If you enjoy gardening, you probably are already aware of the myriad benefits of using compost on your soil. Unfortunately, many people stop composting during the winter months because they (wrongly) believe that you can’t compost when temperatures drop below freezing.
I used to be one of those people, relegating all of my formerly composted scraps to the trash can or, best case scenario, to the worm bin we kept for vermicomposting in the basement. However, composting during the winter is possible, as long as you follow a few easy tips.
1. Be cognizant of what you can (and cannot!) compost.
You can compost the same ingredients during the winter months as you would in the summer. Including a mixture of green and brown (nitrogen and carbon) items will ensure a healthy balance in your compost, and will allow the microbes to really get going.
The best things you can add to your compost? Kitchen scraps like fruit peels, egg shells, and coffee grounds, grass clippings, wood shavings, leaves, and more. The opportunities are endless – just make sure you don’t include anything that is not biodegradable (like plastic) or takes a long time to break down (like meat, oils, or dairy). While the latter ingredients will break down eventually, they take a long time to do so – particularly during the colder months. Plus, there’s a good chance they’ll attract pests before they have a chance to break down.
Try to avoid large, dense woody matter during the winter months, too. Plants lose about fifty to seventy percent of their volume during the winter composting process, so while most plants break down just fine, pieces that are larger than a quarter of an inch in diameter will take forever to decompose. Instead of adding these items whole, run them through a shredder or chipper first.
2. Put a lid on it
Moisture is a major concern during the winter, particularly as snow melts and begins to trickle down into the pile. While some moisture is a good thing – and it is possible for a compost pile to become too dry – too much moisture will halt microbial activity entirely. Invest in or build a well-ventilated compost bin, and consider adding a lid to it. You might also consider a compost tumbler, which is sealed so that any precipitation isn’t an issue.
If your pile gets too wet, don’t despair. You can soak up some of the excess moisture by adding leaves, straw, or other fibrous materials. Worst-case scenario, you can always add a tarp to the top of your pile to help maintain even moisture levels and temperatures.
3. Mind the size
The size of your compost bin is an important consideration during the winter months. Your bin or pile needs to be at least three to four feet wide and nearly equally as tall – this will help the pile to retain generated heat while still allowing air to filter through.
4. Track your temperatures
Temperature is vital for composting of any kind, but particularly in regard to winter composting. Make sure you keep an eye on the temperatures at all time. If your pile can reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit, rapid decomposition will begin to occur. These temperatures are generally not attainable during the winter months, but you should still keep an eye on the temperature of your pile throughout the colder parts of the year. You can increase the temperature by adding nitrogen-rich material and turning your pile on a regular basis.
Insulating or moving your compost pile can also help keep things cooking during the winter. Add bales of hay around your pile to help keep heat contained, or move your compost bin to a sunny area of your yard so that it absorbs as much heat as possible.
5. Consider adding more green ingredients to the pile
While your compost pile needs green ingredients throughout the year, this is especially true during the winter. Nitrogen-rich amendments help keep the activity in your pile going, speeding up microbial activity even when it’s cold outside. Add more kitchen scraps or fresh chicken manure to help get things going.
6. Do more prep work in the fall
If you’ve had a compost for several years, you are probably already aware of how much the activity in your compost bin slows down once the temperature drops. Be proactive in the years to come by winterizing your piles.
For example, collect all the leaves you can, and add them to your pile (or at least place them nearby where you can easily add them. Make sure the pile is bulky enough to start breaking down, as this will provide necessary insulation and oxidation. Insulate around your compost piles and choose the ideal site for your compost pile early in the season so that you don’t have to relocate it when there a three-foot-deep blanket of snow on the ground.
7. Add brown ingredients to stop the stink
You likely won’t notice too many odors coming from your compost in the winter or early spring. However, as the snow begins to melt and the moisture level increases in your pile as well as in the soil, you will likely notice an unpleasant stench emanating from your compost bin. This is reason number one out of one thousand not to place your compost bin too close to your house, but if you notice a smell, you can easily remedy the stink by adding brown materials like sawdust or dead leaves.
8. Prevent pests
Keep an eye on your compost pile for any potential pest problems. Wintertime is an ideal time for pests like raccoons or mice to take up residence in your compost bin. Why? It’s nice and toasty! Plus, you likely don’t turn your pile on a regular basis (kudos to you if you are better disciplined than I am in this regard!) and so the pile will likely stay largely undisturbed.
To help keep unwanted visitors out, block off all potential entry points and add a screen barrier above the top layer of your compost. You can also make a frame with wire. Again, turning your compost on a regular basis will help disturb the pile enough to keep pests away, too.
9. Keep a small composting bin on your kitchen counter
While you may not mind trekking out to the compost every time you have a spare scrap of food to add during the summer, this chore can be downright unpleasant when it’s snowing or freezing rain. Instead, keep a specially-designated compost bin on your counter so that you can add scraps periodically as you have them and dispose of them once a week. The best compost containers are odor-free and will keep out fruit flies and other pests, too.
10. Consider vermicomposting
Vermicomposting indoors won’t produce as much nutrient-dense compost as a full-size compost bin, but it’s a great alternative or supplement to traditional composting if you find that wintertime temperatures make it too difficult to compost outdoors. The process of vermicomposting involves using worms that turn food waste into a rich soil amendment. Just as you would with traditional compost, you can then use this amendment on your garden whole, or boil it down into compost tea.
Vermicomposting is easy to do inside – all you need is a handful of red wiggler worms, a plastic storage container, and some pipe to ventilate the container. Keep the bin at temperatures no lower than forty degrees Fahrenheit (we keep ours in the basement, where temperatures are always 50 degrees) and you’ll have a more convenient alternative to composting when you don’t feel like schlepping through the snow.
And that’s all there is to it! Winter composting is not challenging and is a great way to increase the fertility of your soil in the spring and summer months to come. What tips did I miss? Feel free to chime in by leaving a comment below, and as always, follow J & R Pierce Family Farm on Instagram (@jrpiercefamilyfarm) and Pinterest (J&R Pierce Family Farm).