Winter composting: is it too cold to start a compost pile? Compost, that rich mixture of organic materials added to garden soil that boosts plant growth and development, typically requires warmth for the bacteria to break down plant material. However, with some wintertime adjustments, you can indeed make compost during the colder months of the year.
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Is It Possible to Create Compost During the Winter?
Active composting requires a consistent temperature of 40 degrees or more. When temperatures fall below freezing, the decomposition process comes to a stop. As temperatures warm up in the spring, microbial activity resumes.
There’s no reason to stop adding to your compost pile in the wintertime. In fact, if you keep adding to it over the winter months, the bacteria will take advantage of any warm spells to begin working their microscopic magic on your garden and kitchen refuse.
If you live in an area with mild winters, the process may slow down a bit, but there is no reason for you to stop or change your method.
In parts of the country where winters are colder, the best composers are tumblers – enclosed composers. They block out freezing elements such as rain and snow, and they store heat.
What Is the Best Material to Compost During the Winter?
The key to winter composting is to add things that will keep your compost warm such as leaves, kitchen scraps and paper products, aka the “brown materials.” You also need to continue feeding green matter to your compost to keep the bacteria alive and working.
By shredding material into small pieces it will help speed up the decomposition process. Shredding organic waste speeds the composting process by 1,000% and “is the key to successful composting”, says UC Berkeley. And Texas AgriLife Extension Service says “shredding material in the pile to particles less than two inches in size will allow [the pile] to heat more uniformly and will insulate it from outside temperature extremes.”
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Are Compost Tumblers Better for Winter Composting?
Compost tumblers are the most efficient systems for winter composting. A tumbler can be spun to mix the compost, has aeration, is self-contained and protects compost from hungry wildlife and harsh winter elements.
Compost tumblers come with a single drum or two compartments so one batch can be added to while the other matures. Because they are enclosed and elevated from the ground, compost tumblers are the easiest way to help keep compost active through cold winter months.
Does Compost Need to Be Turned and Covered in the Winter?
While turning a compost pile is important when temperatures are above 40 degrees, in winter, you don’t have to turn your pile as much, if at all. The rain or snow will keep it moist and by not turning you will keep any heat in and the bacteria inside as warm as possible.
To preserve any heat during the winter months, keep your compost covered with a generous layer of leaves, tarp, newspaper or cardboard. Surprisingly, snow on the top can also provide a nice insulating cover.
Can I Compost Indoors Instead?
Yes! You do not have to brave the cold in order to compost all winter long. If you have a heated shed or garage, you can move your composting tumbler indoors. You’ll want to be sure to put it in an area where it’s okay to get a little messy from loading/unloading and liquid drainage (compost tea).
Whatever you decide, be sure to have your compost tumbler ready for spring gardening. It will give you a head start on your garden chores!
Thank you to the Mantis company for providing the information in this article as well as photographs of the composting tumbler.
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.