Can You Really Compost During Winter? 3 Tips for Composting With or Without a Pile
Can you compost in the winter? Yes of course! Nature never takes a day off. The friendly bacteria that turn leaves, food scraps, or anything organic into compost are like Santa’s elves—they work “magic” year-round if you know how to keep them happy. Here are some tips for keeping the compost process going when the temperature drops. Everyone can use these simple tips to get the benefits of compost without having to commit to a pile!
Let it snow?
By the middle of winter most people have long since put their garden to bed. Throughout the dark days of winter however, there will still be plenty of organic material accumulating in the yard that can be added to compost, leaves that didn’t get picked up earlier in the fall, perhaps the garden beds still need a proper cleanout – all this can be gathered and raked up while the ground is still clear. All yard waste can be recycled, as can kitchen food scraps, to make compost. Here are several easy recycling methods that will enrich your trees, shrubs and garden if you get to work on what you have now, and set your sights on spring.
Tricks to winter composting
- keep your pile warm and active by using more browns than greens
- shred your material into smallish pieces (one inch pieces or smaller)
- cover your compost pile with tarps, cardboard or even an old carpet scrap
- rain or snow should provide enough moisture to keep your pile moist
- throw a bucket of mop or dishwater on the pile if it’s too dry (ammonia in your mop water is a helpful source of nitrogen!)
3. Rest & Time
- if you don’t have a pile, use trench or spot composting and let nature do the work
- “Bag & Leave” to get portable compost, without a pile, in any season
If you already have a compost pile, keep it warm and active. The compost pile will slow down in frigid temperatures because some aerobic bacteria will die off in the cold, but you can keep them working by keeping the interior of your pile warm and primed with the right kinds of resources. Help retain the heat at the center of your pile by adding layers of shredded food scraps and lots of leaves. While it’s important to use more browns (leaves and yard clippings) than greens (food scraps) during the cold winter months, shredding food scraps will actually aid in allowing your pile to heat uniformly. The natural freeze and thaw process will break up cellulose of the leaves and yard material somewhat but the smaller the pieces you add, the better. Shredding organic waste speeds the composting process by 1,000%, and, according to UC Berkeley, is “the key to successful composting.” And according to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, “shredding..material in the pile to particles less than two inches in size will allow [the pile] to heat more uniformly and will insulate it from outside temperature extremes.”
Gail Loos, a single mother of two and avid gardener struggled for years with composting in her Denver garden where temperatures regularly dip below 20°F in the winter months. Those struggles inspired Loos to invent the Green Cycler, a product that sits on the countertop and shreds kitchen scraps to the ideal size for composting. Loos recommends shredding kitchen scraps rather than blending or putting them in a food processor. “A blender or food processor tends to be messy and generally over chops or liquefies, which can actually impede the composting process” states Loos. “I knew the mechanics of recycling and that shredding or chopping is the key to having things break down faster and more efficiently, even during winter when the pile was relatively dormant. I was trying to teach my kids to recycle everything – including left over food and kitchen scraps to feed our garden soil, and getting them into the composting process became a challenge. I was motivated to create something for them that would make the job more interesting, simple and efficient.”
Loos is right, according to Colorado State University, size matters: “The size of plant particles that go into the compost also affects aeration. Large particles allow a lot of air to circulate around the plant chunks, but breakdown is slow because microbes can act only on the outside, not on the inside of the large chunks. Particles chopped into smaller chunks increase the surface area for microbes to operate. Particles chopped too small or liquefied will compact and restrict air flow. Moderate-sized plant pieces of 0.5 to 1.5 inches are the best size to use and can be produced by hand or machine shredding.” Loos’s Green Cycler does just that, chops food scraps into the ideal size for efficient composting.
Turn and cover your compost
Turning and covering is also important in keeping your pile warm. In winter, you don’t have to turn your pile much, if at all, because rain or snow will keep it moist, and you want to keep the heat and bacteria inside where it’s warm. Best to keep a generous layer of leaves on top and even cover it with a tarp, newspaper or cardboard to keep it warm inside. Surprisingly, snow on the top can also provide a nice insulating cover.
Composting without the pile–Even in winter, you can get the benefits of compost for your yard or garden without committing to a pile.
Trench or spot composting–Pick a spot in your yard and dig a shallow hole or trench. Ideally, locate the hole near a perennial or garden bed, or pick a spot where you plan to plant a tree or other large plant come spring. Put a generous layer of food scraps in the bottom of the hole and cover it with straw, leaves, or shredded newspaper. You are creating a mini compost pile that will turn quickly into rich nutrients to keep your plants healthy. In winter, cover the trench or hole with an extra layer of leaves or a tarp to keep heat in.
Bag & Leave–Some people call this “lazy composting”. Just put some food scraps in a large garbage bag along with a generous amount of leaves. Moisten the leaves, seal the bag and then cut a few slits in the bag for airflow. Tuck it away somewhere in your yard and leave it. If you locate the bag where it will get a lot of sunlight, your bag will heat up and your compost will be ready faster. And as mentioned above, if you shred the food scraps beforehand, the process will speed up dramatically by giving beneficial bacteria more surface area to work on.
Come spring, the composted leaves and food scraps will be full of leaf mold, a beneficial soil amendment that improves soil texture and increases water retention. You can spread on garden beds in early spring before you plant.
Whatever method you choose, put your greens and browns to good use this winter and keep your compost process alive and well and you will be rewarded with plenty of healthy soil in your garden beds.