How to Make a Do-It-Yourself Compost Tumbler
Food waste is a huge problem. Over 36 million tons of food is sent to rot in our nation’s landfills every year. As the food breaks down, it releases methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, most cities in the U.S. don’t have a convenient method in place for people to divert food waste from the landfill, so a lot of uneaten leftovers and table scraps wind up in the garbage bin.
So what can you do?
Try composting at home. There are several ways of doing this. Having a compost pile in the back yard could be one solution, but you would have to build some type of fencing to keep animals out of the pile. If you happen to live in a small apartment without access to yard space for composting, you could do vermicomposting indoors. Vermicomposting is a fancy name for ‘worm farm’; Scary as that sounds to composting newbies, it’s a much easier and more sanitary solution than one might think. It’s probably what I’m going to do this winter.
Or, you could make a compost tumbler to handle your food waste, which is what you see pictured here, and it’s the solution I have decided to go with to handle my family’s food waste at home from Spring through Fall.
You might have seen factory-made compost tumblers for sale at big box hardware stores or gardening stores, but these are usually pretty expensive, costing at least $100, have a smaller capacity than the DIY versions pictured above, and the factory-made ones require an entire afternoon of frustrating assembly. But, for about $40 dollars total, I’ve made two compost tumblers in less time than it takes to assemble a single factory-made one. Here’s how:
How to Build a Compost Tumbler
(2) 32 gallon round plastic garbage cans with a lid.
(1) power drill.
(1) 1/4” drill bit.
(1) 1/8” drill bit.
(2) bungee cords.
(1) small pail with a lid.
3 parts browns to 1 part greens.
Step 1: Using a 1/4” drill bit, begin drilling several holes on the bottom of the garbage cans. The holes should be spaced at least a couple of inches apart from each other.
Step 2: Keep using the same 1/4” drill bit to drill several holes along the sides of the garbage can. You will use the 1/8” drill bit on the sides of the can where it becomes wider near the top. The idea is to allow for plenty of ventilation without compromising the structure of the can.Do not drill any holes through the lid. You don’t want excess moisture from rain to get inside the can.
Step 3: Place a layer of browns in one of the cans. Browns are dead leaves, grass clippings, shredded biodegradable paper and so on.
Collect a Stockpile of Browns
The hardest part about DIY composting is having sufficient brown materials throughout the year. Save your yard clippings, trimmings, and raked leaves. Ask your neighbors for their yard waste as well. Perhaps you could barter your finished compost for straw or used animal bedding with a local farmer.
Step 4: Collect your greens in the small pail with a lid. Greens are your organic food waste. The pail is kept indoors in your kitchen to collect your daily food scraps. The lid is meant to keep it from smelling bad and to keep bugs away. Empty the pail’s contents into your compost tumbler and be sure to wash the pail each time after emptying.
What are acceptable greens?
You can put almost any type of food waste in your compost tumbler. However, avoid placing meat, bones, cooking oil, food scraps with a lot of fat or grease, or dairy products in your compost tumbler as these could attract flies, animals or keep your compost from breaking down properly. Different sources will tell you different things about what you can and cannot compost. Here’s a very handy reference.
Step 5: Add another layer of browns on top of your added greens. The ratio you’ll want to maintain is generally going to be 3 parts browns to 1 part greens.
Step 6: Place the lid on top of the garbage can and secure it with a bungee cord.Be sure to “Tumble” your compost at least once every 3 or 4 days by simply placing the garbage can on its side and rolling it on the ground a few times.
Step 7: Once one of the compost bins is full, start filling the other bin. By the time the other bin is filled, the compost in the first bin should be ready to harvest and use.
What can I do with my compost?
It will take several months to make compost. You’ll know when your compost is ready once it turns dark brown or black in color. It will have a soft texture and should feel crumbly. It should smell earthy and good and not at all rotten. Some larger, harder to break-down food items might not be ready when it’s time to harvest. Just toss those stubborn items back into the tumbler.
When using your compost for planting seeds, use 1 part compost to 3 parts soil. Mix the soil and compost together and plant seeds normally. For seedlings with roots, use a soil mixture consisting of 1 part compost to 2 parts soil.
If you want to feed your already-established potted houseplants, just sprinkle your compost on the surface of the dirt. You can also sprinkle compost on top of the soil to nourish the plants in your garden, around your trees, or sprinkle it on your lawn. The rain will help carry the nutrients from your compost to the roots.
You can dig your compost into garden beds by adding as much compost as you want. Mix it in well with the soil. Some plants will even grow directly in your compost.
If you still have more compost than you could possibly use, you could sell it or give it away.
Some final troubleshooting tips:
Add a shovel-full of soil to your compost to help break it down faster.
If your compost smells bad, you have too many greens. If your compost isn’t breaking down, you have too many browns.
Your compost should be moist, but not wet. A dry pile takes a long time to break down, but it will. A wet pile will prevent aeration and will smell bad.
Be sure to tumble your compost once or twice a week. Got a tip? Share it with us!