Tag Archives: what to compost

Guide to Composting in the Winter (article)

Have you ever checked out the website earth911.com?  I’ve checked it out plenty when it comes to finding recycling avenues for anything imaginable…but I never thought to see if they had any material on composting.  It turns out that they do, and I’ve been asked a lot about starting a compost pile in the winter.  While composting isn’t easy in the wintertime, it is doable.  Let’s see what earth911 has to say about it in the article below…

Just as you started to get into a solid groove with your compost pile this past summer and fall, churning over plentiful amounts of that beautiful garden gold, BAM! Winter hits.

But don’t throw in the shovel just because a white blanket of snow or a hardened sheet of ice now sits atop your compost pile. To help you get through the winter and ready to go once spring returns, learn some of the ins-and-outs of winter composting.

Listen to the experts

According to the University of Illinois Extension, “Composting [is] a biological process that decomposes organic material under aerobic ([meaning] oxygen [is] required) conditions. […] Composting speeds up the natural process of decomposition, providing optimum conditions so that organic matter can break down more quickly.”

In other words, a compost pile is an intentional strategy to speed up the decomposition process that nature, left alone, would take years to accomplish. To decompose at the rapid pace described above, the U of I Extension asserts that a main goal when composting is to promote the existence and propagation of aerobic bacteria.

Luckily for you, these compost dwellers are not picky eaters. And when they eat, they can turn up the heat – literally. According to the U of I Extension, aerobic bacteria heat up a compost pile when they eat, through the chemical process called oxidation. They especially love the carbon-rich (often called brown) materials, which give them energy. Another essential ingredient for your pile, nitrogen-rich (often called green) materials, help the bacteria grow big and strong and reproduce.

But why all the talk about the nutrient needs and chemical processes of bacteria? These factors can help us better understand why in the winter, at least if you live in a cold spot, composting is a different beast than it was in those warmer months.

The winter slow down

It happens to humans, so why can’t it happen to bacteria? The gray dreariness that often makes us want to go into hibernation mode (if only work, life, etc. would let us) also affects aerobic bacteria, in a manner of speaking.

The University of Illinois Extension says “warmer outside temperatures in late spring, summer and early fall stimulate bacteria and speed up decomposition. Low winter temperatures will slow or temporarily stop the composting process.” But fear not: “As air temperatures warm up in the spring, microbial activity will resume.”

Because ambient air temperature affects the speed of decomposition, when the temps cool down, so too does the aforementioned oxidation process. Instead of the voracious eaters they were in the summer and early fall, aerobic bacteria revert to a calmer state.

Yet even when the temperature drops, microbes responsible for the breakdown of organic matter can remain active in the compost pile, according the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. The center of the pile can be warm and actively composting because of heat generated by bacteria, but the outer layers of your pile are at the mercy of the daily highs and lows.

Furthermore, a compost pile needs the right amount of air and water (in addition to carbon and nitrogen) to be successful. So, when that winter snow and spring rain keeps on coming, your pile can get drenched. While water in the summer may be a necessary amendment, too much winter water will force air out of pore spaces in your compost pile, suffocating our dear aerobic bacteria friends.

Strategies for success, despite the cold

Here, a cinder block structure surrounds a compost heap. A block structure is one way to maintain internal pile heat longer into the winter. Photo: University of Illinois Extension

There are measures you can take to protect your pile from the elements and keep it viable further into the winter months. Here are some suggestions:

1. Build a roof. You have one over your head, why can’t your pile? Control external environmental factors by protecting your compost pile from unwanted precipitation.

2. Block it in. You may have noticed that the car in the garage or in the carport tends to be less frost-ridden in the morning than the car parked in the street. Without the protection of the house or other built structure, the car in the street is exposed to a bigger swing in nighttime temperatures.

Same principle applies to your compost pile. If you compost with heaps, build a protective barrier around your pile. If you already compost in some type of holding unit, you (and your compost pile) are covered.

3. Lay down a tarp. Putting a tarp over your compost pile not only whisks away unwanted precipitation, but it also helps contain the internal heat from the pile where you want it – in the pile.

4. Make a bigger heap. Extend the longevity of your pile by prepping early. According to the University of Illinois Extension, “During [the] fall months, making a good sized heap will help the composting process work longer into the winter season.”

Holding units are an alternative to heap piles, and can help protect the compost from winter elements that tend to slow the decomposition process. Photo: University of Illinois Extension.

Because volume is a factor in retaining compost pile heat, the U of I Extension suggests that for those in the Midwest, piles should be at least one cubic yard. The Midwest gets pretty cold, so it’s likely safe to say that this measurement suggestion can apply elsewhere in the U.S.

5. Shred it. According to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, “Shredding the 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.”

6. Dig a hole and bury it. Another tip from the Texas AgriLife Extension Service suggests digging a trench in the garden or flowerbed and adding organic wastes like kitchen scraps (hold the meat, grease or animal fat, please!) little by little, making sure to bury the waste after each addition.

Similarly, “compost-holing,” or digging a one-foot deep hole anywhere in the yard and covering with a board or bricks until full of organic wastes, is another strategy to beat the winter cold and keep on composting.

Right method for the right place

In the end, it is always important to consider what type of system works best for you. The area available for composting, seasonal climate, along with the time commitment you are willing to give to your pile, all impact the type of composting system that would work best. Always do your research when looking to start, continue, or try a new type of composting system.

Quick Compost for West Africa (video)

quick compost for west africa

I now have a new item on my list for things to do before I die.  Creating a compost pile in West Africa is obviously not the same as making one here in west Philadelphia.  The mix of materials, the group effort, and especially the dancing during the compaction step makes this video so great to watch…this puts all my efforts to shame!

It’s great to observe the differences here… they aren’t adding shredded cardboard and paper to their pile.  Instead, they have large windrows filled with chicken and cow manure, sorghum chat, millet, etc.  Further, their soil is really acidic, so they add cook fire ash to help neutralize the process.  I have no doubt that they create beautiful compost, and I hope to one day participate in a massive compost pile construction like this!

Wilmington Organics Recycling Center (video)

Wilmington Organics Recycling Center- Part 2

This is the best video showing how a commercial composting facility handles their stuff.

Keep in mind this is a $20 million facility complete with 2 ton Goretex tarps and capacity of 500+ tons a day.  Wow.  I know of a few customers of theirs that are quite happy with their stuff, and I’ve been a recipient of their finished product and we saw how that did…remember?

One thing that I always wonder about…how can they tell if their wood waste contains creosote or CCA, or was formerly used in phytoremedial projects?  Would the critters in the pile break down that nasty stuff?  Compost is a cheaper disposal route per ton than the landfill for most (within proximity to a facility, of course)… so wouldn’t that tempt more unnecessary waste going to this place without care if it’s compostable and/or non-toxic?  Gross thought.

I guess that’s sadly not much different than sending the same toxic stuff to a landfill, to leach out in due time into the water table (which does happen, and landfill liners are actually permitted to leak quite a bit).

I guess it always comes back to toxins in, toxins out, doesn’t it?

Basic Gardening Tips: When is the Compost Pile Finished?

Basic Gardening Tips : When Is the Compost Pile Finished?

How long does the composting process take? How do you know when it’s finished?

These are two questions that have so many variables that it’s hard to answer succinctly.

You can expect 6 weeks as a quicker (and not normal) turnaround time, but more like several months and up to a year, depending on how often the material is turned, how shredded the content is, how balanced the pile is, etc.

To know when it’s finished is to look at it and not recognize anything in there. I like to run my finished material through a sieve to check and make sure i don’t have anything else lurking in there somewhere…it can happen.

In the video above, Tia talks about this and shows us what some finished material looks like. It should smell good, too.

The BEST Compost Recipe (video)

The BEST compost recipe – How to compost

I can’t believe I never heard of this guy before. If you live somewhere that has kudzu and manure nearby, I suggest paying close attention to this dude. He has good insights on his material selection, like why you should use cow manure instead of horse manure (although either works), or when to use straw.

One day I’ll have enough material to create a massive pile like this guy does…the temperatures you can reach with huge piles is pretty impressive. Dude’s not messing around!

It doesn’t need to be fancy…

When I visited home for the holidays, I had to take a look and see what my mom’s old composting area looked like.  This really spun me out because I remember making this little frame out of cinder blocks a long time ago and it looked good.  What’s funny is that if you want to compost, you can make do with this just fine…just make space and add stuff to it in appropriate quantities.

Next to this was a nice looking compost bin…again, it does the trick.  You can add material nice and high and it stays fairly organized.  Note the slits near bottom which double as a spot to anchor it to the ground as well as provide some needed air circulation.  Way to go, mom!

To start composting, all you really need is a little space and a rough idea of what to do…that’s really it.  It can be as simple or complex as you want it to be.

The following day I got to go out into the wilderness and I found myself thinking about how much the animals would appreciate all the food scraps that people throw away, especially during the winter.  Who wouldn’t want to feed this guy?

Can You Compost Dryer Lint & Vacuum Dust? (video)

Can You Compost Dryer Lint & Vacuum Dust?

Can you compost dryer lint and vacuum dust? It’s a tough call. Both of these items may contain synthetic fibers, but if you know what you have, the answer may be simple.

Stuff to consider: What’s your clothing made of? Apparently dryer lint consists mostly of pieces of cotton coming off your stuff. However, I’d imagine there’s some synthetics in there.

I think vacuum bags are a much simpler answer as they’re mainly dirt, skin, hair and dust.

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know!