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Composting in Winter | Composting in Cold Climates

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  • Cold weather can dramatically slow down the decomposition process.
  • The overall effect of cold weather will vary depending on whether you use an active or passive composting process.
  • Preparation is key to effective winter composting using traditional, ratios and the size of the pieces of your organic material will make a big difference.
  • Monitoring, insulation, and activators could be needed to keep the decomposition process active.
  • You can use alternative methods that are more efficient and require less management than traditional composting over the winter.  

Is composting during winter possible? Yes, you can start or continue composting in winter. However, as the temperature drops, it takes longer to break down the material you are turning into compost, and when it freezes the process will stop altogether.

How much the cold weather will affect your composting will depend on the process you are following, whether active or passive. Usually, with passive composting, you are expecting long decomposition times, so the cold may not have much influence. With more active methods it can have a dramatic effect.

There are ways in which you can help the process along. Many of these are just about preparation, something that is good practice whenever you start a compost pile. Others involve good pile management during the colder months. We shall look at all these in detail below.

How to compost in the winter

Just because winter has arrived doesn’t mean that you have to stop composting. The problem with composting is it requires chemical reactions to take place producing heat and microbial activity. It is this process that breaks down green materials, organic matter, kitchen scraps and food waste. However, when the winter months arrive this heat can dissipate quickly slowing down the process or bringing it to a complete stop when temperatures drop below zero.

Starting Compost in Winter

There are several solutions that will enable starting compost in winter straight forward. As with most projects, preplanning can save a lot of problems later on and in terms of beginning a winter compost pile, good preparation for the compost pile in terms of mix and content will help greatly.

Composting in Cold Climates

One useful method is try to begin the pile just before winter hits. Then, when rotating the compost pile in its early stages as temperature drops, reinforce the inside of the compost mound with bulkier organic material and allow as much breathing room as possible within. This will naturally insulate the heap and also will allow for oxidation, which aids the decomposition.

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Covering the compost pile in leaves also helps with natural insulation. You should make a gap at the top of the pile’s leaf insulation. Through this gap, you can add kitchen waste to the pile before adding more leaves on top of the newly added waste to ensure proper brown-green layering.

Of course, you can always bring your composting inside. If you have adequate space in your shed or greenhouse then both places should mitigate the worst of the winter cold as they provide natural insulation of the structure. If the temperature gets too cold even inside then using the bove additional insulating methods will also help.

How to speed up compost in winter

hot composting in winter

One way to speed up the decomposing process is to use a compost activator. there are several commercial sources that you can use and they do the job well and a good Garden Center will likely stock a range of these activators.

You don’t though need to buy a commercial compost activator as you can use natural accelerators. One of the easiest solutions is to put on a wheelbarrow load of already fully ready compost, you can get your new pile of compost going. All of the bacteria that reside in the fully ready compost help to kick-start the decomposition.

Alternatively, if you don’t have any fully ready compost you can instead use animal or human urine. Urine is full of ammonia (which contains nitrogen) and phosphorus as well as other chemical-rich nutrients that not only speed up the decomposition process but actually help feed plants! 

Do I Turn My Compost in the Winter?

Turning compost piles in the winter is still important because helps the process of breaking down the material work faster. However, you should not turn it over as often as you would in warmer months so as the pile retains more heat inside encouraging the decomposition.

Hot composting in winter

Another way to speed up the winter composting process is to hot compost. Hot compost is a controlled composting process that produces high-quality compost with a far quicker rate of decomposition than the normal cold composting process.

To be effective mixing the components rather than the usual layering or stacking is doubly important in winter. This means getting the proper ratio and balance of carbon to nitrogen (one-part nitrogen for every thirty parts carbon) with the organic materials your compost pile contains. Too little nitrogen means that the process will be hindered too much and ammonia gas is produced.

With hot composting, particularly in winter, the size of your compost container or pile is critical. If the pile is not big enough it will not be able to heat up adequately. A good practice is to create a pile or container for hot composting that is around four to five feet wide and as high again.

Once you have created the pipe it is advisable not to touch it for between four to five days. This fallow time gives moisture to adjust and spread through the heap and allows the helpful bacteria that are needed to develop.

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Over the next two or so weeks, the pile should be combined and rotated every couple of days. If the process is working correctly you should see substantial heat or even steam visible after the first week. It is important to keep the pile moist as this is important to the process. The heat produced at the center of the pile should reach around130 degrees Fahrenheit (around 60 degrees Centigrade). A compost thermometer will give you an accurate reading or just plunge your hand in and see if you can hold it there for more than a few seconds.  

hot compost core temperature

Although this process works best during the warmer months you can still use it with a little imagination and common sense in cold weather.

Insulating your Compost Pile

The key to employing a hot composting process in winter is to insulate your pile to stop excessive heat loss exacerbated by the colder weather. There are various ways to do this from DIY solutions to insulated composting bins.

Diy solutions for insulating your compost pile can be from fairly rudimentary to building your own hot compost box. The approach you take will depend much on local weather conditions as well as time and your skills (though even constructing your hot compost box is not that taxing).   

With regard to local weather conditions, bear in mind that it will take approximately three to four weeks for the compost pile to completely decompose and turn into that fully black rich compost that you desire. So, if you know what your local weather conditions are like and you want to use just a simple insulating solution, try to find a weather window of around four weeks before temperatures are likely to drop to freezing or below for an extended period.

How to Insulate your Compost Pile Easily

insulating compost pile with straw bales

You don’t need to buy an insulated compost bin to insulate your compost pile. There are some fairly easy solutions that you can employ using natural materials. We have already talked above about structuring your pile correctly and using leaves to insulate. While these can work well over prolonged cold snaps or if employing the hot composting process they might not be enough.

One solution is straw bales. They can provide incredibly good insulation if you structure them correctly although do take up a lot of space. Get hold of small bales, you can get bales as small as 6″ x 5″ x 13″ from Garden Centers or even Walmart. Build a chamber around the compost pile using two-by-one wood let into the top of the straw walls to support the roof bales. You can line the straw walls and ceiling with reflective insulation. 

Build your own compost bin in winter

build compost box

Alternatively, if you are reasonably handy, you can build your own insulated compost box. Again, this can be achieved using simple materials that you might have hanging around such as an old packing crate you can break up. When constructed insulate with reflective insulation to ensure that the maximum amount of heat is retained inside the box.

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Trench Composting in Winter

Another way to more effectively create compost in winter is to use the trench composting process. This has the advantage in that the trench that you dig can help naturally insulate the compost pile and over the course of the winter the material will break down.

Trench composting is a straightforward process. You dig a trench or hole around twelve to 15 inches -deep and then layer about half the depth with biodegradable items, such as kitchen scraps, and organic garden matter, and then cover it with the dirt you pulled out of the trench. The trench should be allowed to decompose in the ground throughout the winter and should not be planted for at least three months as the decomposition process is much slower.

How to store compost during winter

When you have a pile of finished compost it is advisable to store it well to stop it from degrading with the cold weather. These are mostly simple precautions to ensure that your finished compost is in the best condition for use in the Spring.

Should compost be covered during winter?

Covering your compost in the winter means keeping it dry. Moisture is a big problem during the winter months. You need to make sure that there isn’t too much water or else it could freeze. Cold weather reduces evaporation, so you want to ensure that your compost stays warm enough to prevent freezing.

A simple compost cover made out of a blue tarp is enough to protect your compost pile from snow and ice. You don’t need to spend money on fancy covers or anything else. Just make sure you stop as much snow and icy water from entering the pile as possible.

Do You Have to Cover a Compost Pile in the Winter?

Covering your compost pile is important because it prevents excess water from getting into the pile. This allows the bacteria to work better. You should also add some dry material to help break down the wet materials.

Covering your compost pile with something is always better than leaving it uncovered. This is especially true during the winter months.

Alternative Ways of Composting In Winter

We have covered the ways you can manage traditional composting methods through winter and mitigate the effects of cold weather. However, there are a number of different composting methods that you can use during winter that will make the process of managing the cold much easier.

These include both indoor and outdoor methods and should suit almost all circumstances. Generally, if you can move some parts of your composting process inside, you will be able to produce finished compost more efficiently. Using the right process, such as bucket composting or high fiber composting to name but two, is clean and odorless, and can even be carried out in your kitchen.