The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Troubleshooting compost tumblers

Compost tumblers

"It seems everybody here is doing a much better job with these barrel-type composters than I ever did. Mine would dry out the contents so quickly it was like a barrel full of dry leaves, which of course never composted.... What am I doing wrong?" --- Roz

This is an excellent question! To be honest, I'd never used a tumbler before (although now we have two of them thanks to the massive unit Rose Nell recently donated to the cause). I think I might be able to help you troubleshoot though.

Two bin compost tumbler

Here's what the older and younger bins look like inside our original tumbler. This isn't optimal composting either --- too much high-nitrogen food scraps ("greens") make the contents too moist. In our case, we need to add some autumn leaves ("browns") to bring the bins into balance.

I'm guessing Roz may have the opposite problem --- too many browns and too few greens. Maybe she raises chickens and gives the yummiest bits to the flock. Or maybe she puts in lots of yard waste or simply eats different types of foods than we do. Either way, adding in more greens would help bring the bin back into balance. Chicken manure would be the obvious solution, or you could try soaking the proto-compost with human urine to add nitrogen and moisture at the same time.

(Hey, I never said this post was going to be photogenic. If I grossed you out, go look at the top photo again. First snow!)

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Last year I built two compost barrels that tumble from two black 55 gallon barrels I got at the local co-op. Built them in the spring and was astonished at how many times I filled it up (estimate: 8 possibly 10 times) and yet it has now in December rotted down to less than half that!

I agree that the lady may have not put enough green in the tumbler, or perhaps she didn't spray some water in there either which would help with composting. Because mine are not "airtight", rain gets in there but then I also pour water in periodically to keep it wet. I also found that because the barrels are black, during the summer the heat absorbed by the black plastic helps in keeping the contents "hot". Of course, during the winter, the temperature is reduced and so is the "cooking" of the ingredients.

Not sure that putting human "urine" in the compost bin is a good idea (concern about pathogens) but apparently there are lots of articles out there about it and why it's a good idea. Because mine cook down so frequently, I don't need to do that.

Comment by Nayan Mon Dec 11 10:21:13 2017

It's possible that Roz lives in a place/her tumbler is in a place where the tumbler has been so hot that it dried out the contents and/or killed the good microbes. I found that the case when I had a tumbler in AZ. Had to keep it in the shade in the summer for sure, and had to water it often. Also, for Nayan's comment about putting urine in the compost, let us not forget Anna's many posts about humanure and about applying human urine on the garden... Urine is sterile and therefore pathogen-free unless you have a urinary infection. So, in general, feel free to pee (but maybe water it down).

Comment by jennifer Mon Dec 11 11:40:50 2017

Just a quick comment regarding adding urine to your compost. One of the comments mentioned a concern over pathogens. That is not a problem with urine -- no pathogens. If you were talking about feces, that would be a different situation.

Urine is clean, has minerals and lots of nitrogen. It works like a champ to breakdown compost. However, don't go crazy. There are also salts in the urine and too much can cause problems when you use the compost to grow yummy produce.

The only other caution is if a person is taking medications. If you are taking pills for some reason, traces of it will be expelled via urine. Might not want that being absorbed by your veggies.

Comment by Anonymous Mon Dec 11 13:41:59 2017

Hi Anna and Mark,

That people would actually buy something to help with composting was a VERY LARGE amusement to a farmer friend of mine.

 Read King 'farmers of 40 centuries' for a really useful perspective on what really works and how to do it.

[In my opinion]

Comment by John Mon Dec 11 16:14:13 2017

Thanks to Anonymous for the clarification on Urine. As far as "humanure" is concerned... there was a recent article in the news about how come the North Koreans have such problems with parasites as was shown by the recent North Korean defector to the South. Apparently they put "humanure" on their crops (as did the Chinese and the Japanese. Yes I had "Farmers of Forty Centuries" by F. King at one time and read it where he documents the use of "humanure"on Chinese crops as well as having had a copy of "The Humanure Handbook"), but because of parasites (and other problems) the North Korean people are experiencing malnutrition.
Because of my awareness of those problems, I was concerned about that.

Comment by Nayan Tue Dec 12 17:32:19 2017

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