Composting in Winter: The Best How-To Guide

Many people that have gardens also try to leverage a compost pile so that they not only have a source of productive soil amendment but also have a great place to dispose of organic kitchen and meal scraps. But composting is generally done in the warmer months, and lots of new composters wonder if you can even keep the pile going in the winter. We’re going to answer that question and more, in this guide to composting in winter.

Benefits Of Composting

If you haven’t started composting yet and are wondering what the big deal is, it’s relatively simple, composting provides a host of benefits for you and your garden including:

  • The primary benefit is free, or nearly free, soil enrichment
  • Composting reduces the need for external fertilizers and chemical amendments
  • Composting helps the proliferation of beneficial organisms and fungi that contribute to the creation of humus
  • It also keeps a large portion of your organic waste out of landfills, reducing methane production.

Is Composting In Winter Possible?

The short answer is, yes! While in some regions the temperatures may largely prohibit accessing the compost pile for a portion of the year, it can still be prepped and given the best possible conditions before that happens so that it’s ready to produce in the spring.

In many cases, it will involve “ramping up” the decomposition process going into fall so that it has good heat and momentum heading to the cold months. It will also usually require the pile to be somewhat insulated and maintained when possible even in the winter.

Tips For Composting In Winter

composting in winter

Here are some great tips on making your efforts count while composting in the winter.

Make Sure It Gets Enough Sun

In the summer you’ll probably want a spot with more shade so your compost pile doesn’t dry out, however, when you’re composting in the winter you should make sure your pile gets plenty of sun. The sun will also help keep the water you add periodically from immediately freezing if temperatures are right.

The sun will help the pile thaw out when possible and maintain even a low level of decomposition. If your decomposition process ever becomes stalled out and slows down, a day of the full sun can help heat it enough to get it going again.

Keep It Turning

One of the most crucial things to remember when composting in winter is to keep turning your pile like you would during the warmer months. The act of turning the compost pile not only mixes it up, allowing the vital interaction of nitrogen-rich components and carbon-rich components, but it also helps to oxygenate the pile which contributes to feeding the aerobic bacteria.

Don’t Stop Adding Scraps

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when trying to compost in the winter is that they stop adding scraps, or even stop saving scraps altogether. This can stop your decomposition process, and even set your compost pile back months once the warmer weather hits. You can use much larger quantities of nitrogen components in the winter.

For lots of people who compost, winter means that it’s simply too cold to do much with the pile, sometimes freezing solid enough that turning it isn’t even possible. In times like this, keep a few 5-gallon buckets with lids handy, and use them to contain kitchen scraps and other biodegradable items until you have a weather window to add them to the pile. Even waiting until spring is fine, just don’t start throwing them away or you lose that potential enrichment.

Know What You Can (And Can’t) Compost

Lots of people new to composting don’t know that you can’t just toss everything that can rot into the pile, some things will help, and things that will hurt. For example, common foods like fruits and veggies, eggs and shells, coffee grounds and most coffee filters, tea bags without staples, shells from many different nuts, and most forms of yard waste including paper, cardboard, tree and lawn trimmings, and even sawdust and old cotton rags.

Things you should not add to your compost pile include anything from black walnut trees since they can release harmful substances and cedarwood chips since they can inhibit microbial growth. Fatty or greasy foods like dairy, grease, and meats can create significant odor problems and may even attract pests and vermin. Don’t add any pet waste, since it can contain dangerous pathogens that can be transmitted to humans.

I tried out 4 methods of composting in winter, you can check out this article here.

Use Leaves And Lawn Clippings To Insulate

Since composting in the winter involves a relatively large loss of the heat that the pile generates, be sure you provide some insulation before winter hits. Adding a layer of straw, cardboard, or fall leaves can provide a significant degree of insulation and will help the pile retain more of the heat it creates.

You will likely lose some of the insulation when turning the pile, so if you can turn it, make sure you take that opportunity to add some nitrogen-rich scraps to the middle. When finished, pile on some more straw or leaves to give the pile its insulative blanket once more.

Watch The Water

In most areas, colder winter air means much lower humidity and an increased risk of your compost pile drying out. Make sure you keep it adequately moist when temperatures allow but don’t add too much or you run the risk of turning your compost pile into a frozen monolith. If you overwater, add dry carbon components like leaves, and turn the pile as thoroughly as possible immediately after.

Make Nature Work For You

Adding worms can be one of the most effective things you can do to increase the efficiency and speed of your composting process. They will help break down the organic matter much quicker and will multiply in the process, allowing you to potentially harvest some of the worms to add to other compost piles or garden beds. The process of creating a worm-friendly compost environment is called “vermiculture”.

Keep Your Composting Mindset Even Though The Temps Might Plummet

You are starting, or perhaps already have started, your compost pile to provide your gardening and landscaping efforts with nutritious and fertile soil additives. Make sure you keep that same energy even when it’s not exactly easy to keep your compost pile going, or to even add scraps to it. Your pile will have a jump start come springtime, and your gardens will be all the better for it.