core temperature and final outcome.

About the Author


Macy McDonald has been writing and editing professionally since 2002. Her knowledge of home, garden, and travel topics led her to begin writing for Demand Studios in 2009 while continuing to provide private clients with marketing, technical and promotional copy. She is currently working towards completing her degree in communications.