Garden Compost Barrels

Get advice for choosing and using a compost barrel for your garden.
GH09-Garden-07-composter-detail_s4x3

GH09-Garden-07-composter-detail_s4x3

If you live in an area with strict composting regulations, then composting in a barrel may be your only option. Many compost barrels are completely enclosed to prevent rummaging from raccoons, rats and other animal pests. Some barrels resemble a garbage can and blend in with the other cans.

Active or Passive?

Nearly all composting methods need the same four ingredients: air, water, green materials that are high in nitrogen (like kitchen scraps, green garden waste and manures), and brown materials that are high in carbon (such as autumn leaves, wood chips and sawdust). Different methods take these same four ingredients to create finished compost. While some systems may be able to do active or passive composting, others may be designed for one method or the other.

Active composting methods require “turning” or mixing the ingredients with a pitchfork or special aerating tool. If the conditions are right, active composting will increase the temperature of the bin to above 135 degrees Fahrenheit, which is too hot for many garden pests and plant diseases to survive. If the specs for a compost barrel say something like “easy to turn,” that means that it is designed for active composting, and you should mix the contents about once a week.

Many compost barrels use passive composting, where fresh ingredients are added to the top of the bin and finished compost is harvested from a hatch at the bottom of the barrel. Turning isn’t necessary if these systems have sufficient ventilation from the sides of the compost bin. Some larger barrels may have an aeration tube running through the center.

Composting tea Leaves

Composting tea Leaves

A woman is putting tea leaves into a barrell for composting.

Photo by: Photo Credit: Mary Palmer Dargan

Photo Credit: Mary Palmer Dargan

Capacity

Compost barrels come in a wide variety of sizes. Check the product specifications for the cubic feet or gallons that the bin can hold. Unlike compost tumblers, barrels will still effectively work as designed if completely filled. If your household generates enough green waste to justify a 20-gallon or larger barrel, look for systems that have a ventilation tube for faster, more uniform decomposition.

Adding and Harvesting

Although passive systems are convenient in that they don’t require turning, harvesting from the base of the barrel can be inconvenient. You may need to scoop the contents out to the side of the barrel, then shovel into a wheelbarrow to cart where needed. Contents of the bin finish roughly all at the same time for active systems and can be scooped from the lid directly into a wheelbarrow. 

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