Barrel Composters: Perks and Problems

Reader Contribution by Claire E.
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As I mentioned last fall, I love my worms, I really do, but vermicomposting only goes so far, so our family also has a barrel composter. A barrel composter is distinguishable from other types of composters, including worm bins, mainly by the fact that it is, quite simply, a barrel on legs with a handle that turns the whole thing. It’s good for large loads of compost, which is advantageous for us as we are at the moment down to one worm bin.

According to the instructions, we’re supposed to rotate our barrel composter five turns a day. I don’t like taking my turn at this because I don’t have the stomach muscles I’d like to have — and you might be surprised how much abdominal strength is required to turn a barrel composter. The job isn’t as much of a pain as it could be, though, because we are lazy lobs and only turn the composter about five times a week. We turn it just enough to make sure all the compost gets its turn at the hot center of the barrel, and to aerate it. Mostly, however, we let it lie fallow, which facilitates the growth of beneficial organisms (although it does compost much slower than it would if we maintained it correctly).

For example, in our composter we have a healthy population of soldier flies. As I learned from Harvey Ussery, soldier flies are small, harmless black insects which, in their grub form, are composting organisms. Some people cultivate them for chicken feed, and feed them kitchen and garden waste. If I had chickens, I’d be able to scoop a cupful of grub-filled compost out of our barrel composter every so often and give it to my flock, but since I don’t have chickens at the moment, we’re just growing lots of soldier flies.

In addition, when you’re not using worms you don’t have to worry about their finicky digestive systems. Some garden and kitchen wastes are poisonous to worms; others, they just won’t eat. But the heat and bacteria (and soldier grubs) in barrel composters will decompose almost any organic matter in time, including things that worms simply can’t digest, like wood, cardboard, and cotton. We frequently feed our barrel composter branches from our yard, empty toilet paper rolls, and old underwear.

Among the things that barrel composters can’t decompose are meaty, fishy and greasy wastes, which will only smell bad, and eggshells. No matter how I try to compost eggshells they just don’t break down, which may be due to their calcium content or our poor compost husbandry.

Despite that, barrel composters are more versatile and efficient than many other methods of composting. Although any inhabitants they may have won’t really be quasi-pets like worms are, and in my experience worm bins take up less space and smell better, they’re great for largish amounts of compost and easy to maintain (even if you turn them as much as you’re supposed to).

If you’d like to try using a barrel composter, click here for instructions on how to make one, and I hope you enjoy it.