OK… so there is no BEST composter or composting approach that fits everyone but there are some BEST choices or direction to go based on several factors. People’s environment, available materials, budget, and (the biggest issue) willingness to spend time doing it will dictate the BEST composter or approach for you. Let me start with the bottom line and then add my qualifications for my comments and opinions.
1. Got time to spend, some land space, no local restrictions, lots of material, pest and odor control is not a big issue… just dig a 4’ x 8’ x 1’ trench, fill 4’ high, cover and aerate it weekly and you have the BEST approach.
2. Live in an urban environment, maybe lack the space, have neighbors, kids, dogs and whatever to contend with…. one of the many compost bins available will be your BEST (or good enought) composter.
3. Same as #2 but you don’t have time to mess with it. You don’t mind spending a little extra for convenience, keeping it clean and simple, yet works well. A compost tumbler is BEST for you.
If you fit in category #1 above don’t waste your time reading this, just go do it and enjoy. For the rest of us who are typically living in an urban environment #1 is not really an option. Many municipalities and housing associations have banned open composting as it can create problems including pest and odor control issues. Also sitting on my patio sipping lemon aid (or whatever) on a warm summer day next to a compost pile just doesn’t do it for me. The idea of watching my grandkids and pets play in the compost is also something I don’t even want to think about.
There are many articles written on why adding compost to our soil is so important for everything from growing quality vegetables, herbs, having more colorful flowers to reducing the use of herbicides and pesticides to preventing run off… so I will assume you already know this or you would not have read this far about composters. Another important value of composting at home is to recycle things as close to the source as you can. That is, stop transporting it to landfills and taking up space there. Waste stream reduction of organic material is becoming a big deal in a lot of communities… and you haven’t seen anything yet because all mid to large municipalities will be making this a big deal in the near future.
While many people have been composting their yard and garden material they often forget their kitchen also can produce a lot of material in the form of garbage or what is being pushed down a garbage disposal for our wastewater treatment plants to deal with. When you start taking stuff from your kitchen and mixing it in your compost the variety of material usually improves the overall quality of your compost. However even when being careful to include only vegetable material, it frequently will start attracting more unwanted attention from all sorts of pests.
One of the more troublesome pests includes rats. This is why in an urban setting open composting is really not a good idea unless you manage it very closely. When you buy a compost bin be sure it has a good base/floor and does not just sit on bare ground. Some of the cheaper bins don’t have a floor and rats, raccoons, possums, dogs, etc… will dig right into them. Here is where the compost tumblers offer more protection as they are elevated off the ground, stopping, deterring or at least slowing down most pests.
In the #2 option above, instead of buying a premade compost bin, there are many plans and approaches to building your own. If done right I question that building your own is actually much cheaper although I’m sure more rewarding. By right I mean to make it fully enclosed and pest resistant. Also avoiding chemically treated woods (so plan on rebuilding every few years) and metals that will rust out. Many people plan on building their own compost bin but just never seem to get to it… so they are not composting. If that is you, just buy a bin and get it over with and get rid of that guilt.
I am a little opinionated on compost tumbler and here is way. I think a lot of people do not compost because they think it will take up too much time, is messy and smelly, and they don’t want their nicely landscaped yard with a blemish. They not only don’t own a pitch fork or tools to turn compost… they don’t want them either. If they have a choice on a nice Saturday morning of playing a round of golf or turning compost in their backyard…. guess what? That was my guess too so we specifically designed the Urban Compost Tumbler for these people because it is probably the only way they will ever get into composting. And it’s true… I don’t own a pitch fork … don’t give me one for Christmas … and I am still working on my golf swing.
Now that I’m pitching compost tumblers for some of us, there is a CAUTION. Size does matter so read on to find out why. Over simplifying a little, you need five (5) things to get quality compost; 1) a good carbon/nitrogen material mix, 2) moisture, 3) oxygen, 4) heat and 5) time. You can stuff some organic matter in a tin can and it will compost (rot) given enough time but it will probably not be quality compost. While no secret in the composting community, a lot of people do not appreciate the value and importance of HEAT. Heat from composting activity breaks material down faster while helping to destroy things like weed seeds, pervasive root structures and some pathogens that would be nice to do without if you can.
Assuming you have a good brown and green mix (30:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen) properly moistened (wet but can’t squeeze out water); you get heat from MATERIAL MASS and OXYGEN feeding the microorganisms. Making it easier to aerating material and getting oxygen in the mix is an important advantage of compost tumblers. They make it easier thereby encouraging people to aerate their compost more. But all the mixing in the world is not going to help a lot if you have insufficient mass to allow material to heat up and maintain it long enough to do any real good.
This is not about opinion but microbiology and physics as composting is about microorganisms and how they work (or don’t work). Keeping these little guys happily working away is where you get the heat. The harder they work… the hotter it gets. If the temperature is below 90 degrees they get lazy so composting slows and above 140 degrees they have over done it and start dying off. Most composting experts will tell you that a compost pile with less than 10 cubic feet in mass will not heat effectively. I think the benefit of many of the fully enclosed compost bins and tumblers is that they help insulate the compost and hold the heat in far better than just an open pile so a little smaller mass can still heat. However as you drop below 9 cubic feet the odds are the heating ability is dropping rapidly and as you fall below 7 cubic feet, forget it. See… bigger is better. You can find at lot of inexpensive compost tumblers in places like Lowes, Home Depot, Costco, Sam’s Club and many more places I’m sure but they are typically less than 7 cubic feet in capacity. They are less expensive and maybe even cute, but much less effective than the larger tumblers. Tumble them until your arms fall off, but they just do not have the mass necessary to create and maintain enough heat to make much difference. They will still compost, you just won’t get as good a quality or as fast as well heated compost. There is a big difference between cold and hot composting.