How to Keep Your Compost Active in Winter

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Keeping your compost active over winter will improve your soil and fertilize your garden come spring. Cold weather can stop the composting process but with a few easy tips you can keep your compost active this winter.  

Today, contributor Honey Rowland will talk all things winter composting. Get inspired to keep that winter compost pile active all winter long with these great tips.

How to Keep Your Compost Pile Active In Winter

Keeping your compost pile active in winter really begins in the fall. Fall is the easiest time of the year to prep for a winter compost bin. You need more ‘browns’ than ‘greens’ and they’re literally falling off tress

However, you can start a compost pile any time of the year since some necessary ingredients can be bought. 

Prepare for Winter Composting

Begin collecting your browns. Bags of leaves, bales of hay or straw, dried grass clippings, and disease free garden waste.  I don’t worry about weed seed but I don’t add weeds to my piles. The benefits outweigh the risk and I mulch my garden heavily.

If you have a compost pile screen all your finished compost and add it to your garden and containers.  Anything that hasn’t finished breaking down can be added to the new compost pile.  Spread finished compost heavily on spots in the garden that will hold your heavy feeders.  After top dressing all your beds, spread it around on your grass and start a new pile.  

Build Your Winter Compost Pile

First, measure out a 5’ circle and open a bale of hay or straw to spread out onto the ground.  Add to this any garden debris like chopped up corn stalks, bean vines, rinds. Divide any unfinished compost chunks between each layer.  Add any manure to the layer of browns.  

If you don’t have animal manure, you pick up animal manure from a local farmer or use alfalfa pellets. The high nitrogen of the manure or alfalfa is the key to keeping your compost hot through the cold weather.  If you don’t have manure you can build the pile but it will break down slower.  

With a 3 ft pile begin building inward so as to make a cone which allows water to slough off. I alternate the brown layers with the green layers until it’s as tall as I can make it.  Don’t worry about a huge pile as it will shrink as it breaks down.  To keep your compost pile active in winter, you need a good mix of brown and green compost layers.

Add Brown Compost Layers

Continue adding layers of browns. Brown compost layers include:

  • straw
  • hay
  • dried grass clippings
  • leaves
  • dried garden waste
  • animal bedding

Mix with Green Compost Layers

And then also add in layers of greens. Green compost layers include:

  • manure
  • fresh grass
  • garden clippings
  • kitchen waste

Mix up green and brown until you run out of materials.  

Last step to Keep That Compost Pile Active in Winter

Finally, cover your pile with a heavy duty tarp. This will keep excess moisture from building up and keep your compost pile active all winter.

What NOT to do during Winter Composting

Composting is a very forgivable process and only has a few things that are not recommended. But these three things are important, so take note:

  1. People tend to avoid composting meat, fats, oils and bones as it can draw vermin and odors. So keep these things out of your compost.
  2. Never use diseased or pest ridden garden bits.  If you do you will spread it to the rest of your garden.  Burn it in a fire pit instead.
  3. Do not use anything sprayed or treated with weed killer.

Additional Tips to Keep Your Compost Going 

If you have any straw or hay bales left I like to use them to make a wind break. They’re especially useful around your beehive or chicken coop.

Place bagged leaves around your compost pile to act as insulation.

Digging a few inches to even a foot down into the soil first before you start the layering process of your compost will help insulate it.

Stacking bales of straw or hay around your compost and covering with a piece of plywood and then a tarp helps with windy zones.

If you are a zone 46 (or colder) keep a 5 gallon bucket to fill with compost. Add kitchen scraps once a week to keep your pile. Opening the pile less frequently will keep it warmer, so don’t add scraps more often than once a week.

What if I don’t have the space for a large compost pile?

If you lack space for a large compost pile or live below zone 3 I recommend vermicomposting. Vermicomposting or worm composting will process all your kitchen scraps in little more space than a kitchen trash can.  

Learn how to get started worm composting here!

What If I Don’t Have an Active Compost Pile Now?

Don’t let not having an active compost pile right now stop you from starting. You can still collect your green kitchen scraps and dump them in your compost area during the winter.

If it’s as cold where you are as it is where I am, they’ll just freeze. But that’s fine! When the weather warms up – we’ll show you how to take the heap of greens and turn it into a healthy, active compost pile you can maintain next winter!

Do you maintain your compost pile all winter?  What challenges do you have with winter composting?

About Michelle Marine

Michelle Marine is the author of How to Raise Chickens for Meat, a long-time green-living enthusiast, and rural Iowa mom of four. She empowers families to grow and eat seasonal, local foods; to reduce their ecological footprint; and to come together through impactful travel.

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