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All avid gardeners know that quality compost is worth its weight in gold. You can save money and help the environment by making your own compost out of garden waste and kitchen scraps, but to do so, you'll need a garden composter.
If you're new to the world of composting, deciding which composter to buy can seem like an impossible task. Bin or tumbler? Metal or plastic? Round or square? You have so many options available to you that it's tough to know which is best without doing hours of research.
The good news is, we at BestReviews have done that research for you. We've studied the garden composter market, spoken to existing composter owners, and gleaned wisdom from our expert garden consultant, Natalie.
Read on to find all the information you need about garden composters and how to select the perfect one for your needs.
First, let's examine how garden composters work and how you use them:
Once you've situated your garden composter, the first step is to add the organic materials you want to compost.
Now, the bacteria get to work. Microbes break down plant matter and produce carbon dioxide and heat. The center of a compost pile can reach between 100°F and 140°F, at which point heat-loving bacteria get to work and further break down the material.
Bugs, such as worms and slugs, are your friends. They eat and excrete the material in your composter and help turn it into compost more quickly.
Turn your compost every three to seven days to increase the amount of oxygen the material is exposed to and speed up the composting process.
When the material has turned into brown, crumbly compost – which takes between three and 12 months – it's ready to use.
Natalie owns and operates a family farm in Northern Kentucky where she raises poultry and grows vegetables. Out of sheer necessity, Natalie has accumulated a wealth of knowledge regarding land management and preservation, agricultural landscaping, a myriad of fencing materials and applications, and small engine mechanics. Although she loves her chickens, Natalie is planning to expand into raising American Guinea Hogs and Shropshire Sheep. She spends much of her free time designing and building furniture and home decor in her wood shop.
If you're not 100% sold on the idea yet, here are a few reasons why you should own a garden composter:
Making your own compost is cheaper than buying it.
Composting is environmentally friendly, since you're recycling your own garden waste and certain kitchen scraps rather than sending it to a landfill.
Using compost reduces the need to use controversial chemical fertilizers.
When you compost your garden waste, you don't end up with overflowing trashcans come garbage day.
Compost generally improves soil quality and reduces toxins.
Composted material will actually help lower highly acidic soil. Acidic soil prevents plants from accessing water and absorbing nutrients, so gardeners will have a hard time keeping plants alive. Instead of adding lime or other fertilizers, add compost!
You can find two main varieties of garden composters on the market: compost tumblers and compost bins.
Compost tumblers sit on a frame so you can spin or rotate them to turn the compost inside.
Quickly and easily turns compost without using a fork, durable sealed construction lasts longer and speeds up composting process, harder for pests (such as mice and raccoons) to access.
Can be pricey, smaller capacity, can be hard to turn when almost full
$100 for basic models; up to $400 for high-end models.
A compost tumbler makes composting much easier, as you don't need to turn your finishing compost by hand with a garden fork.
Compost bins look like large square or round vats with open bottoms. The compost sits directly on the soil.
Large capacity, tend to cost less that compost tumblers, excess moisture usually drains itself into the ground.
More work to turn the compost, easier access for pets, compost tends to take longer to be ready.
Anywhere between about $50 and $200, depending on capacity and construction quality.
Branches, corn cobs, and twigs aren’t going to break down quickly. To expedite the composting process, these materials need to be shredded, chopped, or placed in a wood chipper.
For most people, composting is a chore rather than a hobby, so you want a garden composter that's relatively easy to use.
The tumbler is by far the easiest type of composter to use, since you simply have to crank a handle a few times to spin the drum and turn your compost.
Thanks to their heavy construction, compost tumblers are generally more durable than compost bins.
Most garden composters are made from either plastic, metal, or wood. Plastic and metal are better choices, as they're better at regulating the heat required for composting.
If you opt for a plastic composter, make sure it's sturdy enough, as flimsy plastics won't stand the test of time.
Darker colors are better, even if they aren’t pretty. Dark colors will help the compost bin heat up, especially in the colder months.
The capacity of a garden composter dictates how much compost you can make at any one time. Compost tumblers tend to have smaller capacities, usually between 30 and 80 gallons. Compost bins have larger capacities, usually between 60 and 250 gallons.
Unless you have an extremely large garden or routinely peel vegetables to feed an army in the kitchen, something in the range of a 60- to 80-gallon capacity should be more than enough.
If you want a garden composter with a large capacity, you'll probably need to go with a bin-style composter.
Shape isn't too much of an issue with compost tumblers, but if you choose a compost bin, you'll need to get in there with a garden fork to turn your compost.
In this case, it's easier to have a round bin rather than a square one, as unturned compost is more likely to get stuck in the corners.
No meat or meat byproducts should go into your compost. They won’t break down.
Take note of these tips for composting success:
Garden composters require some degree of ventilation to help speed up the composting process.
Chopping the material you put in your compost bin into small pieces will help it break down faster.
Try not to let a single material dominate your compost pile. A good mixture is preferable.
According to Natalie, "Compost bins placed away from the home or out of sight will receive less attention. It takes concerted effort to care for compost. You don’t just throw a bunch of stuff into a bin and get soil in six months."
Coffee grounds and tea bags (as longs as the bags are made from paper) are excellent additions to your compost, so don't just throw them out.
If your compost smells bad, it most likely has too little air and too much moisture in it. Add dry ingredients, such as paper and wood chips, to compensate.
If your compost is too wet, add dry materials such as paper, cardboard, or woodchippings. If it's too dry, add a little water.
Q. What can I put in my garden composter?
A. To create quality compost, you need to put in a roughly even amount of nitrogen-rich "brown" materials and carbon-rich "green" materials. Brown materials include wood prunings, dried leaves, crumpled paper, and pieces of cardboard. Green materials include grass clippings, uncooked fruit and vegetable scraps, green leaves, soft garden clippings, tea bags, and coffee grounds. Avoid putting any animal products (meat, dairy, etc.), cooked foods, leftovers, diseased plants, or animal feces in your garden composter.
Q. How long will it take for my compost to be ready?
A. The answer to this question will vary depending on a range of factors, such as the ratio of nitrogen to carbon, the type of garden composter you have, and how often you turn it. It can take anywhere from three to 12 months for your compost to be ready. Here's some advice from our expert gardening consultant: "Despite advertisements, even the best compost tumblers won’t give you compost in a matter of weeks. For beginners trying to understand how the composting method works, it can take months. And that’s fine, but it’s important to understand that many advertiser claims are exaggerated."
Q. How moist should my compost be?
A. Your compost pile should have a moisture content of about 40% to 60%. Too much or too little moisture affects microbial activity and slows down the composting process. It should feel moist but not wet to the touch – a bit like a wrung-out sponge.
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At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.