Yes, of course you can make a compost pile in the winter and keep it hot all winter long, so you have quality compost to use in the Spring.
Even in locations that get below freezing if you make a few preparations before the coldest parts of the winter you can keep a compost pile going all winter long. Composting in colder temperatures does take longer and its important to maintain a pile that has a sizeable volume to it.
The following winter compost guide will help you keep your pile going and provide you techniques to winter compost. Even if things slow down significantly for you in the winter, your pile will instantly get going once the early spring thaw occurs, so if you have materials for a compost pile don’t let them go to waste.
Keys to Making a Compost Pile in the Winter
- Build a Sizeable Pile – create a pile that is at least 3 feet wide by 3 feet long by 3 feet tall. I prefer to start a winter compost pile even larger in volume than you may normally set up because there is always shrinkage with a pile over time as the materials breakdown. Consider making it 4 or 5 feet in all directions to start with.
- Feed Nitrogen with Lots of Greens – Make sure you have an adequate amount of green materials. Greens are those materials that are high in nitrogen and will help to heat up the pile significantly. Using coffee grounds during the winter to assist a pile maintain its heat is a common strategy. Keep a bucket and empty your coffee each day into the bucket, add the contents of the bucket each week to the pile.
- Layer the Pile to Get Perfect Ratio – Alternate layers as you build the pile with carbon heavy, brown layers followed with green nitrogen rich layers. This will help ensure that you achieve the optimal mix of brown and green materials in your compost pile. If your pile is too heavy on the browns it may never start to heat up and too much green material and your pile may get slimy and stinky.
- Cover the Pile – Consider adding a piece of plywood or a recycled piece of corrugated roofing to create a roof over your compost pile. A simple tarp can also be an effective cover for a winter compost pile. All the rain and snow during winter if allowed to access the compost pile will reduce its ability to stay alive with the right microbial life for an active pile. The rain will create a soggy pile that due to the high level of moisture will likely go anerobic due to the lack of oxygen. This will change the compost quality in the end. If you let the snow pile up directly on the compost this will make it very difficult to continue to add materials and may eventually lead to a frozen pile.
- Feed the Compost Pile–One of the keys to making a successful winter compost pile is to continue to feed it with green materials during the coldest parts of the winter to keep the pile warm. Open the pile from the top with your pitchfork and drop in your kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, and any other green materials that you are able to get access to during the winter. Consider adding some leaves from the fall on top of the added material to continue to balance the nitrogen to carbon ratio.
- Insulate – If you live in a very cold region consider getting a few straw bales to insulate the compost pile during the coldest months of winter. Placing a straw bale or two around the outside edges of the exposed compost pile can really help keep the cold wind off the pile. Use this straw to kick-start a new pile in the spring as your carbon source paired with kitchen scraps or other easily accessible nitrogen sources in the spring.
- Place Pile in the Sun – During the Spring, Summer, and Fall, it can be wise to keep a compost pile out of the direct sunlight due to the fact it can dry the compost out quickly and you need to have moisture for the microbial life to thrive. However, during the winter placing your pile directly in a warm sunny spot will increase the chances that your pile will remain active and alive during the season.
- Continue to Turn Pile – If you are able to still turn the pile during the winter it is recommended to do so. Turning a pile adds fresh air. The bacteria that get a pile active and heating up require oxygen and the best way to provide it to them is by turning the pile. Due to the longer time cycle you may have with a winter pile it is OK to turn it a little less frequently than you may with a hot summer pile, but you will still want to give it a turn every couple of weeks.
Prepare for a Compost Pile in the Winter During the Fall
There are a few things that you can do during your fall lawn maintenance to make sure you will have a successful compost pile during the winter.
Collect and gather as many leaves as you can whether using a leaf blower or a hand rake. These are perfect sources of carbon to add with your kitchen scraps as you continue to feed the pile during the winter. It can be difficult to acquire lots of materials in the winter, but during the fall people will literally rake up their leaves, place them in bags, and put them out on the curb for you to pick up. These are an amazing resource to use all winter long.
Set up the pile in the right location. Make sure that you are going to be able to easily access the pile to add additional materials to. It is also important that you will be able to set up a cover so that you can keep the bulk of the rain and snow off the pile. If you have any structures that can be used to buffer the wind that can be helpful too.
Build the initial pile before your first day of frost so that it can get started before the winter freeze is upon you. In milder climates this is not as much of a concern to get a pile going, but in location that will regularly be dipping below freezing temperatures during the middle of the day, it is a good plan to get a early start on your winter pile.
What to do if the pile freezes?
If your compost pile completely freezes solid don’t worry. It will eventually thaw out and once it does and the temperature of the air outside starts to get a little warmer, your pile will get going again. If you are able to break the top and add new kitchen scraps you can continue to add new materials to your pile and you might get lucky with a few days break in the weather and new materials added the pile will get going again.
Two Alternative Compost Piles in the Winter
While a traditional compost pile is certainly very doable for most locations there are alternatives that can be better at times for people dealing with very cold climates.
- Build a Fungal Dominated Compost Pile in the Winter
A fungal dominated compost pile is one that is comprised of more carbon materials than nitrogen materials. Often this is in the form of wood chips with some limited green materials mixed in.
A large pile of wood chips left all by itself will heat up and then cool down and begin the process of becoming thoroughly inoculated with mycelium. Mycelium is the white threads you will find under the wood chips which make up the fungal base that eventually surfaces as a fruiting mushroom.
A carbon heavy pile that can sit undisturbed will breakdown over time while being fed on by the mycelium. The end results of these kinds of piles are perfect for mulching fruit trees with as they prefer a fungal dominated compost over a bacteria dominated compost.
- Make a Leaf Mold Compost Pile in the Winter
All you must do to create leaf mold is simply make a large 3 foot by 3 foot or larger pile of fallen leaves. Let the pile sit for 6 to 18 months and then place the loose crumbly material in your garden beds.
A leaf mold pile is one of the simplest compost piles to make, they literally don’t even require being turned a single time. Just start it in the fall and can be ready as soon as the following spring. Leaf mold is an excellent amendment to garden beds for soils that need assistance with retaining water.
Some people will chop up the leaves they collect with a lawn mower or a place them in garbage can and use a string trimmer to chop the leaves into tiny pieces. These little pieces will break down faster and turn into leaf mold faster than when left as whole leaves.
Keep a compost pile going during the winter. The worst thing that can happen is that it gets too wet and requires you turning and adding in new materials in the spring to get it active again.
The best thing is when you go to open it up in the spring all you need to do is give it a fresh turn, let it sit for a couple more weeks and start using home made compost for all your spring gardening.