Compost Piles vs. Tumblers

Composting · Gardening Tips & How-to's · In the Garden · The Beginner's Garden Podcast

Homemade compost is one of the best assets you can have as a gardener. The nutrients it adds to your soil are amazing and when you make it at home it is very inexpensive. But many new gardeners are scared to get started.

I’ve been composting since I began my garden my first season. I’ve used both compost piles and compost tumblers. In this post (and podcast), I’ll compare my experience in using a compost pile or a compost tumbler. I hope after reading, you’ll feel ready to start composting for your garden!

putting compost on garden during the fall

But first, if you’re brand new to compost, make sure to check out my post on Composting for Beginners because it will answer some of your questions about why you should make your own compost and how to do it. Here we’re going to get a little more specific about what systems have worked best for me and why. I’ve used compost piles, a homemade compost tumbler, and a pre-made compost tumbler from Good Ideas Inc.

Click below to listen to my full discussion, or continue reading for the highlights.

Compost Pile System

There are many ways to build this type of system. (Pinterest is full of fun ideas!) We have used 3-foot high wire fencing that we wrapped into a circle about 3 feet in diameter. We have 2 of these circle. One I use as my “add” pile, where I add my kitchen scraps and other compost ingredients. When it is full, I leave it to “cook” or break down and start adding to the second pile. In this way, I always have one that I add to and one that is cooking into usable compost.

You can also add a third pile, which I think is an excellent idea. In these systems, you have one pile to add, one pile that’s cooking, and one pile that’s ready for use.

Pros

  • Very easy to set up
  • Easy to add to, even in large volume
  • Since it’s open to the ground, my compost has a lot of earthworms
  • It is open to the elements so it receives the water it needs

Cons

  • Not easy to turn, which is necessary for quicker compost
  • Not easy to harvest the compost because it doesn’t open from the front
  • Some of the nutrients may leach out the bottom with heavy rains
  • Since it is open, pervasive grasses (like Bermuda) and weeds can grow up around it and can grow in the compost
  • Voles can get in because it is good shelter and provides food for them

In my experience, this method is overall the least maintenance. It may not be the most efficient if I don’t keep on top of turning weekly (which I don’t), but it will all eventually break down. I’m able to harvest from these piles at least twice per year.

I also like that I can add a lot to these piles, from corn stalks to grass clippings — very convenient when I’m doing fall garden clean-up.

Compost Tumbler

Before we start talking about composting tumblers, if you decide to purchase one from Good Ideas, Inc., use my promo code, JILL10 to get 10% off your purchase. This is an affiliate promotional code, but all opinions below are my own.

In a tumbler, you can put all of your compost in an enclosed barrel and turn it. You don’t have to use a pitchfork like in piles; as you turn it, it will combine appropriately. My first homemade tumbler was made from a 50-gallon drum and worked well enough, but since it ended up having some pretty significant drawbacks, we don’t use it anymore.

Now I’m using a tumbler from Good Ideas that they sent me to try out. It required a bit of assembly, but once we got it together using the instructions, it has been really easy to use.

Pros

  • They are easy to add to
  • They are easy to turn
  • It is easy to harvest from a tumbler

*Note, my homemade compost tumbler wasn’t necessarily easy to add large amounts to because the opening was too small; if you make your own, ensure you make a large enough opening for your needs.

Cons

All of the “cons” I’m listening below actually were from my homemade compost tumbler. So far, none of these “cons” have been problems in my Good Ideas tumbler.

  • It was difficult to turn when full
  • It was not easy to add to because the opening was too small
  • It didn’t allow moisture in. I expected that to be a problem with my Good Ideas tumbler, but our compost has remained very moist.

And Important Consideration when Choosing a Compost Tumbler

The biggest drawback to any one compost tumbler is that you either have to be adding to it or letting it cook. I mentioned earlier that I have two piles, one that is cooking and one to add to. But since I only have one tumbler, when I’m ready to stop adding to it there was no place to add my kitchen scraps to. (I had to add scraps to my pile instead.)

Here are three possible solutions:

  1. Purchase two tumblers.
  2. Use both a tumbler and a pile (like I do).
  3. Consider a dual composting tumbler like this one from Good Ideas:

Compost Bins vs Tumblers: Final Thoughts

After using both bins and tumblers in my garden for over seven years, the bottom line for me is this: either is a great choice! The most important thing is for you to start composting and begin the process of adding valuable nutrients to your garden!

compost - way to save money gardening

Which method you choose depends on your space, the amount of “inputs” you’ll have, and what you think will be most usable and convenient for you.

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One Comment

  1. Another CON for the tumbler is the cost! Over $400. You can buy a lot of compost for that much money. I use the piles with the mesh with zip ties. While it’s true it’s hard to turn, it’s easy to have a third pile one and fork the stuff from the other piles into it.

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