Friday, February 12, 2010

Winter Composting Tips

Okay, Winter, thanks for the visit, it’s been great catching up and I enjoyed the sled ridding and snowball fights but, um, don’t you think it’s time to move on and make space for spring? Please. Pretty, pretty, please.

If only it were that easy. Unfortunately, winter is not over yet (at least according to that annoying little groundhog) but the good news is that your compost bin need not be abandoned just because it is below freezing. Most decomposing action in your bin will slow down or stop but you can continue to build your pile with food waste throughout the winter. Following a few simple tips will make your bin ready to jump into the action at the first sign of spring.

First and foremost, prepare your bin in the fall for the impending months of cold. Harvest your compost to make space in the bin for the winter pile up. After you have removed all that wonderful compost, insulate the bin with a good layer of shredded leaves, dead plants, or straw. (But if you can’t find leaves in the fall I’m pretty sure you don’t live in Cincinnati).

Next, put anything not quite finished composting in the middle of the pile and add another layer of insulating leaves. This will keep the center active longer. Keep adding food waste over the winter, layering with leaves or other browns so when the weather does heat up, the pile is ready to go.

My second winter composting tip-be lazy. Don’t turn the pile when it’s really cold outside. Turning lets all that valuable heat out that the fungus and bacteria need to survive. Also, watering your pile in the winter is unnecessary since it is mostly inactive. Finally, make sure your pile is close to the house because, let’s face it, you will only walk so far in the gray nasty weather (unless you are one of those wild people jogging outside in February, and in that case you have my upmost wonderment and respect).

I know, how can I follow lazy with diligent, but just be glad I included lazy at all. Consider cutting up materials more in the winter so they break down faster and take up less space in the bin. The natural freeze and thaw action will break the materials up somewhat but the smaller pieces you add, the better. And unless you want to feed the neighborhood critters, keep the lid locked and make sure to cover your food waste with leaves, shredded paper, or even a layer of old cardboard. If you’re really enthusiastic about winter composting, you can also insulate the outside of the bin with straw bales to keep it warmer longer.

Composting in the winter really is easy and rewarding. At a time when pouring over seed catalogues is the closest I get to gardening, winter composting keeps me connected and reminds me about what’s around the corner. I know it may seem like we’re in the never-ending grip of Old Man Winter but before you know it tulips will be popping up, birds will be singing, and- if you keep adding to your pile- your compost bin will be roaring into action.


  1. This is a great article to keep me motivated in my composting efforts! I appreciate your humor.

  2. This is great. I hope you don't mind if I use some of this info for an article in Cambridge MA to promote composting and share tips.

  3. The more people composting the better, share away!

  4. Michelle, Thanks so much for your article. My husband and I are newbies to composting (started mid-summer last year) and this has been our first winter. We both were wondering how this "winter composting" could possibly end happily. Thanks for the good words!! One quick question: Should we be covering our composter to keep out the winter wind and cold air? We didn't think to try and insulate the walls before the cold weather set in and now I fear that when spring finally arrives, it'll take all of spring and into the summer to decompose. (In trying to position our composter in the sunniest place in the backyard, we had to place it on our cement driveway.) I'll look in some of your back issues to see if you addressed this question. Thanks Again.

    1. It is better to keep the composter lid on, more for protection from animals than winter elements. My latest post it about the freeze -thaw cycles and how good they are for your compost bin, check that post out as well.

      To speed up the composting, you may want to move the compost bin onto a surface with dirt underneath. You'll get better exchange of worms, bacteria, and fungi from your soil underneath. Even if it isn't the sunniest spot, I think it would be better. An alternative would be to scoop a few good shovels of garden soil into the bin. Good Luck!

    2. Great article and further comments. One question and one comment. If the compost worm rise to the lid of compost bin what does that signify? It is a good idea to leave some well composted material to act as a catalyst when starting a new bin and cutting a circle of old carpet to fit inside your bin certainly contributes to heat retention

    3. If you are vermi-composting and the worms rise to the top it means your vermi-compost bin is uninhabitable for the worms.It could be too wet, too acidic or too basic. It could also mean you do not have the correct type of worm. I would recommend adding a good amount of shredded leaves and making sure the pile is about as wet as a wrung out sponge.

    4. It is a great idea to leave some finished compost to kick start your new pile. I've never heard of using carpet to retain heat in your bin, that's a great idea.