Are compost tumblers worth buying?

Fowlerville, MI(Zone 5b)

I'm all about making gardening as low maintenance and easy as possible......I'm not getting any younger, you know. ;) lol I don't have a lot of physical strength because of arthritis, so I was wondering if a compost tumbler would make things easier for me. Do they work? If you have one, are you happy with it? ....Inquiring minds want to know. ;) lol

~ Glenda

( Pam ) Portland, OR

Hi Glenda,

No replies yet, so I'll tell you what little I know as a fellow wrist / hand weakness, older woman. Though my wrist problems are mostly in the past, I still have weakness that is aggravated by over use. Not wanting to end up like I was at one point I really protect my hands and wrists. It's a total of daily activities that causes damage / injury, but I don't know about arthritis. My doctor says that's my problem, in addition, but I'm not so sure he's right on that one.

Posters on soil / compost forums routinely ask questions about tumblers, so that's my only knowledge there. I read all the posts.
Most frequent complaint is by brand new composters. They have never gardened but are most enthusiastic. They start by tossing in all their kitchen scraps, a couple pieces of paper, turn and turn, then complain because they have a tub full of wet, smelly garbage.
I'm assuming you have composted before, so we can skip this part. ;)

Next is the problem that you need at least two containers, since a tumbler once full needs time to turn, mix, and compost. But kitchen scraps keep coming. Younger gardeners sometimes explain their set up, which includes the tumbler as part of the process, with much shoveling and moving things around in timed piles. That's not us. ;)

I like the idea of a tumbler and have wanted to have one to play with since the early 70's when I watched a couple of Reed college students experiment with the idea and different designs. They kept at it for several years, but I missed the final ideal tumbler.

Looking at a quick Google images of tumblers will show you what folks like you and I will be avoiding. Most of them have a handle that needs to be turned. My wrists would never manage that with the weight that adds up in a full tumbler. But.. look at the ones that you can turn the entire barrel. Now those hold promise.

Just recently I have realized my composting routine contains a lot of wasted effort. I'm piling and moving stuff around that can better be composted where I want the finished product. So I'm experimenting with that right now. Obviously this only works in certain areas and each gardeners situation is so different.

This message was edited Mar 10, 2014 10:33 AM

Fowlerville, MI(Zone 5b)

Pam, thanks for replying! We are in the same boat. We both have bad wrists that we need to protect and baby. :( I've injured my right wrist badly twice and now it doesn't take much to re-injure or aggravate it. I even have to sleep with a brace on to protect it. So..."I feel your pain".

Actually, this year will be my first attempt at composting, but I've collected some great articles on the subject, and I own a copy of Javons' "How To Grow More Vegetables", which covers composting extensively.

I want to share with you this article on one way to do composting without turning, and it claims to speed the process up and to get as hot as 160 degrees. I may give this a try this spring. The article is called, "Expert Tips to Build a Compost Bin", found at

Check it out and see if that's not the answer to our wrist problems!!
Let me know what you think! :-)
~ Glenda

Enterprise, AL(Zone 8b)

I read the article, don't see how that would be for anyone with weak wrists? It is still just making piles of compost, just with the extra work of building bins and installing all that piping. You still have to remove the compost, and empty the bin and get ready for the next bath, which requires more work.
Plus, note and this is important, he uses shredded leaves and grass clippings etc. You would have to have some way of shredding the material first.
I think citybusgardener. is on the right track for someone with bad wrists, compost the stuff in the place you want to use it and let time do the work for you.
I do tons of compost and leaf mold, and I shred almost all of the material, but it takes a lot of labor on my part, my method is not a method for weak wrists.
Just by adding a couple of inches of much to the top of the beds, letting it decay on its own over time and refreshing it every year is probably the best method for people with bad wrists to avoid hurting themselves.

( Pam ) Portland, OR

Hi again Glenda,

Sorry to take so long, I got pulled away, but have not forgotten you. I'm so glad Seedford has joined in, much more posting on DG cred than I have. I'm generally pretty quiet.

I think in order to help you, if you would tell us why you want to compost, it's going to make a difference in the right reply. A tumbler might be the right route, but tumblers are notorious for newbie composters problems, and that's a shame because I'm sure many decide composting is just not for them, and that decision lasts a life time. All along it was the fussiness of the tumbler and a lack of understanding that, that resulted in a poor end result.

Why do I compost ?

Mainly to get rid of ginormous amounts of fall leaves and the assorted summer garden debris. I do fill one or two 45 gallon yard debris containers most every week, but there is still so darn much. I don't want to become one of those older ladies whose house slowly disappears from the street view because of trees, vines, and ever heightening leaf debris. So I chop, rake, toss and pile. Piles of debris will always rot ( compost). So when I attempt to keep things neat ( make the piles look organized and intentional ...LOL ) we call it composting.

Since I would prefer fewer piles, that means I need to improve the speed things rot ( compost). Side benefit is finished compost to improve the fertility and tilth of the soil my plants live in. I'm in the fairly mild climate of the PNW, and things happen in the garden most of the year, and I've discovered this year, kitchen compost completely disappears if stuck in a little hole in January, by mid-Febuary. Happy, happy worms ! ! ! ( part of my science experiments figuring a way to compost in place, rather than lug things back and forth.

I will say long before spending on a tumbler, your in better shape to find good quality garden tools that work for how your hands/wrists work. One of my best ever investments has been an English perennial border spade. Mine has a nice oak D handle and the tool is very well balanced. I can dig big things with more scoops, as I can better use both arms as the stress points, rather than wrists as in a bigger shovel. It also works perfectly as a slightly largish trowel due to the balance point being just above the spade part. (trowels do not work for me at all) It has built in foot rests, which many do not, avoid those.

Turning my compost I've found a full size pitch fork is better for my body than the more typical digging fork most seem to use. Again I test them all and keep wrist sparing features as my top priority. Replaced the front door knob to a lever, the kitchen faucets, mouse with a roller ball is best for me. Relearned the keyboard layout. Look up Dvorak keyboard layout. That was a real brain twister but is paying off long term. The list goes on because it all adds up. A physical therapist in invaluable in learning not only how to avoid further damage, but ways to strengthen the wrists, which is what we need to do to avoid further damage...and around and around we go.

I have discovered I happen to have some magic finding abilities for used composters set out on the curb for free. Got a bunch now so at least for my area, I know which ones do what better, and have them set up at various points in the garden, depending on where I want the finished product. The basics are always that everything eventually rots, and the bigger the pile and the more shredded the faster it goes. Yes, I did the breathing tubes at some point. I think it was in the 1970's. Worked fine but eventually I threw them out because they were in the way to often and didn't seem to add enough value to justify the 'in the way' part.

I would still like to find a free tumbler and play with it. I did find one, but another woman saw it right after me and came up wanting it. Then I thought about all my various composters here, so told her to go ahead. I still regret that, as later I saw she just let it sit out back and never used it. Oh well, next time will be different. I want to play compost tumbler scientist. :D

Seedfork is so right about shredding the debris making things faster. If that's an option, your going to be happy sooner. This is my weakest point, so I have more piles than others that can shred easier. That and I have really tough, leathery leaves for the most part. Bought a new Toro blower, shredder this year. Opened the bag of vacuumed / shredded leaves only to find the leaves mostly won that battle, a few were smaller but most were bent. LOL

As you may guess I'm a process composter, I do enjoy the process more than the final product. Some folks are the exact opposite.Buying a pick-up load of finished yard debris/compost is easy and pretty cheap if that's your only goal. Lots of cities give it away free, not here unfortunately. It runs me $28 a pick-up load, that my neighbor picks up when he's there. I keep this towards the front of the house for the front gardens, since all my finished compost is in the back. It's just easier.

This message was edited Mar 17, 2014 6:20 AM

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

These sound smart to me: sheet composting has to be the minimum-effort composting method.

If your neighbors object to the way the materials look, you might put down one layer of chopped, compost-able material, and then lay something OVER that, like bark or wood chips.

>> I'm piling and moving stuff around that can better be composted where I want the finished product.

>> compost the stuff in the place you want to use it and let time do the work for you.

>> Just by adding a couple of inches of much to the top of the beds, letting it decay on its own over time and refreshing it every year is probably the best method for people with bad wrists to avoid hurting themselves.

Do you have any helpers? If they could use a mower on your raw materials and then spread them over the bed for you, you might only need the helpers for two days per season (spring and fall). The you could sow or plant THROUGH the mulch layer.

During the growing seasons, you could lay some compost materials between the rows, or out of sight under plants. Just don't pile rotting material on plant stems, and don't use raw manure under leafy crops like lettuce.

Did you specify crops / annual flowers / perennial flowers / bushes?

Do you till every year, seldom, or never? No-till methods go well with top-dressing / sheet composting.

Virginia Beach, VA

Our daughter who lives in Birmingham Alabama bought a super large heavy tumbler years
ago and it sits back yard. It is too heavy and I think she paid over 100$!!!

Composting is a way of life in our household!!!


Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

If you don't allow any sticks into a pile, it isn't THAT hard to turn.

You don't have to lift the whole heap and flip it like a pancake!

You can use a rake and cultivator, and drag a little at a time from the top and sides of a heap, over a few feet to make a new heap of the least digested stuff. Then rake some of the semi-digested next layer onto the top of your new mini-heap. You lift that with a fork or shovel, or drag it up with a rake.

Then use the inner bulk of the first, calling it "composted enough" as soon as it doesn't look like garbage to the neighbors, and no leaves or paper shreds are whole enough to blow around.

I keep reminding myself that every extra month it digests on the heap, "good juices" are leaching out or being consumed by microbes that are not associated with MY plants' roots.

Maybe call this "cosmetic composting", a step that is part of the sheet composting process.

Maybe it's simply what goes on between the date you acquire a truckload of leaves and grass, and the date you have time to spread it on the garden.

Tipp City, OH(Zone 5b)

My only experience with a tumbler is at our community garden. Like you, my wrists and right thumb are not working very well anymore. I sometimes had trouble pushing the weeds into the hole on the composter - easier to just dump on a pile.

I just watched a video that showed using a long handled auger like this to poke down in compost to aerate it. Actually, to be truthful, I've never taken the time to turn my compost piles and they have made wonderful "black gold."

I learned not to put sticks in to compost because you will just end up with a big mess. They don't break down and then it's hard to remove the good finished stuff. My yard generates so many weeds and perennial cuttings and I just keep piling them on.

Trying to close out one compost bed so haven't added anything except leaves for a while. Hoping it is pretty much done and can be removed out there. If you wanted to contain it attractively, I've seen these compost bins that are like wire fence squares that attach together. Also besides sticks, I don't put in invasive weeds that are very seedy because I can't be sure my pile will be hot enough to kill them. Good luck!

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

>> I learned not to put sticks in to compost because you will just end up with a big mess.

I agree. Sticks will keep a pile loose and aerated, but in every other way they are a pain. I have to screen my compost before I use it.

>> I don't put in invasive weeds that are very seedy

They don't even have to be obviously full of seeds. I proved that this spring: every bed has a dense, uniform crop of weeds. many per square inch!

Baytown, TX(Zone 9b)

I by accident filled a huge garbage can that had a crack in the bottom full of pine needles and old leaves. It sit in a shady area with the top off for over a year. Although a small layer on the top was still dried leaves the rest of it turned to beautiful black compost. If you try this I didn't turn it or add anything but it did because of the crack got a few worms. you could scrape the top back or make a small hole in the middle and add your kitchen scraps and some weeds for green if you wanted. I didn't and had a can fulll of rich black gold. If you don't mind the time it takes to break down I have 4 more cans doing the same thing we just started. I have a huge compost pile but my thumbs I can't hardly pick up a gallon of milk as they have arthritis in my right worse than my left. My right wrist is like yours only no surgery yet. I keep it braced at night and it will wake me up from a dead sleep with my thumb and index finger numb and aching to high heaven. My fiance turns the pile but we still have the 4 cans...just picked up the 4th along the road with wheels missing but holes where they were so rain cam get out and worms get in when it is time.

I hope this helps. I am sorry not sure the time it took could have been 2 years but out of the way and well worth every min. I just sit it to the side as I had run out of energy to bag it.. To my surprise compost. Let me also add last summer we bagged some black garbage bags full of leaves grass clippings and tied them shut and threw them in a sunny area out of the way and in 1/2 day sun. The bag is weak now and tears easy but it is heavy with black rick compost. Didn't take a year to do. How this helps some. you can cut the bags open and move the compost a little at a time for your wrist and thumbs sake and throw the bag when done. We have bags we filled a week ago and added a little water and a little of a product called compost maker and in a few months they should ba ready to go. Had too much for the compost pile but refuse to get rid of 1 leaf. We mixed some greens and browns in each bag.

Tipp City, OH(Zone 5b)

I had a similar thing - accidentally making some compost - I had a large black barrel that I was tossing the "bad" weeds in - things I didn't want to put in my compost pile - it had a lid and if it got water it in, I pushed it over so the water would drain out. It finally got full of weeds and then got neglected - collected water in it that caused it to go anaerobic and stunk to high heaven. So once again, I tipped it over and ran to avoid the smell. It sat that way for two or three years and now it is full of finished compost. I don't know yet if I can use it because - like I said - I put the scrappy stuff in there. So we shall see. Happy Composting!

Baytown, TX(Zone 9b)

Yes crappy stuff makes great compost :) It has gotten so hot the weeds and seeds are now good stuff

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