Composting During Winter

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Composting in winter

Where I live it has already snowed twice, and it won't be long before the soil freezes hard for the rest of the winter. My compost piles will freeze, too, but that doesn't mean I stop composting in winter. Every day of the year, we generate kitchen waste that needs to be transformed into soil-enriching compost.

Dealing With Kitchen Waste in Winter

Sometimes composting has to wait. It can be a long trek out to the composter in ice and snow, and then you get little satisfaction from dumping your bucket of kitchen waste onto a frozen lump of food scraps. To reduce the number of trips to the composter I must make, I like to station a plain old garbage can at the edge of my deck, which serves as a holding place for kitchen waste that needs dumping in frigid weather. The frozen waste doesn't smell, even when mild weather causes it to melt and start rotting a little. In early spring when freezing weather subsides, whatever is in the garbage can gets mixed into the main pile or dumped into the composter.

Winter compost can

One of the things I like to do this time of year is to remove some of the material in the composter to make room for more. Most days, the best destiny for kitchen waste is the stationary composter, where it freezes and thaws so many times that the material decomposes quickly when the weather warms. In spring, when I mix the winter food glop with weathered leaves, it rots into a very nice compost indeed sometime in early summer.

Hot Composting Your Winter Waste

I make no attempt to maintain an active, heat-producing compost pile in the middle of winter. To do so would require far more material than I have, because a compost pile needs to be at least 5 feet (1.5 metres) tall and wide to generate and hold heat in winter. I would need to import manure or some other nitrogen source, too, which is not worth the trouble. If I want to heat up a heap to destroy weed seeds or deal with some other problem, I wait until the material is almost done in late spring, mix it with fresh green grass clippings and a little organic fertilizer, and re-process it as a hot heap, which is finished in three weeks when turned every few days.

Making compost over winter

Some gardeners insulate their compost piles from cold by surrounding them with bales of straw or bags stuffed with leaves, and there are even a few innovators out there who are erecting small greenhouses over their compost to help capture solar warmth – and the other way around! Though I don't have a greenhouse myself, I would love to hear from greenhouse gardeners who have taken their compost under glass in pits and barrels.

By Barbara Pleasant

If your compost didn't work out quite as well as expected this year, watch our video Common Compost Problems & find out how to improve it next year.

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Show Comments


"Barbara, the ph of my finished compost is always 7.2 to 8.3. I use veggies, citrus,straw, leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds, newspaper etc. Most gardeners and small farm folks tell me they add lime to their beds every year with great success. I add sulfur. What could possibly be the difference in what they do and what I do?"
TJ on Saturday 20 December 2014
"I am suspicious of soil that needs to be limed every year. Either the plants are calcium starved, or the people are using acid-forming fertilizers. I would not worry about a neutral pH of compost, which will be diluted when it is mixed with mineral-rich soil. That said, I no longer use garden compost near my blueberries, which now get only wood-based mulches like wood chips or sawdust, because the once acidic soil was going neutral from too much care. "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 20 December 2014
"I enjoy reading anything on compost! Our winter here in northern MN has been more mild than usual. All but 2 of my compost piles have frozen. I've continued to add water, coffee grounds, leaves and fine wood chips to the remaining 2 piles. They continue to cook though the temps are below freezing. Today is 0 degrees - the compost is enclosed in a wooden bin and covered with cardboard and a tarp - when you open it the steam bellows out and you can see worms and bugs that are almost too small to see roaming all over the pile! Such a small thing to be excited over - can't stand to see anything thrown away that can be composted no matter how cold it is!"
Chris on Monday 29 December 2014
"Good to hear of your happy compost, Chris. We had a thaw last week and I found live squirming pupae down in the compost doing their thing. Got me excited, just like you! "
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 30 December 2014
"In southern NM I am adding some processed manure to my compost pile to generate some heat. If that does not work I will make a trip to a local dairy I need something to restart the action.Alan"
Alan on Sunday 9 January 2022
"I have a tumbling composter in my small greenhouse that works beautifully in the winter here in British Columbia."
Maggie on Saturday 7 January 2023

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