Composting in the Snow

Photo: Rex Roof/flickrIf you love gardening, chances are good that you don't view winter as hibernation season. Instead, you want to keep busy with your hobby (obsession?), even when the weather is too chilly for flowers or vegetables to grow. Winter composting is an excellent activity for you. Not only does it reduce the amount of garbage sent to landfills, it will give you a head start on a supply of rich, dark compost to use on your garden beds once spring finally comes along.

What to Put in Your Winter Compost

Collect your kitchen scraps -- peels, eggshells, uneaten bits of produce -- as usual. Make sure that kitchen scraps are really that -- scraps and not chunks. Take an extra minute or so to chop up large items like melon rinds before adding to the compost. You can keep a small container of kitchen waste in the freezer ... or a larger one in the mudroom or basement to minimize trips outside in inclement weather.

In your actual compost pile or bin, make sure that you include sufficient layers of carbon-rich brown matter, such as shredded dead leaves, sawdust, newspaper, or grass clippings, to balance the nitrogen-rich green matter from kitchen waste. If necessary, save leaves from your fall raking and ask for contributions from your neighbors. This ensures that your supply of "black gold" will be ready to rumble when the warm weather returns. FRINGE BENEFIT: Properly layered compost will be much less odoriferous in the spring thaw.

Turning Compost in Cold Weather

The proper temperature (ideally 135 - 160 degrees F) is important to promote decomposition of your green and brown waste. In winter, the exposed surface of the compost will obviously lose heat. However, the interior of the pile will tend to remain surprisingly warm, as it is self-insulating. The general principle is this: the larger the pile, the smaller the heat loss. Turn your pile less frequently than in summer, because it takes longer to heat up in the middle, and avoid turning it in the rain or snow, as this will introduce too much water into the compost. The better course of action is to leave your pile unturned for a period in stormy conditions.

Protection against Wind, Rain, and Snow

You will need to shelter your pile against strong winds, as these may blow the compost material around, substantially lower the temperature, and/or dry out the mix. (This latter is a problem because dryness inhibits bacterial activity, but it can be alleviated by shredding brown materials fine, into pieces of 2" maximum.) Protect the compost from windy conditions, such as those coming off Lake Michigan, with a Chicago fence or staked hay bales. Other alternatives are placing the compost in a bin or simply moistening the windward side.

There are a number of ways to protect compost against waterlogging by winter rains, sleet, or wet snow. Build up rounded edges on the pile to encourage runoff or cover it. Provide drainage underneath. Dry snow is less of a problem; it inhibits anaerobic activity and unpleasant odor, obviating the need to turn the compost. Do not mix snow into the pile, though, and remove a heavy accumulation, especially when a thaw is forecast.

Winter Composting Tips

Harvest your existing compost in the late fall and start a new pile for the winter, using layers of green and brown material. Locate it in a sunny spot as close to your house as convenient, to make it easier for you to carry out kitchen waste and tend the compost. If you are using a container such as a compost bin or tumbler, remember that organic matter will break down much more slowly in winter. Allow sufficient space. When the atmosphere is exceptionally dry, pick a mild day to water your pile, leaving it damp, not sopping wet.

Laura Firszt writes for

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