Composting is a rewarding way to recycle kitchen and yard waste, but turning a big compost pile by hand can be back-breaking labor. A compost tumbler saves time and energy, but commercial models are expensive and smaller units can be difficult to find. Building a homemade compost tumbler is a simple project that can be done with salvaged or recycled materials.
Prepare the Tumbler
A lidded, 50-gallon plastic drum is an ideal tumbler. If you salvage a plastic drum, be certain it has not been used for hazardous materials. Clean your drum thoroughly to prevent residue from its original contents from contaminating your compost. Drill several lines of aeration holes evenly spaced along the length of the barrel. Make the holes large enough to allow air to circulate, but not so large that compost falls out as the drum turns. Make two holes a few inches above the midline, and insert a length of PVC pipe or a 2- to 3-inch thick wooden dowel through both holes. This is the pivot bar upon which the barrel rotates. Make sure the barrel turns easily on the bar. If it sticks, enlarge the holes slightly.
Build a Frame
Two sawhorses make a solid frame for the compost tumbler. The frame must hold the pivot bar securely in place, and raise the tumbler a few inches off the ground so it turns freely. Build and place your frame on a solid, even location. If the ground below the frame is soft or uneven, the tumbler may sink when it is full or tip over during rotation. Place the tumbler in full sun; the extra heat speeds decomposition.
Shovel a good mixture of organic materials into the tumbler. Aim for equal parts high-nitrogen green material such as grass, plant trimmings or kitchen scraps, and high-carbon brown material such as wood chips and dead leaves. Chop any large material into small, uniform chunks to speed up decomposition. No compost starters or activators are needed with a good mix of nitrogen and carbon ingredients. Top this with a shovel of garden soil to introduce beneficial microorganisms. Do not use soil treated with pesticides, which can remain in finished compost. Sterilized potting soil will not work for this purpose. Sterilization kills the beneficial microorganisms.
Turn Your Tumbler
Secure the lid on the tumbler, then turn it three to four times to thoroughly mix the materials. Check the moisture level. It should be about as wet as a damp sponge. Add water sparingly if the mixture is too dry. Turn the tumbler a few times every three to five days. The compost will be ready in a few weeks, depending on the materials you use. When it is uniform in color and texture, and smells like rich soil, your compost is ready for the garden.
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