Back in June at the height of gardening season, we talked about composting and why it is such a beneficial practice not just for seasoned gardeners but for anyone who tinkers around with growing their own food. Not only is composting a responsible and self-reliant way to dispose of our waste; it is also one of the most beneficial things we can do for the health of our gardens. If you jumped on the composting bandwagon after reading our post in June, you may be wondering what will become of your hard-earned compost pile as the world becomes a cold, snow-covered place. We have some good news for you: Just because the weather has turned cold doesn’t mean your composting efforts have to end. Winter composting is possible, especially when you take the right measures to ensure the health of your compost pile.
Composting in Cold Weather
You already know that proper decomposition in a compost pile requires three things: the right amount of moisture, proper aeration, and a good carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. In the wintertime, maintaining these conditions is a little bit trickier for obvious reasons. Cold temperatures threaten to cool the pile down and halt the process of decomposition, and snow and increased rainfall can easily drench the pile and ruin any air pockets that exist. For these reasons, winter composting does require a little extra care, but it can work. In cold, snowy weather, decomposition can still happen in the deep center of the pile when you take the right measures. Here are a few measures you can take to maintain your compost pile’s processes throughout the winter:
Improving Your Winter Compost Pile
1. Start out big. The bigger the pile you start the winter out with, the easier it will be for it to generate and maintain heat. Most experts recommend that at the very minimum, a healthy compost pile should be 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet. If you live in an area that gets particularly long and bitter winters, you will benefit from starting with an even bigger pile. Put all your autumn yard waste in it, ask neighbors if they have any they’d like to get rid of, and build as big a pile as you can.
2. Create a shelter. Your goal throughout the winter is to protect the valuable center of the pile from the elements. You can do this by walling your pile in somehow. Many people like to build wooden structures around their pile or buy fancy compost containers, but you can also simply stack some cinder blocks or hay bales around it. Just make sure your pile is well-insulated to keep it from the cold as much as possible. It’s also a good idea to put some kind of covering over the top of your pile. Whether you build a roof or just put a tarp on top, you will be able to keep it from getting too much moisture. One last option is to simply bury your pile several feet underground for the winter. Then whenever you add new material to it, cover it up with earth again.
3. Keep scraps small. Because bacteria will slow down in the winter and not perform as efficiently, your pile will need a little more help than usual breaking down food. Shred or cut any material you add to the pile down to less than two square inches in size to aid the decomposition process during cold months
4. Add more brown stuff. In the winter time, don’t add green matter (kitchen scraps) to the pile by itself like you might do in the summer. Whenever you add green scraps, also be sure to add a layer of brown matter too. Keeping a pile of leaves, twigs, or shredded newspaper near your pile can make this process a lot easier.
5. Don’t turn it. Turning the compost pile is essential in warm weather and speeds up the process of decomposition wonderfully. However, in cold winter weather, turning your compost pile will let out precious heat and can kill the important things happening in the middle of the pile. Let your pile be nice and still for the winter season and in the spring time it will come to life again.
It might seem like a little extra work to maintain a compost pile throughout the winter, but composting year-round is a great way to extend the gardening season and keep active. When you compost in the winter, by the time spring rolls around, you will have a compost so rich to begin your garden with that you will have laid the foundations for a growing wonderland.
More winter composting resources: