Advice on Composting During the Winter Months

Dec 31, 2013 3:30 PM ET

Advice on Composting During the Winter Months

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Compost is a popular way to dispose of  household organic waste, at least during the summer.  Composting your household waste helps to speed up the natural process of its decay through the growth of aerobic bacteria.  These aerobic bacteria eat away within your compost, and while doing so the bacteria become a type of natural heating force within the pile.  Brown materials (carbon-rich) and green materials (nitrogen-rich) are favorite food sources for the bacteria and help to keep the inner temperature of a compost pile at a higher level.  However, during the frigid winter months, this process of decay slows down.  As tenders of compost, we must do our part to help the process continue instead of waiting until spring when the weather again grows warm.

For those of us who are not exactly “scientifically inclined,” winter is imagined to be a natural pause button within the local environment.  The ground grows hard, and vegetation submits to the cold.  But compost piles don’t actually stop working during the winter, they just slow down quite a bit.  Within the center of a compost pile, where they are insulated from the cold, the aerobic bacteria are most active, keeping the center of the pile warm.  The outer layers that are exposed to the cold work less efficiently.  This proves that composting during the winter months can be done.

The tender balance between the correct amount of water and air within the center of the pile is often threatened by winter precipitation.  A drenched compost pile is of no use to anyone, because too much water and too little air can wipe out the population of necessary aerobic bacteria.


In order to protect and cultivate your compost pile through the winter, follow these key pieces of advice:

  • Soak up the sun – Locate your compost pile in full sunlight to help the pile soak up as much warmth from the sun as possible.
  • Cover up – By shielding the compost, you will prevent the unwanted excess precipitation from drowning out those precious aerobic bacteria.
  • Build surrounding protection – Leaving the compost pile exposed to winter winds and drops in temperature during the night make frost a bigger possibility.  Building some sort of surrounding structure will protect the pile from the flux in temperatures and the cold winds.  Hay bales are a great option for surrounding protection because of their insulating abilities. If you already have your compost pile within a container or have created a composting hole, you’re one step ahead in the winterizing process!
  • Layer up – In addition to the structural cover suggested before for your pile, a tarp works as an insulator to hold in the heat of the inner pile.  Think of the tarp as a pair of long johns for your compost.
  • Pile it on – By adding more composting material to your pile in the fall before the weather fully changes, you’ll have even more insulation for the inner pile where all the decaying action is happening.
  • Chop it up – By chopping the materials in your compost pile into smaller bits and pieces, the inner heat will travel uniformly throughout the pile.

These methods will help ensure that, come spring, your compost is garden-ready!

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