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DIY Tumbling Compost Bin

5 May 2009 39 Comments

The DIY tumbling compost binI always wanted one of those fancy tumbling compost bins, but they cost a fortune – well over $300. Making compost shouldn’t cost that sort of money! There had to be a DIY option.

Quite a while ago (like, 8 years ago!), I was buying some lucerne for the garden at the feed store at Albion Park Rail and I noticed they had a few large PVC drums stacked in the corner. I asked about them and they were waiting to be recycled, so I bought one for $25.

It was a struggle to fit the barrel and the lucerne bales in my little hatchback car, but I managed to get the lot home. I drilled some holes around the barrel to let air in and water out. About 5 mm holes are pretty good – much bigger and you’ll get pests in there and compost will fall out.

The tumbling compost bin filled with raw materialsUsing the DIY tumbling compost bin is dead easy. You just fill it with lawn clippings, manure, stable sweepings, leaves, comfrey, and garden prunings put through a shredder. I don’t put strappy leaves or twigs or long grass in there, as they tend to tangle up into a ball and don’t break down very quickly. Chopped up or shredded, though, they do fine. I also get the waste coffee grounds from our coffee machine at work – these are high in nitrogen and excellent for the compost (plus it’s diverting them from the waste stream). Paper from the office shredder is a great carbon source, too.

It’s usually a good idea to add a bit of lime, blood and bone, and a shovel or two of fresh compost to seed the bacteria and micro-organisms. Then give the lot a good watering and seal the lid.

Every morning and evening, I roll the compost barrel around the yard a bit to mix up the contents, and add a little water if it’s getting too dry. It just sits in the sun all day. For the first week or so, the compost gets really hot – so much so that it often steams when you open it. This is great, as it kills off any seeds and pest eggs that happen to be in there.

The compost only takes a month or two to mature, depending upon the materials you started with. If you don’t get the carbon/nitrogen balance right, don’t keep it moist, don’t mix it up regularly, or don’t start with well-chopped ingredients it will take somewhat longer.

Rolling the tumbling compost binThe thing I like most about the DIY tumbling compost bin is its portability. You roll it to where your ingredients are when filling it, and once it’s done you roll it to where you want to empty it and just tip it up.

I’m now busily trying to make as much rich compost as I can over the winter, so I can top up all the garden beds and be ready for spring. I’ve been using this compost barrel for about 8 years now (yes, the photo to the right is that old!), and it’s still going strong. I bet if I’d bought one of those $300 commercial tumbling compost bins it’d be broken by now!

One thing to note – if you’re going to use a drum or barrel to make compost like this, find out what it has been used for previously. Mine is an old olive barrel that had also been used to store horse feed. You definitely don’t want to use one that has been used to store chemicals, oil, or some other nasty substance.

Update: An Illawarra supplier of these types of barrels is Drum Master.

Build your own chicken coop.

39 Comments »

  • John P said:

    Gardening is so relaxing and a wonderful way to spend time outdoors. It is one of my

    favorite hobbies that I love to share with others online! Thanks for taking the time to

    write this post, I always learn so much about gardening from many different sources online!

    :)

  • Mrs Green said:

    sounds amazing. I admit, I’m sceptical to think that it might work, but it seems it does! We just bought another rain barrel this morning; perhaps I’ll go and get another one to use as a tumbling composter!

    Glad it’s working out for you.

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Mrs Green: Yep, it works well. It’s exactly the same as a tumbling composter, just without the frame for rotating it. I like it that way, though, as I can move it around the yard and it doesn’t take up as much space. I have seen people mount these or 44 gallon drums between posts so they’re more like the commercial tumblers, but then they’re pretty much in a permanent position.

  • Tricia said:

    Thanks for the detail! I’ll definately keep an eye out for a barrel like this and give it a go. Cheers, Tricia

  • Tim said:

    G’Day Darren, I recently found your blog and have been reading through it with interest. I grew up around Wollongong/Shellharbour but now live around 3-4 hours west.

    Your take on the tumbling compost bin seems to be a good cheap alternative to the commercial equivalents. I recall seeing some of those plastic drums for sale but can’t remember where.

    I have two commercially bought plastic compost bins but have been very disappointed with the results. Part of the problem is probably my own incompetence in mixing the right ingredients, but I also find it hard to turn over the contents due to the height and the shape of the bins. It is also difficult to access what little compost IS produced through the little sliding doors at the bottom. There’s barely enough room to get the spade inside, so extracting it again with a quantity of compost is very difficult.

    I am now considering using the current contents of the bin (even though it has not completely broken down) as the bottom layer in a no-dig garden; maybe even digging it into a trench. Hopefully that latter approach will help to partially deal with the heavy clay soil in my garden.

    Regards Tim

  • Deb said:

    What a great tip, I bought one of those tubs recently because it looked good for water storage but haven’t done anything with it. I think I will definitely turn it into a tumbler. Thanks Darren

    BTW Enfield Produce in Sydney have them for about $18

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Tricia: Let me know how it goes if you try it!

    @Tim: Great to meet you! There’s some good stuff going on locally here now. I have a couple of those traditional plastic compost bins as well. I tend to use them as a batch system, filling one up then letting it sit, while starting to fill the other. I’ve also got a metal corkscrew-type device that you screw down into the compost, then pull up to mix and aerate the contents. It’s fantastic, and really helps the heap mature properly. Without it, mine were just turning into a damp, smelly, slimy mess. They’re a lot better now.

    @Deb: Thanks for the tip on where to get them! Should be good for Sydney readers. Post on your blog if you convert it into a compost bin – I’d be interested to hear your experiences.

  • Sudeep said:

    Wicked Idea that all i would like to call this idea.Thanks for sharing with us . Regards Sudeep

  • Wilson Pon said:

    Darren, I think you’re not only a vivid garderner/eco-greener, but you’re also a smart man, especially with it related with the money matter! Go figure, with the $300, you can buy 12 large PVC drums!

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Wilson: Thanks :-). $300 buys a lot of plants for the garden!

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  • Johnnnymac66 said:

    Darren, I thought that worms were a key ingredient in any successful compost bin. This is the first year we’re giving it a sincere effort. We have a free standing compost bin that has been in our yard–empty–for 8 years, and want to do our part to “green up” our methods. Our house and the park across the street from us are the backdrop for many a wedding picture this time of year; we know we can do better if we’re recycling nourishment back into our soil.

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Johnnymac66: No, worms are not a key ingredient for composting, although they can be incorporated as an ingredient in some composting approaches. This particular method is hot-composting, where bacteria and microorganisms do the hard work breaking vegetable matter down for you. It’s rapid, but you need to keep the air, water, nitrogen and carbon ratios right for it to work, and the ingredients need to be chopped up small so each particle has large surface area and small volume. Using a worm farm is another effective approach, as is a cold compost pile that will likely involve worms eating some of the organic matter. These tend to take longer, though.

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  • amy said:

    Hi Im new to gardening and am focusing on my garden staying organic, I would love to make a compost bin and like your idea, can you just have one barrel or do you need at least two so your not adding new produce to the already composting material? or do you just take whats composted on the bottom and put that on your garden? does it matter if you put heaps of grass clippings in there?

  • Darren (author) said:

    @amy: This type of compost bin is best to do in batches, preferably with the material shredded or chopped into fairly small pieces first (like lawn clippings, manure, shredded leaves and prunings, etc). That way it will heat up well and break down quickly. I use a normal cold composting bin for kitchen scraps, since we have a low volume but constant supply of them. That said, running two at once should work fine for what you’re after. I put all my grass clippings in – they’re high in nitrogen, so make sure you balance them with some carbon like dry leaves or sawdust.

  • Amy said:

    Cool thanks Darren, Im looking forward to it :)

  • Philip said:

    Very good Article! I will do the same! I might hoist the drum up on a framework, so that I can tumble the compost easier (with ballbearings). Lets see how much this will increase costs… Do you put any compost worms into the barrel or does it get too hot for compost worms?

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Philip: Go for it! I’ve seen people drill holes in either end of the barrel and put a pipe through so they can mount it horizontally off the ground between two posts (a bit like a pig on a spit). They then use a jigsaw to cut a square door out of the side of the barrel, and attach it back on with hinges and a catch. Looks good. No, I don’t put worms in the barrel – like you guessed, it gets too hot.

  • Philip said:

    Darren, thanks for the feedback! I ordered the drum already and am in the prozess of researching the best/easiest framework. Maybe I’ll blog about it, when it finished…

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Philip: Let me know if you do! I’d be interested to see photos of what you end up with.

  • Bronwyn said:

    Hi Darren,

    I’ve been looking for a more affordable way to compost – my husband is disabled and cannot roll a can around the yard, but I did find a good solution – we had two smaller round trash cans with locking lids (maybe 7-10 gal? Not sure – about the size of a very big watermelon) I drilled small holes in the top and bottom, then to aerate it, I drilled tiny holes in the sides and used wire to secure wire coat hangers inside. It’s small enough that we can both push them around the yard, and with two we’re never out of space.

    I should add, in the desert heat (easily 115-120 in summer!) we get compost in a matter of a few weeks! I love it!

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Bronwyn: It sounds like you’ve hit on a great solution for your situation. Happy composting!

  • Mano said:

    Hi There

    Nice blog. re compost we’re building a community garden in Bondi Road and using lots of old discards for it, for example, our compost heap is kept in place with old packing pallets, and some of the borders for our raised veg beds are made from old 15l paint tins. Check out some pics of it in progress on

    local heroes and my balcony worm farm on Reln worm factory

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Mano: That sounds fantastic! Have you seen what Michael Mobbs (http://sustainablehouse.com.au) has been doing with street gardening around Chippendale? It’s very inspiring that there are so many people out there taking back community, and getting to know their neighbours in such a healthy and positive way.

    There certainly seems to be a fertile “waste stream” in most cities that can be redirected into more sustainable purposes. Also see my recent post about Novella Carpenter (http://green-change.com/2010/11/10/novella-carpenter-urban-farming/), who has been farming in a run-down part of her city for years. She builds compost and feeds her animals primarily from the waste streams around her.

  • Kanya said:

    Hello Darren,

    You made all this look really easy. I have just recently bought similar drum size and just starting to put some vegies but wondering if I really need to drill some holes around the drum? And is possible not to have it at all? but if I need to do it..what should I do?

    thank you, Kanya

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Kanya: It is easy :-). I do think you need to drill the holes. You need some airflow to allow the bacteria in the drum to breathe. If you they don’t get air, it’ll go anaerobic and stinky. The holes in the bottom of the drum also help to drain excess water, again to stop it going stinky.

  • Kanya said:

    Dear Darren,

    Thanks for the quick reply. Will do as you suggest. Finger cross hope I will be able to use my own compost without buying them anymore! :-)

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Kanya: Good luck with it – I’m sure you’ll have success. Just make sure you keep the contents moist, but not soggy.

  • Philip said:

    Dear Darren, I did build the Barrel eventually and have used it since Feb. My Problem was that I composted a lot of horse manure and that made the barrel very heavy. The Framework keeps it stable, but it need two people to safely roll the drum. Still the compost is finished much faster than before so I am happy :) Philip

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Philip: Yeah, the weight can be a problem if you load a lot of dense stuff into the barrel. Because it’s fast, I don’t try to stuff too much into it – I’d rather keep it manageable and just do more batches.

  • Anger « The Wee Homestead said:

    […] I still need to get some pavers or something to build my beds with..found a roto tiller I can borrow at least. Huzzah! And I think I will try to do a compost bin made of a trashcan like this: http://green-change.com/2009/05/05/diy-tumbling-compost-bin/ […]

  • GreenerGreener said:

    Great post. Thought it’s more of a rolling composter than a tumbling composter. Personally my favorite true tumbling composter is the Tumbleweed Compost Tumbler it’s a vertical barrel on a stand so you just rotate the barrel around a rod instead of rolling it around your yard.

    It’s a great option if you have a smaller yard than yours.

    Thanks!

  • Darren (author) said:

    @GreenerGreener: It’s still a tumbling composter, as it still has exactly the same action and the composting works in the same way. It’s just not mounted on a pole. You can mount one of these barrels on a pole to make a stationary tumbling composter if that’s what you’d like. I’d never spend the $200 on the Tumbleweed you linked to, when you could build something stronger and better out of a recycled barrel for under $30. The support frames on the Tumbleweeds I’ve seen in person are a bit light-weight, and will eventually corrode when left in contact with the ground.

  • Lucas said:

    I’m building a small one too (well, building… only drilling holes in a barrel as I don’t want the whole construction around it). I mostly want one because I think throwing away so much usable nutritions is a big shame.

    I hope I can get the (student-) housemates to help me collect enough green!

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Lucas: Great stuff! It’s a simple and effective bin. If you can find lawn clippings and/or leaves around your neighbourhood, they’ll make a good bulk addition.

  • Mez said:

    does anyone have any idea where I can buy these second hand drum from in Qld? There seems to be plenty of places down south but I am struggling to find any in queensland.

  • Ferienhaus Pfalz said:

    I am currently more into natural materials for my worm bins and think ceramics is also a good solution. Here is a post where i build up a wormbin with terracotta bins: http://www.wurmwelten.de/forum/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=806 (Sorry it is in german but there are lots of pictures)

    I was inspired by this indian website which has really lovely ceramic bins for normal composting http://www.dailydump.org/

    This is the stuff you can even sell your wife :-)