Q&A: Should I buy a tumbler for winter composting?

 

Compost tumbler patent lunaria gardens

I get asked a lot of questions about compost. There are so many different methods and bits misinformation out there, plus, we can’t actually see the composting process with the naked eye. Off-balance compost is a direct result of off-balance land & resource management. A balanced compost, managed in a way that works for your needs, is a thing of beauty, that you’ll wonder how you ever got along without.

Today a received the following via Facebook, from a sculptor & mom living in Vermont:

Question:

Any chance you know anything about winter composting with a tumbler composter? Despite my best intentions, I can’t make my own (and never manage to turn the compost in the bin we have) so I am looking for a commercially available tumbler. Any thoughts? The only one advertised (online at least) for winter composting is $300. Thanks!

Answer:
I’m generally not into tumblers, especially if they’re new and cost $300. I have heard of some people having success with them, but generally they seem marketed heavily, then abandoned in many gardens. I’ve seen more than a couple metal ones that are rusted through in a couple seasons’ time – compost should be consistently damp, after all. Four-season Maine farmer, Eliot Coleman, cautions that organic methods will never ever be mainstream, because companies can’t sell you anything. All the required materials are free, and it encourages self-sufficiency & frugality.¹

One major issue with tumblers is that if you’re always adding fresh material, you’ll always have the contents broken down at different rates. So you either have to have a few tumblers to work between, or it has be used in combination with another technique.

Is there a rush to get finished compost through the winter? You’re working against a lot because composting is essentially aerobic microbial activity, which slows down to a halt in low temps. So I would doubt that a tumbler, which is a fairly small, non-insulated volume fully exposed to the elements, would do a very good job.

Some first steps:
Reduce kitchen waste with planning, preservation, conservation, & stock-making.
Compost everything: Many believe that you can’t compost meat or dairy products. Maybe it’s that I make panir from milk about to turn, or simmer bones for stock, but I’ve never had issues with these things. I say compost everything. Hair from your hairbrush, toilet paper rolls, paper recycling. Err on the side of too much carbon, as the only risk is slower decomposition. Too much nitrogen, on the other hand, can create stinky, anaerobic conditions.

If turning the compost is an issue, I would look into the following options:

1. Slow, cold composting: This basically means making a pile, and then not turning it. Just have at least 3 bins, at least 3×3′, so you can start new piles every few months. You’ll have to wait maybe a year to use the finished batch, which may not be fast enough for your gardening needs.

2. Sheet composting/ mulching: usually used as a labor-saving, no-till method to establish new garden beds. But you can continue to replenish nutrients in existing beds this way too.
– if starting over top of grass or weeds, lay down uncoated cardboard or several layers of newspaper.
– layer nitrogenous material (kitchen scraps, grass clippings, manure)
– layer carbonaceous material (fall leaves, shredded paper, straw, dryer lint)|
– Continue layering materials until you decide to let to area rest & break down.
Now is a good time to start this method, with all the fall leaves & garden waste straw, and winter’s periods of freezing & thawing, breaking everything down for springtime. You can put black plastic, or cold frames over beds to speed up decomposition. Corn & squash are good crops to plant in areas that are still a bit rough.

3. Trench/ anaerobic composting: digging shallow trenches in the proximity of your garden beds to bury kitchen & garden waste. Involves digging & filling in holes frequently, which sounds outright terrible for winter, and generally undesirable to me, but I like turning compost piles.

4. Poultry/ livestock: chickens are efficient scavengers, and will gladly eat your kitchen scraps while reducing winter feed cost. Rabbits have similar dies to humans, & love carrot tops, wilted cabbage leaves, kale stems. And we all know about the eating habits of pigs & goats.

A dead-simple chicken & compost integration we used at the former Lunaria Farm. Bend a length of welded wire fencing into a cylinder, and fold down a chicken hatch so the birds can hop in and out easily. Once it's full, close the hatch and start a new bin. The one on the right has been resting.
A dead-simple chicken & compost integration we used at the former Lunaria Farm. Bend a length of welded wire fencing into a cylinder, and fold down a chicken hatch so the birds can hop in and out easily. Once it’s full, close the hatch and start a new bin. The one on the right has been resting.


5. Bokashi: I haven’t tried this method, but I hear good things. It can be done indoors.

6.Worm composting: also good for indoors, as redworms are most comfortable around the same temps as us. They don’t like to eat very strongly flavored kitchen scraps, like citrus or garlic/ onions.

7. Tower composter: if you must buy something, this may be your best commercial bet. In essence, you put fresh material in the top, and by the time it gets to the bottom, it’s broken down. You must be adding enough carbonaceous material for there to be a 30:1 C:N ratio, like “regular” composting. Make sure there’s lots of air flow, as most of the commercial units are marketed to people obsessed with keeping every bug and critter out of their holy human proximity. (I like to think that these “vermin” are just part of the big web of life involved in the compost process.) I recently met an old timer who raved about his tower that’s been going strong for many years. He places it on a pallet to improve air flow.

8. Hired labor: Instead of paying for a plastic thing, give someone a job. Pay a neighbor to help you turn compost every few months. Depending on the size & moisture of the pile, it usually takes no more than an hour.

Built in a few hours from surplus shipping pallets with a materials cost of zero. Lunaria Gardens designed & built 3-bin compost system for an urban rental property. The bins utilize an awkward, shady corner under the low canopy of a crabapple, and the landlord couldn't be happier.
Built in a few hours from surplus shipping pallets with a materials cost of zero. Lunaria Gardens designed & built 3-bin compost system for an urban rental property. The bins utilize an awkward, shady corner under the low canopy of a crabapple, and the landlord couldn’t be happier.

I’m sure there are many more methods than I’ve listed here. Readers, what techniques are working for you?

 

¹Eliot Coleman, Keynote presentation at Bioneers by the Bay Conference, Marion Institute, Marion, Massachusetts, 2008

Related post: Compost bins / White Oak / Doylestown, PA

2 Comments

  1. I live on a tiny lot in Allentown’s West End. I’ve had luck with a dual-chambered tumbler that I placed at the back of my garage almost in the alley (with a northern exposure for warmth.) When one side was filled, I simply started loading up the other. Made nice compost! I just continue alternating sides for filling. I think it was about $160. So happy that I’m not discarding kitchen scraps anymore.

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