How to Use a Compost Tumbler at Home
Earlier this year, New York City suspended its city composting program. This meant that hundreds of thousands of people, myself included, could no longer rely on the city to take care of their food scraps. And without an alternative, tons and tons of food scraps would make their way to the landfill. Here, they’d produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas that warms the planet, which leads to climate change. And we don’t want that. So, I decided I would start using a compost tumbler at home in the back yard. My landlord still doesn’t know I’m doing it. But to be honest, he doesn’t really care. Plus, he says we’re his favorite tenants, so I think I’m good.
As I was doing my research on how to compost, which method would work best for me, and which would be the best option for avoiding pests, I found that a lot of websites and blogs on the internet contradicted each other or didn’t answer most of the questions I had, especially when it came to maintaining and checking in on the compost. All they said was: here’s the proper ratio for your compost (much of which contradicted all of the other sites I looked at). And that was it. None of them explained how to layer the contents of your compost, how often to rotate it, or how to know if the composting process was actually working.
So I turned to an expert – someone who could give me first-hand advice and answer all of my questions.
Nikita Legall is from my home island of Trinidad. She’s not only been composting for years, but she also teaches people how to do it. She also has a super helpful online community on her Instagram where she shares her adventures and tips on growing an organic garden and composting in her backyard. Here are Nikita’s insights, along with what I’ve learned over the past several months of composting. But first. . .
Here are common terms you’ll need to know when learning how to compost at home
- Greens – These are nitrogen-rich matter. Things like food scraps, green leaves, and grass clippings are all considered “greens.” They account for the nitrogen in your compost, which is crucial to decomposition. Greens have both nitrogen and carbon, but they are predominantly nitrogen.
- Browns – These are rich in carbon. Things like brown leaves, brown paper bags, cardboard, twigs, sawdust, and newspaper are all considered “browns.” They account for the carbon in your compost, which is just as crucial to the process. Browns have both carbon and nitrogen, but they are predominantly carbon.
Now that we’ve got the basics squared away, let’s get into the good stuff. . .
Here are the Most Common Questions People Ask When Learning How to Use a Compost Tumbler at Home
Is there a certain way you should layer your browns and greens when filling your compost tumbler at home?
Start with a layer of browns first. That way, when you start putting your greens in there, the browns will absorb any excess liquid from the greens as they break down.
After that, as long as you’re putting in the right ratio of browns to greens, it doesn’t matter what order you put them into the bin. But try to make sure that your greens are always covered. If you’re adding matter to your bin but are not going to rotate it that day, first add the greens, and then add the browns to create a cover layer. This will prevent fruit flies or any pests from getting into your tumbler. If you’re adding browns and greens right before you rotate your bin, it doesn’t matter which you add first since it will all mix together when you rotate it.
How high should you fill your compost tumbler?
Fill it all the way to the top. Once the organic matter inside is mixed and starts to break down, everything is going to naturally compress, removing any air spaces in between. You’ll know your compost is working when the pile starts to compress and get smaller.
Once you’ve filled your compost tumbler to the top, and a few days have passed, it should start to get hot inside. If it doesn’t get hot, or has a weird smell, or has too much liquid, you can adjust the ratio of browns to greens in the tumbler. Scroll down to see common issues and how to troubleshoot them by tweaking the ratios.
Keep in mind: Learning how to compost is about trial and error. It’s a process. You won’t get it perfect the first time around. Believe me, I’ve tried. Eventually, I succumbed to the fact that I never got anything right the first time, so why would this be any different? During the first few weeks of learning how to compost at home, I definitely had to suppress the inner perfectionist in me. I realized that I don’t have to be the world’s best composter. There’s no award or medal. There’s just my ego. And all I really have to do is get the job done. My goal for composting was to eliminate the my food scraps from going to the landfill. So as long as that happens, I’m good.
What is a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio? Is there really an ideal ratio? And how the hell do I figure that sh*t out? Some websites recommend a 1:1 ratio, others say it should be a 3:1 ratio. And yet other resources say that different browns and greens have different carbon-to-nitrogen ratios. This sounds too complicated! I’m not a scientist!
Carbon-to-nitrogen Ratio (C:N for short) is the ideal ratio needed for your organic matter to break down into compost. If you have a perfect C:N ratio, your food scraps will become compost as fast as humanly possible. That ideal ratio ranges from 24:1 to 30:1 depending on who you ask, i.e., 24 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen or 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. We’ll stick to a 30:1 ratio to keep it simple-ish.
Here’s where it can get confusing. While your compost needs a 30:1 C:N ratio, everything that you put in a compost, whether it be food scraps, leaves, twigs, or cardboard boxes, has it’s own C:N ratio. With that said, there’s no one-size-fits-all C:N ratio because a banana peel has a different ratio to an avocado seed. And the dried leaves in your backyard may have a different C:N ratio to the type of brown paper someone else uses. So saying “3 parts browns to 1 part greens” won’t apply to everyone since they’re all putting different browns and different greens in their compost tumbler.
Soooo… what is the right browns-to-greens ratio when composting or using a home compost tumbler?
Short answer: There isn’t one.
Long answer: Start with a 1:1 ratio and observe what happens. The specific things you put in there will dictate what YOUR RATIO needs to be. You may need to put way more greens than browns because of the specific things you add. Or, you may need to put way more browns than greens. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
You can get real anal with it, but you don’t have to. You can make compost perfectly fine without have the perfect C:N ratio. It just may take a bit longer. And that’s OK!
Still, if you wanna get a better idea of what the C:N ratios are for commonly-added browns and greens, you can check out this Carbon to Nitrogen Compost Calculator. It doesn’t list every possible thing that you could put in a compost tumbler. But just by looking at the list, you can get an idea for what something might be by looking at similar browns and greens.
I initially did the 1:1 ratio and found that my tumbler wasn’t getting hot. It didn’t make any sense since most websites tell you to put 3 parts browns to 1 part greens. But because of the specific types of browns I put in, I needed much more greens to create a better C:N ratio.
Here’s an example: if you’re putting dried leaves into your compost, you’re gonna need a lot more browns than I me if I’m putting man-made cardboard boxes in my mine. The leaves will naturally break down easier. However, the cardboard boxes will require more to break down simply because that’s their nature.
Do you need to break your greens and browns into small pieces before putting them into your compost?
The smaller your compost bits are, the faster they’ll breakdown. With that in mind, it’s best to break down everything you put into your compost tumbler as much as possible. Ideally, the items you add should be, individually, no bigger than an inch or two. The best way to do this is to rip, chop, or cut your waste into small pieces. I find this to be quite meditative actually, since I usually do a big batch at a time. E.g., rip up your banana peel, shred your brown paper bags, and chop your broccoli stalks into 1 inch chunks. Don’t throw the whole thing in there. I mean, you could, but it’ll slow down the composting process a lot.
How often should you rotate your home compost tumbler?
I recommend turning your tumbler every 3 days. If you turn it too frequently, you’ll over-aerate your pile. This makes it harder for it to heat up. However, if your compost pile is not heating up between rotations, you can rotate it less frequently.
If you rotate too infrequently, like every 1-2 weeks, it won’t get enough oxygen to break down fast enough. It’ll still break down, but it will be much slower.
How do you check the temperature of your compost? And do you even really need to?
You can use a compost thermometer to check the temperature of your compost. You could technically use a cooking thermometer but the stem might not be long enough to reach the center of your compost pile, which is where you need to get the temperature reading. Here are the different ranges you want to aim for:
- The Steady Zone (80-100°F) – as long as your compost is within this range, it will start to break down
- The Active Zone (100-130°F) – this should be your goal as it will break down your compost much faster since there’s more heat fueling the process
- The Hot Zone (130-160°F) – most home composting systems won’t get this hot since they’re usually not big enough to create this level of heat. But if you can get your compost to this temperature, you’ll be blazing through the compost process at lightening speed.
Heads up… you don’t want your compost temp going above 160°F. Such high temperatures can kill off the microorganisms that help break down your food scraps. Plus, there’s a slight chance it could catch on fire. I freaked out when I first learned about this potential hazard. But I have a greater chance of getting struck by lightning and getting eaten by a shark in the same day than I do getting my compost to be this hot.
Oh, and by the way, Reotemp (the company that makes the compost thermometer pictured above) has a great Backyard Composting Guide that you can download for free. It has a great little graphic on what to add to your compost, info on the temperature ranges, and FAQs on how to measure the temperature of your compost.
Side Note: I tried buying this thermometer straight from the Reotemp website. But it was 50% more than it was on Amazon. Plus, there was the additional cost of shipping. So I called a few local plant shops and hardware stores to see if they had a composting thermometer. None of them did. So, I resorted to buying it online from Amazon.
I’m all for supporting local and small businesses. But paying double is something I’m just not OK with. Especially when it’s for the exact same product. If the price was the same on the company’s website, I would’ve been happy to pay the extra for the shipping. But I wasn’t willing to do that and pay 50% more. Have you ever experienced this kind of debacle? Let me know in the comments below.
How often should you measure the temperature of your home compost?
I check it right before I rotate it. This lets me know if its ready to rotate of or if I should wait another day or so. Nikita checks hers every week or two, but she’s a total pro at this point.
People always say that you don’t wanna send your food scraps (and other organic matter) to the landfill because it produces methane gas. Why do food scraps create methane in a landfill, but not in a home compost?
When food and other organic matter break down without oxygen, that’s when the methane gas gets produced. In a landfill, everything is squished together so tightly that the matter doesn’t have the oxygen it needs to break down properly, which produces the methane gas. The reason composting is so awesome is because the organic matter can break down with enough oxygen, moisture, and heat to do so (without producing planet-warming greenhouse gases like methane).
Can you put compostable plastics in your home compost or compost tumbler?
Short answer: It depends. But generally no.
Compostable plastics usually require a commercial compost in order to break down. This is because home composting systems simply don’t reach high enough temperatures to break these compostable plastics down. There are some commercially compostable products, such as compostable dental floss, beeswax wraps or pet waste bags that can break down in a compost tumbler or backyard compost… as long as you cut them up into small pieces and as long as your compost gets hot enough. For a complete guide to understanding compostable products, check out my blog post on compostable products. It answers all of the FAQs around compostable products and why they can be so misleading.
Why are weeds bad for a compost?
If you put weeds into your compost pile, they could eventually end up growing in the plants you use to fertilize that compost with. You see, a backyard compost or compost tumbler usually doesn’t get to the high temperatures you need to kill off weeds. And the last thing you want is to voluntarily put weeds into the plant pots and garden beds you’ve worked so hard to grow. So keep those weeds outta your compost pile.
Can you use soil for your “browns?”
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Soil is not the same as compost. I initially thought compost was just nutrient-rich soil. But compost is what gives soil its nutrients, as in: soil get nutrients when it’s surrounded by organic matter such as compost. So even though soil is brown, and sometimes dry, that doesn’t mean it is rich in carbon. This means it wouldn’t do anything for your compost. Once your compost is done, you can and should mix it into your soil so it can essentially feed off of the compost.
Are there any magic compost ingredients?
Coffee grounds!! They do a great job of heating up your compost. Plus, they keep pests away since they don’t like how it smells. You can use coffee grounds from your daily dose of coffee in the morning. Or if you live near a coffee shop, ask them if you can get all of the coffee grounds that they’re probably gonna toss anyway.
What’s 1 takeaway for anyone who’s new to composting, or is thinking of starting to compost at home?
Be observant. And when in doubt, YouTube it.
How to troubleshoot issues when learning how to use a home compost tumbler:
Here is a screenshot from the manual of my compost tumbler, which breaks down the most common problems you can have when composting and offers a solution:
I hope that eliminates any fear or anxiety you may be having about starting to compost at home, either using a backyard compost or a compost tumbler. The truth is: it’s so much easier than it looks. And once you get a routine going, all of the questions and worries go away. And it becomes effortless. Take it from someone who spent months researching composting methods and comparing the different tumbler options. I’ve done all of the questioning, the worrying, the overanalyzing. It’s worth it. And it can be fun too!
Check out the full Q&A I had with Nikita before I began composting
“Nature doesn’t require you to be perfect.”
— Nikita Legall, Compost Guru