It’s not a new phenomenon that one of the best ways to bring nourishment and helpful bacteria to the soil in your garden is through composting. For the average composter, the colder months and the harsh elements that come with it might be a red light in the process. However, the dedicated few who want to reap the benefits of composting year-round are wise to consider winter composting.
It’s pretty simple: the compost produced in the winter nourishes your garden in the spring and spring composting assists your garden by providing nutrient-rich compost in the winter. So you’ll want to do the hard work in advance in order to have a healthy garden all year long. But “hard work” is relative because we’ve found a few tips and methods for winter composting that might make the process less painful than you think!
General Tips for Winter Composting:
One of the most important things to remember with winter composting is to properly insulate your composter. The compost must remain warm despite the colder outside temperature in order for the microbes to remain active. You can relocate the composter in an area where the sun will reach it (during its rare appearances in the winter) to warm the pile, and add materials that will help insulate it. Common insulators include leaves, straw, cardboard or sawdust. Consider gathering leaves during the fall and saving them in a bag to make the most of materials already in your yard.
More Brown Than Green
Along the lines of bagging leaves in the fall, it’s important to have more brown than green materials in your composter. This is where your gathered leaves come in handy, in addition to sticks, straw and other plant debris from your yard. These brown materials provide carbon and green materials add nitrogen, and during the winter, carbon is a vital ingredient for composting. But you can’t forget green materials altogether, which will come primarily from kitchen waste during the winter. So a healthy balance is the way to go, but don’t skimp on the brown leaves!
Shred Materials Into Smaller Pieces
Another way to ensure the compost stays warm is to shred the materials in smaller pieces less than two inches in size. This is a natural way to generate warmth throughout the pile as less cold air can enter into the center of the compost, which in turn insulates it internally and distributes heat uniformly. This step also speeds up the composting process significantly, which is pretty self-explanatory — the smaller the pieces, the faster they can break down into compost.
Monitor the Moisture
Moisture is an obvious problem in the winter months — between the rain, snow, ice and overall damp feeling, moisture can compromise your compost in the winter. It is therefore important to monitor the moisture that enters your precious pile, and there are a variety of ways you can do that. You can purchase or create a covered composter, like a tumbler or bin, which is a built-in way to cover your compost. But if you have a pre-existing compost pile that is uncovered that you want to continue using, you might cover it with a tarp, newspaper or cardboard to keep out the rain and other forms of moisture.
Again, to soak up the overabundance of moisture inside the composter, add more brown materials than green. Dried leaves and other carbon materials will soak up any extra moisture that you can’t avoid entering through the humidity in the air. At the end of the day, if you find yourself with a soggy compost pile, all is not lost — and there are ways to fix it!
Methods for Winter Composting:
There are lots of compost tumblers on the market, which are a wonderful method for covering your compost, eliminating odor and being able to easily turn and aerate your pile. A compost tumbler is also an easy way to ensure that your compost stays warm during the winter, as it contains the heat produced through the composting process. Because tumblers allow you to turn and aerate your compost, this can help speed up the timeline for transforming your waste into useful compost.
There are several designs available and they all have different benefits that are sure to make your winter composting easier. But be warned — tumblers are a more expensive solution than a compost bin or pile and can cost up to $500. However, on rainy nights when you find yourself running out to the tumbler to discard of your kitchen scraps without having to lift a tarp covered in heavy rain or snow, you might be thankful for your investment.
Along the lines of purchasing a compost tumbler, you might consider a standing compost bin instead. They are ideal for city dwellers and those who want to dive right into the composting scene, but want an easier method than a homemade project that might require more maintenance throughout the winter. They often have open bottoms and sit directly on the ground, and materials are added in the top and removed from the bottom, through an opening of sorts.
One downfall is the limited ability to rotate or stir up the pile. On the other hand, this isn’t a huge issue during the winter, as it is often best to avoid stirring too much, allowing heat to escape. This means the process may take a bit longer, but you’ll still find success overall with compost bins. You might even want to make your own! Whatever you do, just apply all of the winter composting tips to this method and you’ll be good to go.
A common method for composting during any season is creating a compost pile. This is probably the simplest method, as it is exactly what the name implies — a pile. But there is some method to the madness and it doesn’t mean you can just pile a bunch of waste on the ground and it will magically evolve into nutrient-rich compost. You’re not completely off the hook with this solution. You’ll start the pile with a bottom layer of sticks or twigs in order to create space for earthworms and other bugs to climb up into the pile. As you’ll learn later, worms are important members of the composting squad. Then add a layer of green from kitchen scraps or other green yard materials, then brown from dried leaves or straw.
Because this method means the compost is completely exposed to the winter elements, you’ll of course want to cover it with a tarp. This will not ensure that moisture will stay out altogether because it can sneak up from the bottom of the pile from wetness on the ground, which will slow down the compost process. Also beware of rodents or pets who might attempt to eat any edible pieces in the pile, since there is not a strong barrier or structure guarding your precious compost.
If you take the right precautions and properly insulate the compost, a pile can yield a successful crop of compost come spring. It also requires less construction or financial investment — if any at all!
For those who are less interested in trekking through the snow just to throw a few banana peels into a smelly pile of garbage, indoor composting might just be the answer. There are insulated sealed composters available that are a bit more pricey but will offer convenience and an odor-free experience. They can sit in your garage so you won’t have to display this less-than-attractive machine of sorts inside your home.
You might even consider worm composting, which predictably relies on worms to help break down waste into compost. This process happens as the waste is digested and passes through a worm’s body, and is called vermiculture. If this whole setup doesn’t sound like something you want occurring in your living room, this too can be placed in your garage for easy access. Buy a worm composter, do some research and let the magic begin! You can even make your own worm compost system if you’re feeling up to it.
There you have it!
Composting in the winter isn’t impossible after all. In fact, if the proper preparation is made and the right steps are taken throughout the process, you can find yourself with some pretty beautiful compost come spring. When your flowers and vegetables are thriving in May from some coffee grounds, banana peels and dried leaves, you’ll be thankful you persevered through the harsh weather to compost all year long. Despite winter’s bare trees and muddy grass, nature never sleeps, so you shouldn’t let your compost pile go dormant either!
PHOTOS COURTESY OF: City of North Battleford, MI Gardener, Earth Easy and The Frugal Girl