By Matt Gibson
Composting in the winter time is not only achievable for beginning and experienced gardeners alike, it’s essential to maximize your garden’s harvest. You’ll see an uptick in both quantity of output and quality of the flowers, herbs, and vegetables you grow next season when you start composting in the winter. Not to mention, how else will you be prepared to feed your garden beds with nutrient-rich soil come planting time in the spring?
The common misconception is that composting doesn’t work during the cold season because the composting process requires heat to break down the organic matter in the heap or container. This is true, for the most part, but don’t let cold weather stop you from composting. It’s simple to compost year-round if you know the tricks of the trade. There are several different methods that are tried and true for continuing your composting process, even in the wintertime. Read on to find out which method is right for you.
The Trash Bag Composting Method
There are indoor composting methods that you can use to deal with your kitchen scraps during the winter time, such as either using bokashi or enlisting the help of worms with vermicomposting. This method is not designed to utilize your kitchen scraps, but rather, makes use of a gift from Mother Nature that gardeners all are likely to have too much of in the fall and winter seasons: leaves.
Dried leaves are great for composting, and if you have any trees on your property, you’ve probably got more of them than you know what to do with. Well, have no fear, this composting method will utilize those leaves and give you plenty of nutrient rich compost to feed your garden beds when spring comes along and it’s time to replant your garden. And if you don’t have a yard or your yard has no trees, you probably have neighbors who will be more than happy to let you collect leaves for your compost from their yard’s carpeted collection.
Instead of burning your leaves, or putting them out by the curb in trash bags, turn them into compost for a whole cycle of life in your garden. After raking up the dried leaves, crush them into small pieces with your hands while moving them into a black trash bag. That black trash back is important to the composting process, down to the small but significant detail of its color. The trash bag needs to be black so that it attracts the sunlight and allows the compost to heat up and break down, even during the cold season.
Once you’ve got the bag about three fourths of the way full, pull out the garden hose and spray down the leaves inside the bag, getting them nice and moist. Tie up the bag tight to seal in the moisture, and you are all done until spring comes around. You can make as many bags as you like, but you most likely won’t need more than one or two for a standard yard-sized garden.
Place the trash bags in the most sunny spot you can find on your property, and let them do their thing. If the bags get covered with snow in a downfall or winter storm, remember to take the time to knock it off when you can. Also, you may want to check on your compost mix once or twice by untying the bag and taking a look to make sure the leafy organic material has retained its moisture.
Check out the following YouTube video for a detailed tutorial on this winter composting method:
Large Outdoor Compost Bins
When it comes to outdoor composting in the winter, the bigger the better—literally. We’re referring to the size of your compost pile itself. If your compost bin or heap is too small, it won’t be able to create a natural heat source for itself to cause the material to break down, due to the cold weather environment and a lack of substantial insulation. Outdoor bins for winter composting need to be a minimum of one cubic yard to achieve get the desired results. However, the colder the climate, the bigger your compost system needs to be.
There are plenty of choices for gardeners to make when creating the actual bin for their compost to go into. You could make one out of wood, buy a plastic one, or even dig one into the ground itself. One method is to stack up straw bales to create the outer walls of the bin. The straw bales will function as a natural insulation barrier to protect the compost materials you’ve collected inside from the winter chill. If you don’t use straw bales or the dig-your-own approach, you will need to line your bin with several layers of insulating materials to protect your compost from the wintry weather. Cardboard, actual insulation for use in the home or construction, leaves, pine needles, and even snow, believe it or not, can each serve as sources of insulation for your outdoor compost bin.
Once the outside walls have been built up with insulating materials, you can start adding in the kitchen scraps and waste organics you’ve collected for this purpose. After you’ve filled the compost container up so the level is as high as you can get it, don’t forget to insulate the top of the bin with a nice, thick layer of leaves and straw to trap the heat inside your composting system. The heat that is created when organic matter breaks down is exothermic in nature—a chemical process that occurs as microbes go through the chemical process of decomposition.
To give the pile a little extra help if it’s needed, just cover with a black tarp. Just like the trash bags we discussed above, the black plastic tarp will attract extra sunlight, keeping the compost pile nice and warm. During this process, even in the coldest winter climates, the interior of your compost pile should stay in a temperature range anywhere from 140 degrees Fahrenheit to 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
To keep your compost pile functioning properly, you will need to keep filling it with waste. If you are not making enough waste in the kitchen, you may consider bringing in waste from other sources. The materials you find valuable as a gardener who composts are often thrown away in commercial places that produce these materials in vast quantities.
Many shops and other local entities will be happy to share these materials with you so they can be put to use and recycled instead of wasted. You could get used coffee grounds from your local coffee shops, expired produce from grocery stores, or even ask about picking up manure from local farms to keep your compost pile in a constant state of microbial decomposition. If the pile goes cold, that’s a signal to you that it either needs more insulation or more fuel.
Indoor Scrap Collection
Be honest—it’s likely that you’re not really seeing yourself bundling up and braving the cold every single time you want to add some kitchen scraps to your compost collection. However, that’s not required to maintain a healthy, prolific composting system.
Be sure to save up a decent amount to add to the mix each time you refresh the pile with scraps. You can do the majority of this work indoors. There are many different methods to choose among when you begin indoor composting, and each type of system has its own merit. Here are a few tips for starting your indoor compost production.
- You will want to pick a nice, sturdy container of the appropriate size (made of metal, ceramic, or plastic) that you can drill holes into the bottom of for drainage. You will also need a tray that fits beneath the container to catch the drainage.
- Store your compost container in the kitchen under the sink—with the lid sealed so as not to attract unwanted pests. (Keep in mind that your compost shouldn’t smell bad; however, the goodies inside could still attract flies or rodents.)
- Start with putting down a bottom layer of dirt. Then add in food scraps from the kitchen and wet strips of unbleached all-natural paper.
- Do not add any of the following list of materials to your compost: meat or dairy products, citrus fruit peelings, onions, sawdust from treated wood, stickers from fruits and vegetables, coal fire ash, and feces from humans, dogs, or cats. Though paper is an accepted material, do not use paper that has been bleached, is glossy or waxed, or has been printed with ink.
- It’s okay to compost any of the following listed materials: all-natural sawdust, leaves, dry plant material, garden waste, kitchen waste, used coffee and tea grounds, fruit and vegetable waste, dirt, and horse, cow, rabbit and chicken manure.
Once you’ve got your kitchen composting bin set up, you won’t have bundle up to run outside and face the cold every time you have some scraps to add. Just toss them in the indoor collection, and wait until the container is getting full before you add them to the mix in your main pile outdoors. Stir the mix occasionally to promote quicker decomposition.
The pile will heat up and eventually cool when the compost is ready. If you stir the mix once or twice per week, it should only take about three or four months to “cook.” Then your homemade compost from recycled materials is ready to use in your garden.
Composting is simple, and it’s undeniably smart living for you as an individual as well as the planet as a whole. If you own property, you’ve probably got quite a few leaves on your hands. Why not bag them up and turn them into nutritious soil? If you have a garden and cook your own food, you probably already see the benefits of cultivating healthy soil—and you’ve probably also got plenty of food waste and garden waste to get rid of.
Composting can be a fun and easy way for gardeners to make use of a large percentage of their organic waste in a useful and eco-friendly way. Cold-season composting is a must to take advantage of the “downtime” many gardeners have in the winter season and pave the way for better yields in your garden in the upcoming spring.