You don’t have to stop composting in the winter. Winter composting is so easy!
For the longest time, I stopped composting when the temperatures dipped lower. I assumed that winter composting was way too complicated, but I missed out on a serious opportunity to create more compost for my spring garden.
Don’t be too intimidated by composting in cold weather. It’s a lot easier than you might expect. Let’s take a look at what you need to know to get started or to continue composting.
- Can You Compost Year-Round?
- Can I Start a Compost in the Winter?
- Winter Composting Questions – Answered!
- 8 Winter Composting Tips
- What About Indoor Composting in the Winter?
- How to Store Compost in the Winter
Can You Compost Year-Round?
Yes! Just because the temperatures dip down low doesn’t mean you have to hang up your composting hat for the year. Winter composting is a great idea; you have a way to use all of those kitchen scraps you generate and make compost for your upcoming gardening season.
One thing to note is that winter composting is just like summer composting but at a much slower rate. If the temperature outside is too low, the decomposition process comes to a halt.
Don’t worry; when the temperatures rise, it starts all over again. Even if the food scraps freeze, they’ll thaw and decompose in the spring.
Can I Start a Compost in the Winter?
Yes, you can start composting, but it is easier if you get started in the summer or even fall to get a better understanding of the process.
What you might not know that one of the benefits of winter composting is that the freeze-thaw cycles in the winter help to start break down materials. So, when spring finally arrives, the compost will start to decompose faster.
However, if you decide randomly in the middle of the winter that you want to start composting, do it!
Here’s How to Compost in the Winter
- Pick a winter compost bin with a lid or cover. You can use a compost tumbler, a trashcan with holes drilled in the bottom, or whatever else you pick. Make sure it has a lid or that you can fashion a cover for it.
- Once you have a bin, add 12 inches of brown materials using things such as straw, dried leaves, newspaper, or cardboard at the bottom of the pile.
- Stockpile extra brown materials that you can add to your bin throughout the winter months. For every pound of green materials you add, you need even more brown materials.
- Start collecting kitchen waste and adding them to your compost bin.
- Plan to turn 1-2 times per week in the winter. You won’t need to add any water if your bin can receive rain or snow inside of it.
- In the spring, put all of the materials into your regular compost bin. Then, make sure you add more brown materials.
Winter Composting Questions – Answered!
Should I Turn My Compost in the Winter?
Yes, you should still turn your compost in the winter. However, you shouldn’t do so at the same frequency you turn in the summer.
Because you need to trap as much heat as possible in the middle of your compost pile to encourage decomposition. Each time you turn the pile, you lose heat, and it takes time to build it back up again.
Should I Cover My Compost in the Winter?
In an ideal situation, you would cover your compost in the winter because moisture is a serious issue. Not only do you have rain, but snow and ice all play a factor in the winter months. Add in the cold temperatures that reduce evaporation, and it all spells a possible disaster.
You don’t need to use a fancy compost cover; a blue tarp from any local store works perfect. Your goal is to stop as much snow and ice from going in the pile as possible.
Do You Have to Cover a Compost Pile in the Winter?
While it might not be a requirement, covering your compost pile is one of the keys to winter composting.
Winter is full of moisture from rain to snow and even ice. Moisture is needed for your compost to decompose properly, but an abundance of moisture is harmful.
Not only can it stop the decomposition process, but too much moisture can cause your compost pile to become stinky. Then, you’ll struggle to gather enough carbon materials to balance it out in the spring time.
For best results when composting in cold climates, you should absolutely cover your compost pile, even if it’s using a black or blue tarp. Something is better than nothing.
How Do You Activate Compost in the Winter?
So, if you decide to start composting in the winter, you might wonder how you can generate the heat needed for decomposition. One step you can try is using a compost activator to get things moving.
But, what is a compost activator?
Gardeners can use activators to introduce larger quantities of nitrogen into a carbon-rich compost to get things moving faster. For winter composting, it can bring a slow and steady temperature up into the active range.
What is a Good Compost Activator?
If you decide that you want to use a compost activator in your winter compost, here are a few suggestions.
- Jobe’s Organics Compost Starter – It comes in a 4-pound bag that you need to apply every 4-6 weeks.
- Gardener’s Supply Company – You can buy this 7-pound bag that activates up to 10 cubic feet of compost materials.
- Dr. Earth Compost Starter – While this only comes in a 3-pound bag, it’s 100% natural and organic.
Of course, the simplest way to activate your compost is by adding a bucket or two of finished compost. All of the microbes will come with it and jump-start your compost pile.
You can also try human urine – yes really! You do need to be careful because if you add too much urine, it can lead to some really undesirable smells.
8 Winter Composting Tips
1. Know What Is Safe to Compost
New or experienced, you still need to know what is safe to put in your compost pile and what is not safe. The list of what is safe is much longer than what you can’t compost, so don’t stress out.
Take a look at my list of 15 Things You Should Never Compost!
Some things you definitely need to put in your compost pile includes:
- Fruit & Veggie Scraps
- Coffee Grounds
- Tea Leaves
- Shredded Leaves
2. Add Plenty of Brown Materials at First
Composting takes a balance of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) materials, but one stumbling block that you might encounter in the winter is that it’s harder to find carbon materials in the winter.
Nitrogen-rich materials seem to be everywhere. Whether it’s grass clippings or all of the kitchen scraps you toss into your compost, you won’t struggle to find nitrogen-rich materials.
What you might struggle to find is carbon-rich materials. Dried, shredded leaves are a fantastic source of carbon, but finding them under a snow cover is far from an easy task.
You have two options:
- Fill up black trash bags with the dried leaves from your trees. Then, you can add them as you need them into your winter compost bin.
- Overfill your winter compost pile with carbon-rich materials. Toss as much as you can and make a pit in the middle to toss the nitrogen materials into and cover it up, mixing as needed.
3. Move the Pile to a Better Location
If possible, moving your compost pile can be beneficial. Look for a sheltered, warmer location that might receive extra sunlight.
A sheltered location helps to reduce how much snow or rain gets into your pile, which leads us to the next tip.
4. Control the Moisture Content
Winter comes with a lot of rain and snow, so moisture control needs to be part of your winter composting solutions. Controlling moisture is harder when you have traditional compost piles because any moisture absorbed by the ground then absorbs into the compost pile.
One solution to this is to use a compost tumbler. I do love my $10 DIY compost bin, and you can use it during the winter as well, but I know people enjoy tumblers in the winter.
If you don’t want to buy a tumbler and prefer to stick with your traditional compost pile, you’ll need to create a cover for your pile. While this doesn’t prevent the pile from absorbing moisture already present in the ground, it will stop snow and rain from entering.
Also, if your pile is already too wet, add all of the dry leaves and brown materials that you can find. More carbon is the solution!
If you do decide that you want a winter compost tumbler, I’m a fan of the FCMP Outdoor Tumbling Composter. It can hold up to 37 gallons of compost!
5. Track the Temperature of Your Pile
If you want to compost during the winter, temperature is a key factor. When your compost stays between 90-140 degrees F, the materials decompose at a fast rate, which leads to finished compost sooner for you.
It’s natural for decomposition to slow in the winter, but it should still continue if you monitor the temperature of your compost.
Wondering how you’re supposed to check the temperature of your winter compost? All you need is a compost thermometer – yes, they really make those. I like this one the ReoTemp Backyard Compost Thermometer. It has a 20-inch stem and uses a color-coded system to show if your pile is Steady, Active, or Hot.
What do you do if your compost pile gets too cold in the winter?
It’s not uncommon for the temperature in your compost bin to dip down during the winter. That’s one reason why learning how to care for a compost bin in the winter is a bit tricky.
If the temperature gets too low, you can raise it by adding extra nitrogen-rich materials and turning your pile.
6. Insulate Your Compost Bin
You need to keep the temperature and microbes in your compost bin warm, and that’s particularly important when you compost in the winter. Decomposition won’t happen without active microbes.
There are several things you can do to insulate your bin.
- Move the bin to a location that has south-facing exposure by blocked and sheltered on the east, west, and north-facing sides.
- Use layers of leaves, straw, cardboard, and sawdust to insulate.
- Try filling black, plastic bags with dried leaves and stacking them around the sides of your bin.
- Make sure to use a tarp to cover the top and sides to retain heat. Leave one side open for air circulation.
- Try stacking hay bales around the sides of your bin.
7. Understand Hot Composting is Hard in the Winter
If maintaining a hot winter compost ends up being too much for you, don’t stress out too much. An optimal hot compost needs to be around 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide to generate enough heat. You might need to bring manure in from a local farm to create the temperatures needed.
Don’t panic. All you have to do is keep adding materials until the springtime arrives. At that point, the weather naturally warms up, and your compost will get to work again.
8. Try Trench Composting in the Winter
If you don’t have a compost bin, don’t stress out; you can still try composting in cold climates. Trench composting is the original composting method used by Native Americans and taught to the Pilgrims when they settled here.
Don’t you remember the stories of Native tribes teaching settlers how to bury fish in the fields where they planted corn? That is trench composting, and if it worked for them, it will work for you as well.
If you want to try try trench composting in the winter, here’s what you need to do.
- Dig a trench in your garden bed.
- Put all of the your vegetable and kitchen scraps into the trench.
- Cover the trench with soil and winter mulch. Straw is a great choice for mulch.
That’s really all you have to do. By the time spring comes and you start to plant your vegetables, all of the earthworms and bacteria in your soil ate at the scraps, and you can spread that compost around the garden bed.
What About Indoor Composting in the Winter?
Not everyone feels up to composting in the winter, but if you want to try indoor composting, worm composting is a great idea.
The correct term is vermicomposting, and that is when you use worms to compost. The great thing about worms is that they don’t stink, and those little creatures can eat nearly anything. You can keep a plastic storage bin in your basement or under your kitchen sink, and no one will have any idea that you’re composting inside of your house.
Worms are composting machines. They can turn all of your kitchen scraps into dark, nutrient-rich humus, perfect for your garden bed.
If you’re wondering – can compost worms survive winter – the answer is – it depends. Worms compost well until the temperatures dip below 40 degrees F. At that point, the worms look to stay warm and won’t work on digesting your compost.
Try Bokashi Composting
Another option for year round composting is to use bokashi composting, created by the bokashi brothers.
The idea behind bokashi composting is that it’s a process of fermentation, converting food waste quickly into compost. That’s the key – fermentation.
With fermentation, bokashi composting uses specialized microbes, yeast, and fungi, all which are essential for healthy and productive soil.
Many of the problems people have with traditional composting aren’t a factor with this type of indoor composting. The decomposition work takes place in your kitchen.
The huge benefit to using bokashi composting instead of winter composting outside is that you can use all food scraps including dairy, meat, and grains!
How to Store Compost in the Winter
So, once you figure out how to compost year round, you’ll find that you have plenty of extra compost that needs to be stored. That might leave you wondering how to store compost in the winter.
Here are a few simple ways that you can store compost.
- Use a garbage can that has holes drilled into the sides and bottom for air circulation. It’s best to use small garbage cans rather than large ones, and use black because it’ll absorb the sunlight and increase the temperature of the stored compost.
- Plastic containers with holes drilled into them work as well because plastic expands when freezing. Make sure you store the container in a dry place that’s sheltered from rain and snow.
- You can use fabric shopping bags, but the bottom of the bag will be moist. You cannot keep the bags on a wooden surfaces. With fabric shopping bags, you’ll need to check once a week to make sure the compost isn’t too dry.
Don’t let winter composting intimidate you like it did to me. If you maintain the proper a nitrogen-carbon balance and watch the moisture content, you will have a successful compost pile!