Some people think that cold weather puts a stop to composting, but that’s not true. Winter composting is a thing, and there are good reasons for keeping your compost pile active year-round.
The process requires some different techniques than summer composting. When the temperatures dip down, there are some things you need to manage.
Luckily, you’ve come to the right place to learn everything you need to know.
The Right Winter Composting Container
First things first, you need to pick a method to hold your compost together.
You can use any type of bin in the winter, but each one has pros and cons. Let’s take a look to see which one will work best for you.
Tumblers are a closed-bin system that makes year-round composting pretty easy. They sit on a support system so you can spin the mix whenever you want. Tumblers also prevent wildlife and other pests from bothering your compost.
They can still get wet inside, so you need to keep the tumblers in a protected location. On top of that, they can get colder than on-ground compost, which slows down the whole process.
Continuous composters ins are typically enclosed with a lid and an open-bottom that sits directly on the ground. You keep adding the materials on top and the finished compost falls to the bottom, where you can remove it.
You can’t turn the compost inside of these bins easily, so it takes longer to get finished compost. That means it’ll take even longer in the winter. Still, they’re great for people in the city.
By far, compost piles or heaps are the simplest way to get started. You just make a pile on the ground, using a pitchfork to turn it. Then, you use a tarp to cover the pile to stop moisture from getting in.
You can upgrade a pile by creating a little fence using chicken wire or wood.
It can be harder to monitor and maintain the right moisture levels with compost piles, and critters can be a serious problem.
Winter Composting: 11 Tips You Need to Know
Now that you’ve established which container you’re using, here’s what you need to know to keep your pile healthy and happy even when Old Man Winter is in town.
1. Know What You Can and Cannot Compost
Whether or not you’ve composted before, it’s always a good idea to remind yourself what you can and cannot compost. Most of the items you’ll toss in your winter composting bin can be used all year-round.
Some of the best items to add to your compost include:
- Fruit peels and rinds
- Vegetable scraps
- Coffee grounds
- Coffee filters
- Tea leaves
- Grass clippings
- Shredded leaves
One important tip to know is that, since the cold temperatures do slow the decomposition process, you should reduce the size of whatever you add to your compost heap.
Try chopping up the food scraps and shredded leaves to make it easy to easier to decompose.
2. Balance Your Brown & Green Materials
A key part of having a successful compost, winter or not, is finding the right balance of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) materials. It’s easy to find nitrogen materials – most items that come from your kitchen will be nitrogen-rich – but carbon materials are a little trickier, especially in the winter.
The most common carbon materials source is yard waste, such as dried leaves, straw, and twigs, but they are often covered by snow in the winter. You need slightly more brown matter in the winter to keep it all balanced.
It’s a smart idea to stockpile and collect all of the leaves you can throughout the fall. Your winter compost needs brown materials to stay active, but it’s hard to find good sources in the winter.
You can bag up leaves in black trash bags to keep them over the winter. That gives you a brown composting material all winter long!
3. Work on Your Ratio
You want to get the ratio right. Some suggest that 30:1 is the ideal ratio to ensure the microorganisms have the right supply of acidity with the right amount of carbon.
When you add kitchen scraps to your winter pile, make sure you do so in large quantities. Try keeping all of your scraps in a pail or bucket in your kitchen and tossing it all in together into the pile.
4. Have a Decent Pile Before Winter Starts
One of the keys to winter composting success is having a productive pile before winter strikes. It needs to be actively composting before the temperatures dip too low.
If possible, make sure the pile is 3 to 4 feet tall on each side, which allows it to retain enough of the generated heat. You want to bulk up the inside of the pile, leaving as much air space as possible. Over time, it’ll flatten down like a coat around your compost pile.
5. Watch The Temperature of Your Compost Pile
One of the most important factors for winter composting is the temperature. The ideal temperature range is between 90-140°F, which is when rapid decomposition takes place. If the range is out of that, decomposition will slow down.
It’s not unusual for that temperature range to dip down in the winter months, but it will quickly come back up in the spring. Using a thermometer can help you check what the temperature is inside of the pile.
If it gets too low, you can add more nitrogen-rich materials and turn the pile to increase the temp.
6. Prevent Too Much Moisture
If you live in an area with winters that have a lot of rain or snow, moisture control is an essential part of winter composting. Too much snow can lead to problems.
Moisture is a huge problem for traditional compost piles that are open; snow or rain falls right instead of it. Some prefer to invest in a compost tumbler, but if you don’t want to buy one, you can add a tarp or a DIY cover over the top of your open compost pile.
It’s also a good idea, if possible, to move your compost to a sheltered location. Do you have a spot under a carport or some sort of covered location? That can help to decrease how much moisture ends up in your bin.
7. You Still Need to Water Sometimes
Winter winds and low humidity levels can dry out your pile, depending on where you live. If you don’t receive a lot of winter rain or snow, you do need to water.
It’s typically best to add some water, sparingly, when adding more materials to the compost bin. Turn your pile, and make sure you don’t over-water.
8. Don’t Turn As Often
One of the main differences with winter composting is that you shouldn’t turn the compost pile as often as you do during the other parts of the year. If you need to regenerate heat, turning is okay, but turning your heap too often allows the heat to escape.
Trapping in the heat in the middle of the pile is essential.
9. Keep The Pile Insulated
Another factor that you should remember is to insulate your piles. In the winter months, the microbes inside of your compost pile need to stay alive.
So, what can you do it insulate your compost and keep it warmer? Here are some suggestions.
- Select a sunny area, if possible, to hold your compost bin. You get double points if it’s sunny and has some cover from the snow.
- You can use layers of straw, leaves, cardboard, or sawdust to insulate it.
- Try piling bales of hay or straw around the outside. They act as a wind block around your pile.
- Wrap it in a tarp with bags of shredded leaves on the outside.
- If possible, protect your pile with walls or breaks on the east, north, and west sides. Leave the south side open because it will provide the most sun for warming.
- Insulate compost bins using a waterproof insulation fabric, which you can purchase at any home goods store.
10. Try Lasagna Gardening
If you plan to add more garden beds, pick the sites in the fall, and start with sheet composting, which is often called the lasagna method or lasagna gardening. It builds better soil right in the garden and gives you an easy way to compost throughout the winter.
- Lay down brown materials on the ground where you want to compost. You can lay down leaves, newspapers, sawdust, or shredded cardboard.
- When the ground freezes, start to tuck kitchen scraps under the cover of the brown materials.
- If you want, you can cover it with a tarp or large pieces of cardboard to insulate it.
11. Watch the Spring Transition Carefully
The spring transition can be tricky because spring brings more rain and moisture, which can spell a disaster for your compost. It’s not uncommon for your heap to become slimy or stinky – ew!
So, what can you do to help?
You need to add more brown materials when this happens. Try tossing in any leftover leaves you might have from the fall or dry sawdust. You can try chipped up branches or shredded newspaper.
Vermicomposting As a Winter Alternative
Vermicomposting, typically called worm composting, is an alternative for the winter you might want to consider if you feel that winter composting care will be too much for you.
Some people think that worms are icky, but they can turn your food waste into handfuls of nutrient-dense humus for your gardening beds.
Best of all, you can have a worm compost bin inside of your house. If the outside temperatures won’t go below 40°F, you can keep it outside, but it’ll need to come inside if it gets colder than that.
You don’t have to hang up your composting hat when the temperatures dip down. Winter composting is a viable option, and it ensures you will have plenty of fresh compost to spread over your garden beds in the spring.