18 Tips for Composting in the Winter [and Thru Every Season!]

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Unless you live in a Mediterranean climate (which comprises of only 3% of the Earth), your compost pile can be drastically affected by all sorts of weather and seasonal conditions.

Although your pile may need a little extra attention during temperature extremes, you can continue to compost in the winter and in the most unlikely of conditions.

Whether it be heat or cold, torrential downpours or drought, there is a solution to keeping your compost pile happy and productive.

Let’s dive right into it! (Not the compost pile, but the article!)

Composting in the Winter

composting in the winter with horses

Horses make great hot manure for keeping winter compost piles warm!

The most common concern is composting in the winter. Why? Because the biochemistry of the compost relies on heat to activate the microbial process of breaking down the waste. A frozen compost pile will become inert and will not activate until springtime.

Many composters are at peace that their piles will hibernate during the winter. But you do not have to wait out all those cold months for your pile to keep on making dirt!

Here are the top tips for keeping your compost toasty and active during the winter.

Leaves – Store extra leaves in the fall to amend your pile through the winter. Leaves are an easy source of brown matter and are an essential ingredient to keep the heat going in the pile.

Unlike the summer months, a moist pile will freeze in the winter. The leaves will work to wick away moisture from the pile which is vital to maintaining the winter composting process.

Just a couple of contractor bags full of leaves should be more than enough to get your pile through the winter months.

Insulation – Your compost pile naturally makes its own heat in the decomposition process, but in the winter the heat can slow, and in extremely cold temperatures it can become altogether dormant. Insulating the pile can help keep the warmth in and your compost plugging along.

Insulation can be done easily. A dark colored tarp thrown over the top and wrapped around the sides will attract the warmth of the sun. You can also place a thick layer of hay on top to keep in warmth in.

Some more insulation ideas:

  • Hay bales
  • Cinderblocks
  • Cardboard
  • Pre-built outdoors composting container
  • Emergency blanket
  • Old blankets
  • Old carpet

Composting in the Winter

Placement  – If your pile is in a barren area that is exposed to the elements, chances are it will freeze solid during the winter. Relocating your pile to a more protected area can help remedy the situation. Place your pile near a structure or around thick brush to help deter exposure. Some more placement ideas:

  • Build a protective wall for wind protection
  • Place by a hill or mound
  • Barn, garage, or other sort of outbuilding
  • A grove of trees or stumps
  • In a small gully (as long as moisture is not a concern)
  • Surround with mounds of dirt

Add in bulk – adding in a scrap here or there will do your pile a disservice in the winter. When you collect scraps and add in bulk, it will retain more heat. When adding to your pile, collect in an old coffee can or tabletop composter and only add to the pile once full. This also goes for green yard waste; collect your grass clippings and dead foliage for a bulky nitrogen boost in the dead of winter.

Proper Layering – Maintaining the golden ratio of composting is key to creating the heat necessary for your pile to keep breaking down. Although this ratio can be calculated, it can be cumbersome to measure and weigh your rubbish, especially since material densities and chemistries vary greatly.  The typical ratio is 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. However, no two piles are alike, and taking the time to try and calculate ratios is a cumbersome event. The best rule of thumb is to add 6 inches of brown to start your pile, add some handfuls of brown in the middle of the pile, and add a brown layer to the top as a cap. Over time you will get a feel for the ratios for your pile, and it becomes more of an art form than a science.

Shred – Large chunky materials will take longer to break down and require more heat to process them. Give your winter pile a jumpstart with shredding, cutting, and breaking down both green and brown matter before adding.

Less or no turning – Mixing the pile once or twice a week is standard in the spring, summer and fall. In the winter, when you mix your pile, the heat dissipates and causes your pile to cool. Turn only as needed, or not at all.

Moisture – Moisture is good for the pile, but too much of it can cause your pile to freeze throughout, ceasing the microbial breakdown. Although some moisture is needed, air on the side of a little dryer pile, and add some more brown material to keep it that way.

Inoculation – adding microbes to your pile can help accelerate the process. This can easily be done by adding a handful of potting soil to your mix.

Adding some hot nitrogen materials can keep the heat going as well. This can be coffee grounds, horse or poultry manure. You can also try super-hot nitrogen such as lobster, crab, shrimp, or crawfish, but keep in mind this will attract some unwanted critters.

Note: When it gets too cold out, your pile will freeze no matter what you do. Let mother nature take its course and tend to your pile when a warming trend occurs.

Composting during Hot Summers / Dry and Arid Climate

Who says you can’t homestead in the desert?

Summertime is great for composting as warmth from the air and sun works with your pile to keep the heat going. There are a few things to watch out for to make sure your pile stays happy and healthy during the summer months.

Moisture control – Your pile will be prone to losing too much moisture, especially if you live in an area with a dry heat. Make sure to place your pile in an area where the sun isn’t beating down on it all day long. If that is not an option, cover your pile with a dark colored tarp or have a dark colored bin with a lid to help keep moisture and heat in.  Make sure to water your pile frequently so it has the consistency of a damp sponge. This might have to be done almost everyday in very dry and hot areas.

Turn frequently – Now is the time to turn that pile and take advantage of the outdoor heat! Once or twice a week is sufficient.

Bury food scraps – Make sure to get your fresh food scraps deeper into the pile and cover the pile with brown matter. Hot weather causes green matter to decompose faster so getting it closer to the middle of the pile helps create heat and will also minimize the stench of decomposing food scraps in the summer heat.

Consider trench composting – If you live in a super-hot and arid climate like the desert, your pile may need extra protection from the elements. Digging a hole for your compost pile and then covering it up with brown matter will help keep your pile cool and moist. Just remember to keep it watered and add 6 to 8 inch layer of brown material on the bottom of the hole.

Composting in a Moist and Damp Climate

Make sure to place your compost pile where moisture doesn’t accumulate

Folks that live in areas where the humidity and precipitation is high also need to take some extra measures to protect their pile from the elements.

Moisture control – keeping your pile protected from oversaturation of rain is crucial. Use a tarp, a bin with a lid, place the pile under an awning or popup cover.

Placement – Keep your pile from being exposed to rainfall to avoid over-sogginess. Don’t place your pile in any natural drainage areas where water can permeate from underneath. If possible, place your pile on an elevated hill or mound which will help with drainage. An area with trees could work if there are enough branches and foliage to keep rainfall at bay. This can also help naturally cap the pile with brown material as the leaves fall in the fall.

Brown matter – add brown matter more liberally to help soak up with any excess waste. Straw, hay, paper, and dead leaves work well for this matter.

Bury scraps – make sure to get fresh scraps deep into the pile (about 10 inches or more) so they don’t get over slimy from the rain and humidity. Keep a nice layer of brown matter on top for added moisture control.

Turn often – diffusing extra liquid and aerating the pile will help keep your compost healthy and happy.

Note: If you live in an area that rains all the time, consider using a bin with a lid and elevating the bin to reduce moisture permeation from saturated ground.

Alternative: Composting Indoors

If you are concerned about battling the elements of the seasons, you can also consider composting indoors, which you can learn about in my Apartment Composting Guide. Granted, this has its own set of challenges, but can also be more convenient than outside composting, especially if you live in a highly volatile climate.

I hope you have enjoyed my guide to composting in the winter and in any climate. If you are still having trouble with your pile, check out my Troubleshooting Compost Pile article for more advice.

Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below, I will be reading and answering them!

– Regina C.
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