Tag Archives: winter composting

Composting in the Winter

It’s that time of year where the emails start coming in to ask how to keep composting through the winter.  While it takes some up-front effort, it is possible.

If you’ve already lost all the heat in the pile, keep adding to it until it can’t get any bigger.  Once the temperatures rise just enough for the process to get going again, it will.

That’s the bright side of those days we have each year in the winter where it’s 60 degrees for no apparent reason.

Collect as many bags of leaves as you can, since this will be your insulation and cover material throughout the winter.  I slacked off this year, but still managed to shred a few bags’ worth.

Now’s the time where covering your pile with a hefty layer of straw makes a HUGE difference in keeping the heat in.

When you go outside to the pile each week to empty your food scraps, be as quick as you can… you can watch the steam coming off the pile and the temperature will drop quickly.  Once the temperature drops off, it’s hard to bring it back.

So there you have it- bundle up the bin, or work with worms inside the house.

Can you Compost Indoors with a Bin or Tumbler?

Depending on where you live, composting in the winter can be a real drag.

Every winter I receive emails asking if it’s possible to compost indoors.

The answer is pretty simple- If composting with worms, yes.  If you want to keep a compost tumbler or compost bin in your basement or the garage…no.

Well, I guess you can do what you want really, depending on your tolerance for other forms of life sharing your space.  Remember that compost piles are ecosystems full of life.

Materials break down year round…decomposition slows in the winter, but not enough to warrant bringing a composting system indoors.

Here’s the factors that come into play when trying to compost in the basement/indoors:

1) Mice.  Compost piles are nice, warm places to live…this can invite mice.  A compost tumbler can most likely avoid this issue, but then there’s…

2) Ants/flies/other critters.  Chances are they will find the compost pile.  They can enter a compost tumbler through the air holes.  If your compost tumbler doesn’t have air holes, return it and get another one.

3) Pests aside, composting indoors can allow for leachate to run from the bottom.  This would be a fun challenge, as with a good 12″ of fluffy browns in the bottom of the pile, this should sponge everything up… but you may still see a little bit depending on what you’re adding.

4) While composting shouldn’t cause any odor issues, a restricted space with that much material increases your chances that you will smell something.  Now that I’m naming all these reasons discouraging you from trying, it makes me want to try it.

5) Mess.  For this reason I’d say a compost bin is out of the question.  What do you do when you have finished material you’d like to remove?

Keep your composting system outdoors (unless you decide to start vermicomposting).

Stash enough cover material to last your weekly trips outside for the winter.  This could be as little as just a few bags of leaves.

Your pile will still shrink as time goes on, just not as noticeably as it does in the months well above freezing.

If you need to compost indoors for space constraints, leave it to the worms.  Otherwise, set something up outdoors.

Steaming Piles of Compost

Steaming Piles of Compost

Good short clip showing the steam… probably the coolest part of composting through the cold months.

How to do it?  Have a pile at least 3’x3’x3′ in size, comprised of half shredded browns (preferably leaves).  Add the food scraps, cover with more browns, moisten, cover the pile with a tarp or lots of straw.

Composting with red worms outside during the winter (video)

Composting with red worms outside during the winter

Oh, Utah winter… can’t imagine!  People in Philadelphia complain over an inch.  Admittedly I’m getting tired of snow already.

A pit in the ground works through the winter…pretty cool!  Black plastic on top, plenty of cardboard underneath can work wonders for keeping the worms going through the cold months.

Composting In Winter (article)

[ originally found here: http://freshorganicgardening.com/composting-in-winter/ ]


If you think you can’t compost in the cold weather, think again. There are still ways you can maintain a compost pile even through the winter so that by the next planting season, you have plentiful amounts of beautiful black gold with which to nourish your Spring plants.

The success of a compost pile depends highly on the aerobic bacteria that break down waste. During winter, these microbes slow down because of the cooler temperature but they can still be active.

The center part of the pile is also the center of activity – it still heats up and decomposition still happens but not so in the outer layers which are at the mercy of temperature highs and lows. Therefore what you need to do is help the aerobic bacteria in the compost pile so they can do their job.

For some gardeners, the obvious solution to winter composting is to do it indoors using compost bins or worms in a method called vermicomposting.

However, for those who prefer to compost outdoors especially those dealing with large quantities of waste materials that can’t be handled by a typical indoor system, here are some tips to succeed in making compost despite the cold weather.

Build a roof over your pile.

This is one of the simplest ways to protect your compost pile and keep external environmental factors from slowing down the operation. A roof will help keep the pile dry in case of unwanted precipitation.

Lay down a tarp.

If building a roof over your pile is not an option, then simply putting a tarp over it can keep precipitation away as well as contain internal heat. Heat is necessary because it hastens the decomposition process. A hot pile means that the microbes are really at it, working fast to produce nice, dark compost.

Build a barrier around your pile.

Blocking in your compost pile also helps protect it from frost. Of course this is not necessary if you already have your compost pile in some type of holding unit.

Make your heap bigger.

The University of Illinois Extension said that making a good sized heap will help the composting process work longer into the winter season. Also, the bigger the heap, the hotter it will be, so the faster the decomposition process. Make your compost heaps at least one cubic yard especially if you’re in the Midwest where it can get pretty cold.

Compost in a hole or trench.

The Texas AgriLife Extension Service suggests burying your compost. You can dig a trench in your garden and add organic wastes like kitchen scraps as you go. Every time you add something, make sure you bury the waste. You can learn more about trench composting in this post.

Alternatively, you can use the dig-and-drop composting method in winter. What you do is:

1. dig a hole up to a foot deep and as wide as you want it

2. drop compostable materials into the hole

3. replace the soil and you are done

To make this method work better, collect your food scraps and other organic material in a bucket or other container. When you have enough, bury the pile in your yard. The organic matter breaks down right in your garden, enriching the soil and activating the microbes that live in it.

Shred your organic wastes.

Shredding the materials you add in your compost will allow the pile to heat more uniformly and insulate it from outside temperature extremes, according to Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

Before you add materials to your pile, shred them or cut them up to less than two inches in size.

Consider what type of system works best for you. Will you get better results if you compost indoors in a bin or outdoors? Consider also other factors that can affect your composting like available area, climate, the amount of materials you compost and your commitment to composting.          -Peter D

If you follow all the tips in this article, composting will be good to you year round…

Think Cool: Winter Worm Composting (article)

[Originally found here: http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/winter-worm-composting.aspx]

Even in the heat of summer, it’s not to early to consider ways to keep our garden friends, our composting worms, fully employed over the winter Vermicompost harvestmonths. For now, use that vermicompost for some worm “compost teas” to help your gardens with the stress of this summer’s heat. When cold weather comes, gather your materials and try overwintering your worms outside.

Cold weather (remember that?) will definitely slow the activity of a worm colony. Although my experience is that worms can be incredibly hardy, there’s no reason to miss a beat over the winter. The two key factors are shelter and heat.

Last winter I chose had to replace my compost bins cause they were rotten. They were oak pallets and they had lasted about seven years. I took the old pallets out, but wanted to level the site, so I started digging. What I found was a very rich layer of vermicompost between and under the pallets. Remember, I’ve been filling my bins with worms and managing for their happiness for the whole seven years.

I ended up with a level site and nine wheelbarrows full of vermicompost! As I shoveled the black gold aside, I tried to put the material with the most worms farthest from the compost bin pad. I spread the vermicompost on my garden and mulched it for the winter.

What was left over was perhaps three wheelbarrows of finished vermicompost and most of my worms. I covered the pile with some clear plastic greenhouse glazing. I never stopped putting my household food scraps on the south side of the pile. I simply came outside, lifted the plastic and a layer of straw and threw the scraps into the pile. What happened was that I started an active composting pile. There was enough food coming in, getting mixed in and covered to get hot and keep the whole area well above freezing. The winter sun helped warm the pile through the clear plastic. On cold nights there was condensed moisture on the inside of the plastic but the pile was plenty warm enough to keep going. Compost windrow

The worms were hanging out at the edges of the pile, staying warm and well fed. Although last winter was mild, this strategy will work well as far north as Minnesota, as I found out on a tour of compost education programs to St. Cloud in 1993. I visited Compost Guru, Jim McNelly (founding board member of the U.S. Composting Council) as he brought me in to educate in the schools there. He had a busy worm colony in a small black plastic compost unit outside his house in a tough winter.

Top photo: On the left is the windrow full of vermicompost that I harvested from the dark flat area on the right. Notice the clear plastic covering the pile, the pallets that will become the next bin and the stored bags of leaves.

Lower photo: The worms are hard at work under the clear plastic and the straw layer. The 2 x 4’s are not a part of the system, just left overs from the compost bin being built in the background.

This is a great example of how simple you can make a vermicomposting system.  With a nice sized hole and enough straw plus a tarp, you can keep your worms alive and well through the winter.  I don’t know how they do it, but they do it.

I spotted a mouse sitting on top of my Worm Inn a while ago, and although he didn’t get in the system, it bummed me out.  It was my fault though, I didn’t have a nice layer of bedding covering the food scraps.  That’s the key with vermicomposting, whether it’s indoor or outdoor, is to always cover your deposits with plenty of bedding material.

Although it’s probably too late for me this winter, I’d like to try the outdoor method soon.  It’s hard to see the point though, with my main compost bin still cooking and handling all my scraps with ease…