The Great Debate: Pros and Cons of Using a Compost Tumbler


In today’s increasingly eco-conscious world, one age-old practice has found renewed relevance – composting. This simple yet impactful process can turn ordinary kitchen waste into a nutrient-rich supplement for your garden soil, all the while reducing the amount of waste that ends up in our overburdened landfills. It’s a win-win situation for both the environment and your backyard.

Among the various methods to compost, one has gained particular attention – the compost tumbler. With its unique design and purported ease-of-use, compost tumblers have stirred the interest of many gardening enthusiasts and environmentalists alike. However, like any method, they come with their own set of pros and cons, and may not be the perfect fit for everyone’s needs.

In this article, we delve into the world of compost tumblers, exploring what they are, how they work, and who they are best suited for. We will also critically examine their shortcomings, and compare them with traditional compost heaps and hot composters, to provide a comprehensive understanding of their role in the composting spectrum.

What Are Compost Tumblers?

Compost tumblers are gardening tools designed to speed up the composting process. They are essentially closed systems that consist of a drum or bin which can be rotated or ‘tumbled’ to mix the composting material.

A small black compost tumbler with its lid open showing some garden waste

The drums are usually mounted on a stand and come in various sizes, accommodating different volumes of compost. The design is such that it allows for easy loading of composting materials such as kitchen scraps, garden waste, leaves, and other organic waste. Compost tumblers are typically made of durable, weather-resistant materials like recycled plastic or metal to withstand outdoor conditions.

There are two main types of compost tumblers available in the market: single and dual-bin tumblers. Single-bin tumblers have one compartment for compost, which means you have to wait for the entire batch to decompose before starting a new one. On the other hand, dual-bin models have two compartments, allowing you to start a new batch in one bin while the other is still composting. This continuous cycle can provide a more consistent supply of compost.

One of the key features that set compost tumblers apart from traditional compost bins or piles is their ability to be easily turned. This turning mechanism helps to evenly distribute heat and air throughout the composting material, two key components required for efficient decomposition.

Compost tumblers are designed with convenience in mind. They provide a neat, contained system for composting that can be particularly useful for those who want to compost in a more controlled and less messy manner. In the following sections, we will explore how these compost tumblers work and consider their suitability for different users.

How Do Compost Tumblers Work?

The composting process within a compost tumbler is a fascinating interplay of organic matter, microorganisms, air, and heat. Let’s break it down to better understand how these elements come together in a tumbler.

At the core of the composting process are microorganisms, primarily bacteria and fungi. These tiny creatures feed on the organic waste you add to the tumbler, breaking it down into simpler substances. As they consume and decompose the waste, they generate heat, which in turn, speeds up the composting process. For the most effective composting and the best compost, you should try and get the optimal balance between Carbon and Nitrogen in the items you add to your compost. The ideal ratio is 25-30:1 parts Carbon to Nitrogen. You can read more about the ratio and how much Carbon and Nitrogen is contained in everyday items in our Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio guide.

One crucial aspect of compost tumblers is the compost tumbler drum. This design allows for frequent and easy mixing of the composting materials. Why is this important? Well, those microorganisms need oxygen to thrive and do their job efficiently. By turning the compost tumbler drum, you’re effectively aerating the compost, ensuring the microorganisms have a steady supply of oxygen.

Furthermore, the tumbling action also helps distribute the generated heat evenly throughout the composting materials. An even distribution of heat ensures that all parts of the composting mass are decomposed efficiently. Without regular turning, some parts of the compost could become anaerobic (lacking oxygen), which can slow down the composting process and generate unpleasant odors.

Compost tumblers also have a closed design that helps retain heat and moisture, creating an ideal environment for the composting process. This design also helps keep pests out, a common problem with open compost piles.

In essence, a compost tumbler works by creating an optimal environment for composting. It makes the process of composting quicker and more efficient by providing easy aeration, maintaining heat, and facilitating moisture control. The tumbling mechanism plays a central role, making it easier to mix and aerate the composting materials compared to traditional composting methods.

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Who Are Compost Tumblers Most Suitable For?

Compost tumblers, with their unique features and benefits, can be an excellent fit for a variety of situations and individuals. Here’s who might benefit the most from using a compost tumbler:

Urban Dwellers

For those living in cities or areas with limited outdoor space, a compost tumbler can be a great solution. Its compact design and neat containment make it ideal for small yards, patios, or balconies. The closed design also prevents smells from escaping which could be a big factor if the compost tumbler is to be situated on a balcony and deal with kitchen scraps and general kitchen waste.

Individuals with Physical Limitations

Traditional composting methods often require manual turning with a garden fork or shovel, which can be physically demanding. Compost tumblers, on the other hand, simplify this process with a turn of a handle or a push of the barrel, making it more accessible for individuals with physical limitations or those who prefer less strenuous gardening activities.

Gardeners Seeking Speed and Convenience

The design of compost tumblers allows for quicker composting compared to traditional compost bins. A compost tumbler could be a good fit if you’re seeking a faster turnaround from kitchen scraps to compost. Plus, their closed system makes it easy to keep composting through winter, something that can be challenging with open compost heaps. Grass clippings should halve their volume in about a week in a regularly turned tumbling composter.

Those Concerned About Pests

If you live in an area where pests like mice, rats, or insects are a concern, a compost tumbler can provide peace of mind. The closed design keeps unwanted visitors out and prevents them from scattering compost materials and breeding.

People Who Prefer a Neat Appearance

Unlike compost piles or open bins, compost tumblers have a neat, contained appearance. If maintaining the aesthetics of your outdoor space is important to you, a compost tumbler can be an attractive option.

While compost tumblers offer several advantages, they also come with some drawbacks. In the next section, we will delve into the cons of compost tumblers and compare them with traditional compost piles and hot composters.

Cons of Compost Tumblers

While compost tumblers offer several advantages, they are not without their drawbacks. It’s important to weigh these cons against the pros when considering if a compost tumbler is right for you.


One of the main disadvantages of compost tumblers is their cost. They are typically more expensive than traditional compost bins or piles. The cost can vary based on the size, material, and design of the tumbler. If budget is a concern, a tumbler may not be the best option.


Compost tumblers have limited capacity compared to a normal compost heap or compost bin. For those with larger gardens or significant amounts of waste, a tumbler may not be sufficient. Additionally, if you choose a single-bin model, you’ll have to wait for one batch of compost to finish before starting another.

Physical Effort

While turning a compost tumbler is generally easier than manually turning a standard compost heap, it can still require some effort, especially when the compost tumbler is full. This may be a challenge for some individuals.

Time to Compost

Despite claims of quick composting times, many factors can affect how quickly materials decompose in a compost tumbler. These include the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, the moisture level, and the size of the composting materials. If these factors are not optimized, composting in a tumbler can take longer than expected.

Temperature Control

Compost tumblers are efficient in retaining heat, but sometimes they can get too hot, especially during the summer. This excessive heat can kill beneficial microorganisms, slowing down the composting process.

Lack of Worm Activity

An additional drawback of compost tumblers that deserves mention is the absence of worm activity. In traditional compost heaps or piles, worms play a vital role in the composting process. They not only help break down the material but also enrich the compost with their castings, a nutrient-rich form of waste. Worms effectively churn material through their guts, transforming organic matter into a substance full of nutrients beneficial to soil health.

In comparison to a traditional compost bin and a hot composter, compost tumblers might not always hit the mark. While they do offer certain conveniences, such as a neat appearance and easier turning mechanism, there are several areas where they potentially fall short.

Traditional compost piles, despite requiring more physical effort and space, are often more cost-effective and capable of handling larger volumes of waste. They also benefit from the natural activity of worms, organisms that play a vital role in enriching compost. Worms break down organic matter and contribute nutrient-dense waste, creating a richer compost that is highly beneficial for soil health.

Compost tumblers, in contrast, due to their closed, elevated design and potential for high internal heat, are not hospitable environments for these helpful creatures. The high temperatures generated inside the tumblers are lethal for worms as they cannot escape when conditions become too hot. This results in a worm-free composting process, which can lead to compost that is less nutrient-rich than that from compost heaps where worms are present.

Hot composters, another alternative, are designed to reach higher temperatures more consistently, speeding up the decomposition process and allowing for the composting of a wider variety of waste, such as cooked food scraps and meat.

Ultimately, the choice of the best composting method hinges on your specific needs, resources, and circumstances. Considerations such as cost, space, volume of waste, and desired compost quality all play a role in this decision. It’s important to weigh the pros and cons of each system, keeping in mind that while compost tumblers have their benefits, they also come with limitations that may affect the overall composting outcome.

Traditional Compost Bins vs Compost Tumblers: The Role of Worms, Bacteria, and Fungi

Traditional compost bins and compost tumblers, although both used for composting, employ slightly different processes, which can result in variations in the final compost product.

Traditional Compost Bins and Worm Activity

Traditional compost bins or heaps utilize a process known as vermicomposting, which is composting with the assistance of worms. These worms, primarily red wigglers, consume organic waste and excrete nutrient-rich waste known as worm castings or vermicast. Vermicast is an excellent soil conditioner, rich in beneficial microbes and nutrients that are readily available for plant uptake.

Worms also play a vital role in physically breaking down the compost material and improving its structure. As they consume and move through the compost, they create air channels, improving aeration and aiding the composting process.

Compost Tumblers and Microbial Decomposition

In contrast, compost tumblers primarily rely on microbial decomposition by bacteria and fungi. While these microorganisms are also present and active in traditional composting, the absence of worms in compost tumblers places a greater emphasis on their role.

Bacteria are the first to break down the plant material, particularly the soft and green parts. As the composting process progresses, fungi and actinomycetes (a type of bacteria) take over to break down tougher materials like bark and woody stems. The heat generated by these microorganisms in the compost tumbler aids in speeding up the composting process and in killing weed seeds and pathogens.

Comparing the Resulting Compost

The finished compost produced by traditional bins, with the help of worms, is generally rich in nutrients, has a good structure, and contains beneficial microbes that can help improve soil health and plant growth. The worm castings in this compost make it a high-quality soil amendment.

On the other hand, finished compost from compost tumblers, while still beneficial, may not be as nutrient-dense due to the absence of worm castings. It primarily consists of decomposed plant material broken down by bacteria and fungi. This compost is still beneficial for improving soil structure and adding organic matter to the soil, but it may not provide the same level of nutrients and beneficial microbes as compost that has been processed by worms.

While both traditional compost bins and compost tumblers serve the purpose of recycling organic waste and creating valuable compost, the processes and organisms involved result in different compost characteristics. Your choice between the two methods may depend on your specific needs and expectations for the resulting compost.

Composting in a Small Garden: Strategies and Tips

Composting is an excellent strategy for small garden owners, turning kitchen waste and garden waste into valuable, nutrient-rich compost. However, space constraints may pose a challenge, but fear not, with the right strategies and tips, you can make composting work even in a small garden.

Choosing the Right Composter

The size of your composter should match the available space. Compost bins are a traditional choice, but they can be too large for a small garden. Compost tumblers or tumbling composters are often a better fit. They are more compact, and their design allows for faster composting process. Dual tumblers or single tumblers come in various sizes suitable for smaller spaces.

Utilising Kitchen and Garden Waste

Even in a small garden, you can produce quite a bit of green waste such as grass clippings, leaves, and kitchen scraps. You can also include shredded cardboard or newspaper to balance the green waste. Remember, composting is a great way to recycle your kitchen waste, such as vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, and eggshells.

Managing Your Compost

Proper management of your compost heap is crucial in a small garden to prevent unpleasant odours or pests. Start filling your compost tumbler or bin with a mix of green waste (like vegetable scraps) and brown waste (like dried leaves or shredded cardboard). Turn or roll your compost tumbler regularly to aerate the mix and speed up decomposition.

Drainage and Aeration

Ensure your compost tumbler or bin has small holes for the excess liquid to drain out, which prevents the compost from getting too wet and smelly. Good air circulation is essential for the composting process, so be sure to turn your compost pile regularly if you’re using a bin.

Making Use of Your Compost

Finished compost is a fantastic resource for small gardens. It can be used to enrich the soil, providing nutrients for your plants and helping retain moisture. Even in a small garden, good quality compost can make a significant difference to the health and productivity of your plants.

By applying these strategies and tips, you can overcome space constraints and successfully compost in a small garden. Remember, whether you produce compost in a standard compost heap, a compost tumbler drum, or a small compost bin, the benefits to your garden and the environment are significant.


In the realm of composting, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Each method, whether it’s a traditional compost heap, a hot composter, or a compost tumbler, brings with it a unique set of advantages and challenges. Compost tumblers, with their neat design and easy turning mechanism, are certainly appealing, especially to urban dwellers, those with physical limitations, or gardeners seeking a fast and convenient way of creating their own compost.

However, it’s crucial to consider the limitations of compost tumblers. Their higher cost, limited capacity, and physical effort required for turning may not suit everyone. The absence of worm activity can also lead to compost that’s potentially less nutrient-rich than that produced by traditional compost heaps.

For those with larger gardens, a significant amount of waste, or a desire for the most nutrient-dense compost, traditional compost piles or hot composters might be a better fit. These methods can offer larger composting capacity, more consistent high temperatures, and in the case of compost heaps, the beneficial activity of worms.

Composting is a highly personal and situational endeavour. The best method for you will depend on your individual needs, resources, and circumstances. It’s crucial to weigh all these factors before settling on the composting system that will best serve you and your garden. In the end, the goal remains the same – to reduce waste and create nutrient-rich soil that helps gardens thrive while contributing positively to our environment.


Jonathan Gaze

Content Editor

Hello there! I’m Jonathan Gaze, Content Editor for Harry Rufus.

With my technical problem-solving skills and meticulous attention to detail, I present sustainable living advice clearly and understandably. I’ve developed a knack for filtering out the fluff, presenting you with only the most practical and reliable sustainable living guidelines.

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